The True Cost, directed by Andrew Morgan and produced by Michael Ross, is a film about the egregious high price of Fast Fashion if one quantifies its cost to the environment, garment worker, standards of living-safety and health, global cultures’ diminishing economic well being, social justice, and human rights. The film is executive produced by Livia Firth, creative director of Eco-Age and 2012 award winner-UN Leader of Change. Lucy Siegle , writer and journalist for BBC One’s The One Show, also was executive producer on the film. After screening the film at the Thomson Reuters Building in NYC, I and other press had the opportunity to be present for a Q & A with the director and producer.
What action should we take against these governments who are not protecting their citizens? What does the customer/consumer do? Do we boycott anything that is made in Bangladesh or Cambodia where we know the workers are being underpaid and are facing these terrible conditions? Obviously, our laws don’t impact these other countries and that is why the companies are going there because they don’t have to worry about workers’ rights. Do we boycott these outsourcing clothing makers? What do we do?
Andrew Morgan: These are the challenges we face. There are two things at work here. One side of the conversation is that there are some serious, truly systemic changes that need to take place. And we need to talk about this in a larger forum because that’s going to involve trade, it’s going to involve governments and it’s going to involve a whole lot of things and some serious things are going to have to shift. But to respond to your question as a consumer/customer, I don’t want you to walk away from this film and think less of fashion or to boycott. I don’t want someone to walk away feeling guilty if they love the things they wear. I would like to encourage people to all take a step back from this incessant process of consuming mediocre stuff. Let’s go back to a place where we invest in clothes that we love, that we’re going to wear, that we’re going to hold on to.
For the customer, I think that’s a great place to start…to say rather than have a quantity of consumption and a carelessness of purchase, let’s take clothing out of being like a hobby or a pastime and let’s make clothing be something that we’re mindful of. Honestly, that’s been my experience over the last couple of years. I went from someone who never thought of this before to someone who can’t get it off his mind now. That shift is just to realize, wait! My choices have to be revamped. There’s people, actually human hands made the things that I wear. So let me be intentional. And when we start doing that, I think we start asking questions about, “Who made this, and how is it made?” Then you start to communicate with the brand that you love. But we need to just back off of this endless, mindless purchasing and concentrate on the clothing that we really love.
The topics the film covered are very interesting. And it looks like the governments of the different countries could do a lot to stop the harm and come up with solutions; for example, in writing laws that would take care of the chemicals and the pollution. I am curious. Did you try to talk to anyone in the governments of these countries?
Andrew Morgan: Yeah. We did and it was a difficult process. My experience making the film was very simple, though. It went from, in the beginning I was distressed with the garment workers, the factory workers. Then, I got to know something about the owners. Then I got to know people from the brand. You saw the direction of the film. And it was like we are all a part of the cycle. What is important to remember is that these governments are desperate for the investment that these industries bring. With Cambodia, 80% of their GDP export is clothing. And most of that is predominately three companies.
So what I would say is that the brands have tremendous leverage. They probably have the most leverage with the host governments. And a lot of the conversation that we are working on now is to motivate the brands to use the influence that they have because in a lot of these cases, the brands (you talk about levers of power), they represent in some of these cases far more power than the host government. Honestly, we know that. We’ve gone into these countries. It sounds noble to say, well, we don’t want to write their laws for them; the governments have to do it. But we know where these governments are in their development. We know that they are nowhere near close to being able to enforce some of these things. So it’s fair to say we’ve taken advantage of that. And it’s tricky because countries are played off of countries.
What we are pressing some of these brands to do is to even out their supply chains and have standards across the board, no matter what countries they operate in. As Richard Wolfe pointed out, sometimes when workers fight for and get a certain level of progress, brands pick up and move somewhere else. So all of them need to step back and say, “We’re in a global world; we’re in an international business here. We can’t just like hop from one country to the next for cheaper workers.”
Could you talk about the distribution of the film. Is it rolling out across the country and around the world? I wasn’t quite clear if you were putting the blame at retailers like H & M or you were talking about the Donna Karans and Ralph Laurens of the world as well. Did you attempt to talk to any major US designers or major designers around the world and what was their response.
Andrew Morgan: Talking to designers? Yes, we tried. We focused this film primarily on mass market and Fast Fashion because to me it is the point at which the industry interacts with the most people from the market share standpoint. So we geared it toward the average, every day Americans. If you look at luxury items and think of the numbers, it’s a smaller, more exclusive set of customers. So regarding the luxury side, we’ve been accused of giving them a pass. I think the Fast Fashion, mass market, mass production represents the most egregious examples of some of the things we’re talking about. As for the American designers, yes, we did reach out and there was a huge reluctance to speak with us.
Could you name names?
Andrew Morgan: I don’t want to name names. But there were a lot of them. In a way, I understand, and in a way I am disappointed. From the business community there was massive reluctance. We worked very, very hard to have a set of conversations not with just the businesses but with the designers. We’re at a moment where we’re at a tricky transition period. Even though I know some of these designers believe some of these ideas, I think their beliefs go in contrast to their business models. And that was very difficult. I’ll let Michael, the producer speak about the distribution of the film.
Michael Ross (Producer): The release is coming out in New York, LA, London. It will be there for a week in the theaters. And then at the same time it will be on iTunes, Amazon, and a platform called VHX which you can access through our site. And yes, we have screenings planned through the month of June. You can see the screening information on our site. We are working on some amazing screenings at fashion schools coming into the fall when schools are settled. We are really trying to make the film reach people in an intimate way that’s more subtle. And there’s going to be a big plan building into the winter.
Andrew Morgan: The other cool thing about VHX is that it can be translated in different languages. It is a global platform so people all over the world will be able to see it. And I will say we have some exciting news coming so stay tuned.
What impacted me was the fact that 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide because of Monsanto’s seed monopolization program forcing them into bankruptcy. Where did you get the source for that?
Andrew Morgan: That has been reported pretty widely. We got all this information and included it in the film. I actually came across that in some reading I was doing prior to the film. It wasn’t that recent, but I was stunned by it. India, and in general agricultural abuses in India, were hard to limit to what you saw in the film because there was pretty massive amount of information about it. I think one of the things that is really critical to me is that when we started and the idea of human rights is confronted, you deal with that on a personal level. There’s an immediate emotional response. Sometimes when we talk about the environmental attacks, the approach can feel very esoteric, like a future threat, you know it’s going to impact someone, some day, somewhere down the road. What we worked on hard to bring out was to show that environmental issues are actually impacting people’s lives today. It just so happens that these are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. We may not have to experience such an impact every day, but they do. That was really striking to me. The scale of the environmental impact is really shocking.
Could you speak about the impact of the Pacific Trade Agreement and how it may compound some of these issues. Also, I assume that to be able to show the two giddy ingenues showing their new fashions on YouTube, I assume you know who they are and that they signed off on being in the film. Having seen the film, do they know what it’s about? You show that generation as being particularly vulnerable to advertising and fashion. I was just curious are there any initiatives for them to be involved?
Andrew Morgan: Yes. A lot of that generation is involved in a campaign in the U.K. and around the world. I did not know these girls and still don’t know them personally. They were contacted this year and some of them got to screen the film and there’s a whole group of people working on taking some of the shopping haulers (young girls on YouTube showing the fashions they have bought), and using them to begin to communicate a more mindful message. And it’s pretty cool because a lot of those young women, when they’re shown a film like ours or Greenpeace work, they’re blown away. So there’s a lot of cool conversation about how to use their platform which is enormous, I mean like staggering numbers. So the conversation with the shopping haulers is about how to promote some of these ideas we’ve shown in the film.
Now to your other question about the trade agreement. I’m thinking that a lot of it is going in a good direction. A lot of things that people have been asking for for a long time are real quantifiable protections for human rights, environmental issues and trade agreements. Without an international governing body that is effective right now, trade agreements are probably the closest way we come to protecting some of these issues that we know are going to be overwhelming otherwise. I’m disappointed by what’s not in that agreement. I’m disappointed about the lack of conversation about that agreement. There are some vocal critics. I hope that the issues becomes a bigger conversation here. It’s really an important one.
I want to congratulate Andrew and Michael having the courage to direct a film of this magnitude. I think you’ve exposed to us the virus/bacteria that exists in the apparel industry, but this virus exists in many other industries. Hopefully, this film will bring out the perspective of how the other industries are behaving the same way. This can bring all of us closer together so we can be stronger and add to the numbers of people who say, “I’m not going to buy this any more.” In bringing about systemic change that needs to happen is there discussion about going beyond stronger laws and enforcing them?
Mike Ross: I think there are things that are happening out there today in business models so that when we look at a corporation, there’s the idea there are more factors to a company than just its profit and loss statement. There are companies that are doing something fascinating. There’s one which is pioneering an EP and L which is an environmental profit and loss. They take into account the natural resources that companies are using and also the waste that’s coming out. And they actually put it on an accounting statement and so from a business model, we’re talking about systemic change. It is vital to quantify the things that are happening in an industry, what the corporation is doing to the environment, to build it in for the decision makers. I think a lot of what’s happened is that companies have their CSR programs and their environmental programs and these are very separate from the central business model. The more that we see the decision makers have to make a decisions thinking about all of the costs they incur down the line, including their impact on the environment and the social fallout, the better.
Andrew Morgan: I think it goes a lot farther than even the fashion industry. And we are already on a path to nowhere. I think the sooner we start to actually recognize that and articulate that, the better. Lucy Siegle says in the film, “The closer we get to the edge, the faster we’re going.” It’s true. For me coming in with no knowledge of that to understand the resources that are being used here, it doesn’t take a lot to recognize the problems. You don’t have to look far into the future to realize…the free market story that we’ve been told is based on externalizing all of the costs. It’s a really blind way of looking at the world…a really false way of looking at the world. We have to come to the place where we can say, business can be a good thing, competition can be a force, the market can be a driver without all of these bad consequences. It’s just like we’re playing soccer. There have to be rules. And those rules cannot any longer be written by the players on the field. That’s another change that we have to accomplish.
It took many, many years to acknowledge that GMOs in food and in cotton seeds and the pesticides are really bad for you, that they have a carcinogenic effect. I’m wondering about the farmers. Is anyone fighting for them, the congressmen or the senators? Is anyone trying to get laws passed to cut down on the pesticides? It seems like cotton farmers in the US are dying at a rapid rate.
Andrew Morgan: Yeah. There was a story in the NY Times this week about a couple of different countries that are working on banning the aerial drops of chemicals. Progress is being made on that. I think that some of this standardization about what is organic and what that means for the farmer and what that means for the people buying the product needs to be straightened out. That’s been nebulous to some extent. We’ve been in between. There have been some labeling issues that we have to simplify. Even for the customer it’s been confusing. I still meet people who say, “Organic cotton? I don’t eat that. I don’t understand why cotton should be organic and how that has an impact.” So the issues must be clarified, not only for the farmer, but for the person choosing not to eat organic or use organic products. I think there’s going to be a lot more progress there. I think there’s a lot of smart people who have seen what is being fought and won in the food movement and they are channeling that progress into what’s been taking place in the fashion industry.
What was the catalyst for the movie. And in looking at the bios I’m wondering if you have done some advertising work or made commercials for the fashion industry. Making this movie, how do you feel about that.
Michael Ross: Before we started this, I worked on the production side of advertising. Some of the criticism in advertising, I did in the film. I worked really grueling hours. I realized that I was continuing to create and sell products that people didn’t necessarily need. And I think that’s all around the world,and it’s important. From a personal standpoint each of us needs to decide what we do every day. And so coming to this and coming off of this project, I made a decision several years ago that I wanted to continue to work in film and production and this is the kind of content that I wanted to make. I have a very real understanding of the advertising world and what it means to sell to people and the idea of image. And I think we need to step back and access what we’re doing.
Andrew Morgan: The catalyst for the project was that we were talking about doing a film that looked at all the business in the world. But it was too broad, too vague and too big to get my arms around. And it was around 8 o’clock in the morning and when I saw the photograph on the cover of The New York Times the day after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. It was these two boys walking in front of this huge wall with flyers of all the missing persons. And the two boys were a similar age to my boys at home. But whatever it was, it just grabbed my heart. It was just one of those moments that I’ve never had before. I picked up the article and I started reading it and I couldn’t understand how I had never heard this story and how I had lived really that long in my life without even questioning where my clothes came from. I think that week we started reading everything we could get our hands on and trying to understand things as much as we could. By the end of the week, we knew that this was the film that we really needed to make. It was a serendipitous project.
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