Film

The True Cost Fumbles Its Attack on the Clothing Industry

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Here are the ingredients of most of today’s lefty issues docs: doom, doom, Koch brothers, Monsanto, doom, doom, CNN clips, doom, doom, upbeat guitars and the promise that everything can change if we just get involved. Andrew Morgan’s The True Cost leaves the Koches out of its rundown of the damage that clothing manufacturers have done to our world and its people, but it otherwise offers exactly what you think it will. It’s got some surprises, too: It’s scattershot and repetitive, naive and disingenuous, as capable of engaging you with a thoughtful argument as a newborn puppy is of opening its eyes.

Even if, like me, you agree with the points that it’s fumbling toward, The True Cost will likely read as dopey and insulting: Early on, a Bangladeshi garment worker tells us about being pinned beneath a rubbled wall in the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse. After she has spoken for a couple seconds, the film cuts to a wide shot, revealing that she has lost her legs — a horror-movie jolt that reduces this real woman to a point-making shock gag. The filmmakers don’t even bother to tell us her name.

Maybe they don’t know it. The most compelling material in The True Cost seems licensed from other sources: news clips, conference footage, a Stephen Colbert bit where he says, in twenty seconds, almost everything that the film tries to, but with much greater power and clarity. The economist Richard Wolff turns up in an original interview, speaking generally about how important it is for Americans to re-examine our economic system, but then we see him on PBS, making the same argument to Bill Moyers. Such redundancy at least honors one of the film’s theses: Yes, we should be less quick to throw things out.

The trouble starts early. Under the throb of a sinuous synth bass, Morgan pairs up shots of models and garment workers, telling us that it took the Rana Plaza tragedy to expose “the hidden side of fashion.” That misses a terrible truth: It’s not that the sweatshop origins of our clothes and electronics is “hidden” from Americans — this has been common knowledge for years. Americans prefer not to think about it, especially the millions living paycheck to paycheck, near Walmarts and mall stores, a population that’s also being punished by the pitiless market forces that Morgan swats at.

Morgan’s film is a litany of Things We Can All Agree Are Bad, arranged something like the individual arguments in a five-paragraph essay. First, he shows us how today’s clothing industry is terrible to its workers. Next, how the demand for cotton — and the rapaciousness of multinational seed and pesticide companies — has wreaked environmental devastation and inspired 250,000 farmers in India to suicide. And then? Morgan jumps from those topics, each deserving more documentary investigation, to this: Advertising makes Americans feel bad.

My hopes lifted at the appearance of Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media at NYU and a reliably incisive commenter on issues concerning media and propaganda. But within seconds of turning to the subject of advertising — and how Americans are conditioned by the media to believe that we always need to buy — the film cuts to marching Nazis and to Malcolm McDowell’s A Clockwork Orange eye-torture. Couldn’t Morgan afford George C. Scott crying “Turn it off!” in Hardcore?

In this segment, instead of illuminating the world, or telling us anything we don’t know, Morgan shows us many advertising images to make the point that we’re exposed to advertising images. He shows us YouTube videos of young women showing off their purchases from H&M and Forever 21, which breaks the news that American teens construct identities through the purchase of consumer goods.

Morgan rounds this out with occasional portraits of nice people running fair-trade clothing companies, and interviews wherein concerned thinkers muse about our need to give our form of capitalism a good once-over. It’s not the responsibility of journalism to solve the problems that it exposes, but in this case the film probably owes it to us to ask a follow-up question or two: If the solution is nothing less than a redesign of capitalism, what would this new system look like? How can we move toward it? Also left unexamined: What would it take to make those fair-trade clothes a viable option for the hundreds of millions of American consumers?

Occasionally, Morgan will put onscreen a spirited defender of capitalism, such as Benjamin Powell of the Free Enterprise Institute. Powell says of sweatshops, “They’re not just the least-bad option workers have today — they’re part of the very process that raises living standards and leads to better working conditions over time.” Morgan seems to presume that his viewers will sneer at this, so he doesn’t even bother to rebut Powell’s claim, which is singularly unhelpful. I’ve heard that same argument at holiday dinners with extended family, so it’s not just conservative think-tankers pushing this line. If I showed them Morgan’s movie, those relatives would dismiss it as the vague liberal agitprop that it is. They would find themselves challenged on exactly none of their beliefs, except the one that maybe I’m someone they can trust to recommend a film.

“I came into this story with no background in fashion at all, beginning with just a few simple questions,” Morgan says over the opening credits. It’s unclear why he thinks it takes a fashion background to understand the exploitation of global garment workers, or what his Kickstarter backers will think of him pleading ignorance about his topic despite having raised $76,000 from them to make a film about it. After a dramatic pause, he adds, “What I discovered has forever changed the way I think about the things that I wear.”

That’s the whole doc, right there: Dude acts like he’s Candide, like he’s asking questions that will change the world, but there’s nothing he’s found that isn’t already known to anyone who’s read a magazine in the last twenty years. Next time, why not Kickstart an answer?