You can’t tell me that storytelling isn’t one of the most powerful tools we have.
The True Cost is a story about clothing. It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world.
And it’s a story that has changed the face of fashion forever.
The Game Has Changed
First aired in 2015, The True Cost gives goes behind the scenes of fashion in countries all over the world.
With particular focus on the Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh, it’s a collage of interviews that highlight the environmental, social and psychological impact of fashion while also turning the camera on us, the audience, to examine the throw-away culture we’ve created.
It was the first real documentary of its kind and it’s impact has been colossal.
It’s launched sustainable fashion activists into the spotlight and given workers a voice. It’s started a conversation amongst consumers and everybody is talking.
High street retailers have had no choice but to react and are now retrospectively incorporating sustainable efforts into their day-to-day business operations.
Industry game-changers are popping up everywhere; marketplace business models, tech-driven start-ups and ethically-minded innovators. Those agile enough are choosing to self- disrupt to get ahead.
After watching the documentary, one brand in California called Triarchy took their entire business offline for a year to reevaluate their brand. Twelve months later they were back on the scene with a wholly overhauled business model and sustainable denim as their number one focus.
As for me, even though I spent over ten years behind the scenes of fashion and retail in roles that spanned all aspects of sourcing and procurement and am more than familiar with what goes on, I’ve watched The True Cost at least ten times.
And every time I do it makes me wonder how often, if ever, did I think about the true cost of what I was doing.
Sustainable Supply Chains
I’d spent my entire career believing I was very much an advocate of sustainability in the supply chain.
I’d worked hard to create and nurture supplier partnerships for mutual gains, I’d managed ethical auditing programs and I’d taken care to do my research when it came to sourcing. I was an advocate for all things corporate social responsibility and I always wanted to use the power of business for good.
But regardless of my intentions, at the end of the day I was working for big global brands with buying power, I was trained in the art of negotiation and my targets were set on margin. And no matter how much added value I created for all involved, the end goal was to squeeze every last penny out of our costs.
I’d sit in flashy boardrooms over here in the West, negotiating on products that came from the East. In negotiations I’d be face to face with my suited and booted opponent, usually a representative from a multi-million pound global agent, leaning over a broad polished table and working through the details of our deal.
But I was so mentally and geographically distanced from where these products were made and who they were made by. I didn’t see the true cost of what I was doing, all I saw was the numbers in front of me.
Who Made My Clothes?
It wasnt until a little later on when I began visiting the factories that I started to see things a little differently.
I travelled the world visiting the places where our products are made; China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, Egypt, Spain and Greece. I saw everything from hi-tech sewbots making T-shirts, to 3D printed sports shoes and people squatting on factory floors embroidering jackets by hand.
Throughout all of my travels, there was one factory I visited in Chennai, South East India that summarised how these visits made me feel.
It was nearing forty degrees outside and the heat blasted me in the face as I made my short journey on foot from the car to the factory doors. It was four storeys high; a small building with glassless windows and tatty makeshift blinds. I followed the factory manager up the back staircase and out onto the third floor.
The sound of those sewing machines battering down on cloth in unison was enough to deafen.
I walked through the rows and rows of workers, their dark faces and chocolate button eyes staring back at me almost lifelessly. It was sweltering – hotter inside than it was out and the only thing they had to keep them cool was one tiny fan in the corner.
And there was me, fresh out of my blacked out jeep where we’d had the air conditioning on full blast, parading around the factory floor in my fancy clothes, watching workers in the East making clothes for pennies, for careless consumers in the West.
Regardless of whether or not these were acceptable working conditions by anybody’s standards, regardless of whether or not this was actually a positive thing – providing local employment for hundreds of people, I will never forget the stomach-clenching unease I felt. The divide. The unwanted superiority.
The True Cost
Although I never witnessed any horror stories in the companies I worked for, I definitely heard about them. Forced labour, sexual harassment, violence and modern slavery in garment factories happens on every continent.
Workers travel hundreds of miles seeking work to send money back home to their families and yet when they arrive their passports are taken from them and as much as they try to make money, they end up being in debt.
Cruel factory managers set ridiculous targets and charge penalties for not reaching them, workers have to pay extortionate prices for their own uniforms and fines are given at every opportunity.
These are the people making our sofas in Malaysia, our jeans in Cambodia, our beaded jackets in India and our bodycon dresses in the UK.
Then there’s the environmental impact. I’ve seen the polluted rivers, I’ve breathed in the polluted air. I know how poor decision-making leads to flippantly air-freighting goods thousands of miles to hit unnecessary deadlines.
I’ve also seen the cover-ups.
I was in Hangzhou in China around the time of the G20 summit in 2016 and I witnessed an entire city shut down to give off the impression to visiting policy-makers that their pollution levels were much less than they actually were.
Trees and flowers were being planted, roads were being swept and dye houses and factories were forced to close in the months leading up to the summit but as soon as the meeting was over, the city returned to its barely breathable smog-like state.
The problems within the fashion industry are not always about East vs West or brand vs supplier, they’re about imbalance – and our people and planet are suffering.
And that is the true cost of fashion.