‘The True Cost’ of the Clothes we Wear

When was the last time you bought a cheap t-shirt in a high street store and thought about its origin or how it was made? Jenniftrue coster McAree of Transition Monaghan reviews a ground-breaking documentary film called ‘The True Cost’ that pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider, ‘who really pays the price for our clothing?’

Photo courtesy: ‘True Cost’

I watched this documentary recently on Netflix. I have an interest in both fashion and sustainability, so the film’s message of the disconnection between the act of buying my clothes and their source really hit home. Most of us don’t think about the origin of the clothes we buy. We are delighted to bag a bargain €20 pair of jeans, but the person making them might receive under 50c for the privilege.

Ninety-seven per cent of our clothes are now made overseas. There are 40 million garment workers worldwide and of these, 85% are women. The ‘True Cost’ film focused on Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, where labour costs are low and weak worker protection and environmental laws exist.

Conditions in garment factories were highlighted in April 2013 when the ‘Rana Plaza’ complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,133 people and injuring 2,500. Many were employed to produce clothes for stores like H&M and Primark (Penneys). We have become de-sensitised to the term ‘sweatshop’, but it really comes to life on screen. On a trip to Bangladesh some years ago, creators of the film saw that each employee worked very long days and was under strict instructions to make up to one hundred pieces an hour. They had two toilet breaks per day and if anyone fell ill and missed work they were fired and replaced immediately.

Personal stories were told throughout the film. An intelligent young Bangladeshi woman works hard to survive and raise her little girl. She cannot afford child-care and by taking her daughter to the factory she exposes her to harsh chemicals, so she must leave her with relatives in the countryside for good. Villages in India have been ruined with chemicals running directly into water supplies from the dyeing processes. Numerous local residents have suffered from cancer and other diseases which it is claimed is related to these chemicals. In the countryside, heavy spraying of pesticides on cotton crops has led to many children being born with horrific life-long complications.

In Cambodia, garment workers tried to protest peacefully about their paltry wages and conditions, but some were attacked and even killed by police in the process. Large fashion multinationals say they have no control over foreign workers’ circumstances, but that they are trying. An example of a company that is recognised as a pioneer in Fair Trade and environmentally sustainable fashion is the UK based company ‘People Tree’. Unfortunately few such alternative companies exist, but the fashion world is starting to take note in some quarters.

This documentary was hard to watch but it has catalysed a change in my buying behaviour. I have since avoided high street shops where possible, look at labels and follow websites such as www.ethicalconsumer.org. Clothes made in European countries like Portugal and Romania are more likely to be ethically produced and organic cotton is best. I visit charity shops more often and plan to take a sewing course in order to make and mend by myself! If you do one thing this week, be sure to watch ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix, download it or buy the DVD from http://www.truecostmovie.com.