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“The True Cost”: A Documentary on the Global Fashion Industry’s Impact

am-bioFor many consumers, the tragedy of the Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people inspired a new consciousness about the ugly truth of the clothing industry that had rarely been exposed so powerfully. For director Andrew Morgan, the tragedy was an impetus to turn this consciousness into action and start production for a documentary on the human and environmental costs of the fashion industry, titled ‘The True Cost.’ The film incorporates the voices of ethical fashion experts such as Scott Nova of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, Safia Minney of the brand People Tree, and Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture New York to help illuminate the complexity of this dilemma while paving the way for solutions towards a more sustainable future.

Morgan’s film is in pre-production and he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his film. You can check out his trailer below:

Nadia: So, would you mind elaborating on the meaning behind the film’s title, ‘The True Cost?’

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

We’ve got to get out of this place … the Rana Plaza factory fire, April 24, 2013.

Andrew: As consumers, we are used to making buying decisions based on cost, or the garment’s final price tag. And what this film intends to reveal is a human and environmental cost to bringing that product to market that aren’t reflected on that price tag, and that we just don’t see. And we are faced with an industry that has banked on the reality that most people aren’t going to think twice about what they are buying, because they think there is an invisible cost to their consumption. Some experts have referred to the environmental and labor violations within the global clothing industry as one of the best kept secrets in the world. So we really want to make these costs clear in our film as we examine how we got to this place, its global ramifications, and what needs to be done to articulate a different future.

Nadia: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Andrew: For me, seeing the picture in the New York Times of the two boys  walking in front of a wall of missing persons signs broke my heart. It really put a human and personal touch to what is a complex global issue. I immediately started doing research and talking with people in the industry from all over the world, and was just shocked by what I found. I mean, we are clearly in a place where the situation keeps on getting worse, not better. Three of the worst tragedies of the clothing industry were in the past year, and the environmental side is also horrifying.

But at the same time I’m fascinated by the idea of socially conscious business, and I’m excited by the prospect of that being the intended model. And the fact is, when we look at tragedies like Rana, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why we should be in this position where we are now. It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way—there is so much potential for good and for change that is truly attainable. And what has motivated me in this research is also speaking to so many of these pioneers who have laid the foundation for this film by doing truly amazing work for the past few decades.

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Two boys walking by a missing persons sign (photo courtesy of The Industry London)

Nadia: Ethical fashion—treating workers humanely and producing garments sustainably—seems to make sense. Why then do you think there has been some resistance to the idea of ethical fashion? 

Andrew: I think there has been this tendency to view this issue through this two-sided lens of ‘capitalism vs. people who care.’ In the United States especially people can get very defensive whenever you start to mess with what is considered free market capitalism. We’re very afraid of ‘socialism’ and extreme terms that we don’t even understand. We’re quick to put that label which we think threatens a system that ultimately provides profit. And I definitely think there have been moments in our history where people get complacent, when we think this is truly the best we can get.

But now we are in this current cultural moment where I truly believe people are realizing that we can actually evolve this system to move forward. I don’t think anyone is coming forward to say anything other than that we’ve built a system that can advance human progress substantially, but we’re not done. So let’s think of a third way that goes beyond this idea that you have to choose between ‘socialism’ or ‘exploitation.’  Now that we know more today that we did yesterday, let’s just evolve the system and grow. And in a world in which people are more connected than ever, let’s include more voices around the table. Even generationally, there’s a move towards, “I’m tired of fighting you. Let’s have a conversation and get things done.” I think that’s happening in a lot of ways now. There’s another group of people who are coming along that feel like capitalism could evolve and it could do even more good than it’s doing now, and less harm.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers' Rights Consortium.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Consortium, being interviewed for the film. (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: I love what you said about there being moments where we are complacent. Sometimes it seems like we have very short memories. For example, it frustrates me when I hear arguments against any kind of regulation, because it’s like we have forgotten that in the decades following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City in 1911, governments imposed basic regulations that greatly improved health and safety conditions in the factories! 

Image_of_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire_on_March_25_-_1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 led to better safety and health regulations in the industry…so regulation isn’t exactly a new thing!

Andrew: Exactly. And to add to that, throughout history, industry has always rebelled against regulation. And so government and activists always have to push the tide back for more regulation. In the United States we regulate everything. No one would acknowledge that but we really do. Just think about the food industry, or environmental pollution. We really do regulate everything, and historically industry has always rebelled. People forget that industry even rebelled against the minimum wage! So when it comes to this outsourcing to factories abroad, we need to have a system where these western brands that are making all this profit aren’t just self-regulating, but that there’s actual accountability and traceability. Because at the end of the day, there’s a profound violation of human rights that needs to be accounted for.

Nadia: In the opening of your trailer, you mention that you were told this “simple story” about where your clothes were made—which was that they were “made in faraway places by these ‘other people’ and these people needed the work.” Do you think part of our cultural apathy and ignorance has to do with the geographical distance between people who buy products and those who make them?

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Do we treat workers better when we see their face and we know who they are? A woman sews for Timbuk2 Bags in San Francisco

Andrew: The world has indeed moved to a more and more abstract a place. There’s actual psychology to this idea that if someone was in my village and made my shirt, I would never force them to endure what many of these workers in countries like Bangladesh are going through.  But because we live in a world now where we’re not in touch with anything that we eat or wear, it makes us capable of outsourcing not only the product but the consequences of making that product in an irresponsible way.

Nadia: Could you describe a bit more your aesthetic as a filmmaker and how you hope your film will take these abstract problems and turn them into tangible solutions for your viewers? What can film do that other mediums can not in educating people about this issue?

I am most interested in narrative and documentary story telling, and I really love to tell stories that are true and honest, that give hope for a better tomorrow. I often look for issues that have been decades in the work, where the groundwork and models have been tested. And I think with ethical fashion, there’s a potential here to break this out of the little corner that it’s been in, and to bring it to a wider audience.

Part of the problem has been in how we are telling a story, and I think film can really change that. When people are being entertained, they lower their guard, and there’s this opportunity to make them aware of really new and disruptive ideas. I’m after those moments. And in just an hour and a half, I have this chance to make a change. It means I need to pick out the key moments that can create a reaction in both their head and heart. I want to make these ideas accessible to the ordinary person without dumbing anything down, and I really want the place that we’re in right now to appear ridiculous. Because at the moral center, it is ridiculous. But at the same time, I don’t believe in motivating people through shame and guilt. I want to look at the world through a lens of hope. People don’t like being talked down to or judged. It’s better to say, “let’s imagine this better world we could live in today.”

What can film do that other mediums can't?

What can film do that other mediums can not? (photo courtesy of Michael Ross)

Nadia: In your trailer you mentioned how stories often rely on a strong protagonist and antagonist, but in this story you are telling it will be difficult to point out any one person or institution that is solely responsible. Will you be creating a new kind of story-telling with this film?

Andrew: Our approach is to include many points of view in the film creating a collage of ideas and implications. For example living life in the shoes of a garment worker in Bangladesh, a sourcing manager for H&M, a factory auditor in China or a village in India effected by improper dumping from leather tanneries. Rather then pinning one idea against each other and watching them fight it out, we are combining ideas into solution sets that are real and tangible. As I stated in the Kickstarter page, we believe that true change will only be sustained through the creation of a synergistic approach, one that involves the adaptation of policy, the improvement of industry standards and a shift in consumer consciousness. It sounds complicated but the result will be a film that moves quickly, and flows easily making the world feel as small as it truly is. Ultimately I want to acknowledge this complexity, while giving voice to a moral clarity.

What is it like to be in this woman's shoes?

What is it like to be in this Bangladeshi’s garment worker’s shoes? (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

Nadia: What message do you hope your viewers will walk away with after watching the film?

Andrew: I want to articulate a future where people in the global supply chain are more closely connected, and where factory jobs empower people through  good work rather than exploiting them. A future where people are more aware about the environmental implications, and buy fewer items that last longer. I would love for viewers to leave my film inspired to start conversations about what the cost of their consumption is, and to be empowered to help change it. And my hope is that by starting these conversations, eventually we will come to a place where ‘ethical fashion’ isn’t a niche, but the new normal.

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

Can we get to a place where everyone is this happy sewing? (photo courtesy of Believe you Can).

There’s just a few more days to raise funds so that this film can be made! Donate here (even a dollar helps, and you get cool gifts if you contribute a little more) and share with friends! Let’s do this!!

Share on Facebook for a chance to win jewelry from the fair trade organization Global Girlfriend! (cause I’m all about supporting the girlfriends!) You can check out the giveaway here.

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Girl Model: the Seedy Side of the Runway

In the film Girl Modelthere is a bittersweet scene of a wide-eyed, 13 year old Nadya excitedly pointing out pictures in her room of famous fashion models. To Nadya, these images seem to promise not just a fantasy world of glamor and beauty, but an escape from the dreary life of poverty her family faces in their small village in Siberia.

So when Ashley Arbaugh, an American agent representing a Japanese modeling agency, recruits the impressionable Nadya with the lure of an $8,000 contract, why wouldn’t her family support her? To Nadya, this is a chance not just to pursue her dream and turn her fantasy into a reality, but to also help her family “make things good at home.”

What Nadya’s family doesn’t realize however, is that this contract, which is presented in English and Japanese to a Russian-speaking Nadya, deducts the living expenses from the $8,000 she is promised. And as the film terrifyingly unfolds, Nadya’s dreams shatter as she is left in Tokyo, unsupervised, to navigate the city by herself. Running from casting call to photo shoot, she is repeatedly promised that these jobs, for which she is never paid, will give her the much-needed experience to become a top model in the industry. Ultimately, Nadya must leave Japan and return to her family in debt, and the film insinuates, both in interviews with the modeling agents and in its postscript, that many of these young models are forced to ‘repay’  their debts to the agency by entering into prostitution and pornography.

It’s an alarming documentary that lends fresh insight in to the current debate surrounding young models. While much has been written in the American press about the industry’s attempts to issue age guidelines in the United States and Europe, so rarely do we get such an insightful look into the transnational side of the industry. Shot in a naturalistic, almost gritty manner that shatters any glamorous illusions viewers may have had of the business, directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon  leave little space for discussion on whether the fashion industry is exploitative. Their central questions are ultimately more concerned with how this exploitation occurs, and why there is such a blatant lack of transparency surrounding these horrifying practices.

I was lucky enough to watch this film a few months ago at a local film festival, and the conversation with the directors that followed after the screening was almost as illuminating as the film itself. Audience members were rightly furious, pinning blame on the agents, on Japan for its idealization of youth and use of under-age models, and on the modeling agencies in Russia and Siberia for not being transparent with the girls and their families. The directors seemed a little unsettled by the questions, and were reluctant to place blame on any one person, agency, or government. As they tried to steer the audience to broader issues, I found myself looking around the room, and I couldn’t help but think how ironic is was that we were all so concerned with the exploitation of these young girls, when most of us were wearing clothes made in sweatshops, probably by young women of Nadya’s age.

And that, I think, was the central theme of the film: we are all complicit in this global labor exploitation that is the glamour industry. My intent on writing a previous post on the Pakistani textile fire that occurred during New York Fashion Week was to shed light on the dichotomous nature of an industry that often relies on exploited labor to fulfill its glamorous facade, as well as its transnational nature that makes it all too easy for key players to escape culpability when they fail to enforce regulations to protect the most vulnerable. But these key players are not just the designers, the agents, the factory monitors. They are also us, the consumers who fuel the need for the designer jeans made in a Pakistani textile factory, the luxury items made by undocumented Chinese immigrants in Italy, and the beauty magazines that feature the many underpaid, exploited models, both here and abroad.

It is significant perhaps, that David Redmon’s other film Mardi Gras: Made in China exposes the sweatshop labor conditions of Chinese factory workers who make Mardi Gras beads, an American cultural product that has come to symbolize frivolity and excess. While Girl Model opens with images of scantily-clad girls dissected by modeling agents at a casting call, Mardi Gras: Made in China focuses on the largely female factory workers whose bodies are pushed to exhaustion by their male supervisors. The two films are similar not just in their critiques of globalization, but also in how they reveal the commodification of female bodies by industries that view women as largely disposable.

Girl Model will be streaming online on PBS from March 25 to April 23. You can follow the film on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Watch extended video interviews with director Ashley Sabin and former model Rachel Blais here.

Take Action:

  • Check out the Girl Model website for ways that you can help fight model exploitation and trafficking, including hosting a screening and downloading an educational guide.
  • Click here to sign a petition asking the New York State Department of Labor to give child models the same protections as child actors.
  • Check out the SPARK Movement to join young women who are “demanding an end to the sexualization of women and girls in the media.”
  • Check out the site Miss Representation for more information on how young women can change beauty ideals. Check out their action ideas here.

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Can Fashion Change the World?

“It’s quite incredible that we might save the world through fashion .” -Vivienne Westwood

In my recent post on New York Fashion week, I focused on the disconnect between the glamor and fantasy of the fashion industry with the exploitation that often hides beneath the glossy surface. I wanted to emphasize in this post, a few key players that are trying to work for more sustainable, ethical practices in the industry.

OK so first of all, what is ethical fashion girlfriends?? While I will no doubt touch on this subject many more times in my future blog posts, I really loved this definition from the ultimate in sustainable fashion information, the Ethical Fashion Forum.

” The meaning of ethical goes beyond doing no harm, representing an approach which strives to take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimizing and counteracting environmental concerns.”

Artisans at the Nairobi hub with Lisa Barratt, left, Jane Kabura, center, and Jeremy Brown, right, standing behind bags for Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Sass & Bide. Credit: Chloé Mukai/ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Obvi, that’s kind of amazing, but can it be done?  While the coverage of labor issues during fashion week was pretty paltry, The New York Times did run an incredible story on Simone Cipriani, head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Cipriani is connecting designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney with Ghanian artisans,  who are working to the fair labor standards of $5 to $11 a day, making luxury items for the couture designers. Besides achieving a living wage, the work also gives many of these women employable skills that can empower them and help raise their families out of poverty.

Sustainability is still not widely understood though, and many associate the word with hippie-trippy, unattractive clothing, and well … Birkenstocks. Perhaps that’s why the awareness created by luxury brands could prove to be influential for changing the consumption patterns of the mainstream.  When Vivienne Westwood of her Ethical Fashion Collective line and Ilaria Venturini Fendi of her Carmina Campus line ask questions at New York Fashion week like ‘Was this made ethically?’ ‘Are the fabrics green?’ and ‘Were the workers treated fairly?’, this can have an incredible impact by encouraging ethical consumption but also proving that being stylish doesn’t come at a cost to others.

Martin Luther King Jr. said 45 years ago that “True revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” What exactly is it going to take to shift our values, to create a shared paradigm of ethical labor practices and more sustainable consumption? If it seems to be impossible, consider the resistance towards smoking reform in the mid-century, to the current situation where almost 50% of the U.S. population lives with smoking regulations in all workplaces, restaurants and bars. Yup, change can happen girlfriends, we just need to believe in it!

And a revolution seems to be happening,  and it’s not just within haute couture. Just this month activists staged flash ‘faint-ins’ at fast-fashion retailers H&M and the Gap to protest sweatshop conditions in countries like Cambodia, and workers in Cambodia are in turn striking for better pay. Check out this website, Fashioning Change, a self-described ‘do-gooder’ website that offers cute, eco-friendly alternatives to popular designer name brands. Their ‘Wear This, Not That’ feature is an easy way to compare some of your favorite clothes with more eco-conscious lines that have transparency in their supply chain. What’s more, these lines usually come at a cheaper price-tag then their brand-name comparison! Aaaand, it’s time to go shopping. 🙂

We need to fix the bloated nature of a fashion industry that creates a lot of waste with too many products that end up in landfills on one end, and too little pay for those who labor on the other. Vivienne Westwood, who is using her fashion line to promote environmentalism, has argued that fashion and anti-consumerism don’t necessarily contradict each other if people buy less, and in a more sustainable way. Check out her show from the London Paralympics in late August, where she ends her somewhat haphazard collection with a pointed cry for environmental advocacy, rolling out of a banner that reads “Climate Revolution.” A nod to her punk roots, it had me thinking, “Where is Pussy Riot??”

Have any thoughts on how we can shift our fast consumption to sustainability? Do you have any links to share, or know any peeps who are working on this cause? Please share with me, either in the comments below or via email! 🙂

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New York Fashion Week-the Fantasy and the Fire

Rodarte, Spring 2013. Gorgeous and stunning, now … who made them?

Fashion Week 2012 just wrapped up, and I always love the opportunity to lose myself  in the fantasy world of haute couture for just one short week. This year it was Vivienne Westwood’s steampunk-inspired collection, the ethereal draping of Carlos Miele’s clothes, the op-art, mod-inspired fashion of Marc Jacobs, and the punk-rock gypsy aesthetic of Anna Sui (always a favorite of mine) that made my heart race. Even the shoes worn by audience members this year were so unreal, that if the pictures weren’t shot by my heart, Bill Cunningham, I would have assumed they were photo-shopped. (I want five inch yellow Prada shoes with flames shooting out of them, NOW daddy!!)

But while the fashion press focused intently on the genius of these designers, as well as the important faces in the audiences that ran the gamut from Anna Winatour to Kim Kardashian (ugh), very little was mentioned about the fire in Pakistan at a textile industry that killed more than three hundred workers. Supposedly (and I’m sure more information will be revealed as the investigations move forward), the factory employers locked the doors of the factory to prevent the workers from stealing the jeans they were making. And what is even more shocking is that this factory was declared as safe by monitors working with Social Accountability International, which is a nonprofit monitoring group largely financed by corporations. And of course, despite finding a pair of Guess jeans and other brand-name labels in the wake of the fire, producers, including Guess, are denying that their jeans were made there.

Is it ironic that as I’m reading this article on the fire, which killed more than twice as many workers as the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, a gorgeous advertisement of a beautiful model wearing  layers of bracelets and a glittery sequin top for the brand Armani flashes across the screen? The fashion industry in a nutshell—beauty and fantasy, alongside tragedy.

The aftermath of the textile fire in Pakistan (photo courtesy of Fareed Khan for AP)

What this reveals is obvious: the need for more transparency in the design process, and for more sustainable labor practices. As long as those who make the clothes are not given a face, people—the designers, the fashion editors, the consumers—will continue to look the other way. A recent article in The New York Times documented the fashion industry’s “25 key players,” which included the founders of the globally-influenced retail store Opening Cermony, Vogue editor Anna Winatour, and my personal favorite, ‘I got famous for a sex tape and now my face is plastered on every freaking ad on every website that Nadia visits’ Kim Kardashian (UGH). And where are the textile workers in this list? I find this more than a little ironic considering that the haute couture industry defends its high price tags on the basis of its ‘fine’ craftsmanship and supposedly fairer labor practices (though it’s recently been revealed that the ‘made in Italy’ label is kind of a sham-those who labor in these Italian factories are often Chinese migrants exploited by their employers). Shouldn’t they be proud to reveal the names and faces of their workers who help make their dazzling shows a reality?

There are two main issues at play here. First, the fashion industry, with its reputation for glamour and beauty, doesn’t want to be bogged down with the gritty reality of the exploitative labor it employs.  Many designers are considered artists, and artistry and labor politics don’t exactly mix well. Secondly,  the transnational nature of the fashion industry makes it difficult to find any particular person or system entirely culpable. As the fire in Pakistan reveals, regulations are difficult to enforce in an industry that stretches across multiples nations, means of labor, and forms of presentation. Perhaps that’s why when 29 people were killed in a factory fire that produced Tommy Hilfiger clothing last year in Bangladesh, no one blinked an eye when Hilfiger himself was chosen just one month later as the fashion consultant for American Idol, giving style advice to irritated-looking contestants. After all, he couldn’t have known that his factories were shady, right? If he did … he would have done something about them, right? Sometimes, the worst crimes committed are the ones that happen when we aren’t forced to ask questions.

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