CANNES, France — What are the hidden human and environmental consequences of fast fashion? That is the question American director Andrew Morgan asks in his new documentary “The True Cost,” which was screened for buyers at the Cannes Film Festival.
Morgan, who knew little about the clothing industry when he embarked on the project, said he was drawn to the subject matter after reading about the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, in which 1,129 garment workers died.
“I couldn’t believe how this is this one way in which so much of the world is very close together. It’s awkwardly forced to come face-to-face with clothing. I just thought was a really powerful thing,” said the Los Angeles-based director.
He set out to explore the impact of the $3 trillion global textile, apparel and luxury goods market on everyone from the factory workers to the farmers that grow the cotton, and his findings make for uncomfortable viewing at times.
Images of the lifeless victims of the disaster are spliced with scenes of shoppers stampeding into stores during Black Friday, and Morgan ultimately questions the economic system that creates distortions that affect large swathes of the planet’s population.
He highlights statistics, such as the fact that 250,000 cotton farmers in India have committed suicide in the last decade after going bankrupt because they were forced to switch to costly genetically modified seeds. Extensive use of pesticides has caused a spike in children born with disabilities in the Indian countryside.
“The experience you have watching the film truly was my experience making the film. When we started, I had no intention of commenting on the free-market capitalistic system. Frankly speaking, I don’t have an economic background, and I wasn’t thinking about those things,” he said.
“The injustice to me started coming out of Rana with the worker, and then I began to get to know the factory owners and the farmers, and I began to realize the pressure that was happening on all sides. It actually humanized a lot of the players that can be vilified sometimes,” he recalled.
He also tells the stories of fashion companies such as People Tree, which promotes fair trade and environmentally sustainable practices.
The film, which premieres worldwide on May 29, was executive produced by Livia Firth, founder of the Green Carpet Challenge, who helped Morgan gain access to designers like Stella McCartney, who makes a brief appearance. But all the major fast-fashion players he contacted declined to participate, according to Morgan.
“This wasn’t like a shame game, it was way bigger than that to me, so it was never going to be that, and I wanted to hear from them. I honestly personally was surprised when they came back and said no. I was disappointed,” he said.
“They’ve built a business model that has only been made possible by the assumption that you and I will not care and we will not ask questions,” he argued.
Morgan believes that system changes are inevitable.
“The closer we get to the edge, the more we’re speeding up and there is this kind of reckoning that’s got to come where we say, you know what? Having everything we want when we want it all the time, maybe there is a hidden cost to that. Maybe it’s not as good as we’re telling ourselves,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s actually making people happy, this system. I wouldn’t be as critical if it were making us all so joyful,” he added. “I hope as that curtain comes down that we’re allowing people to look at the cold, hard reality of the world, which could be sobering and could also be really motivating.”
Morgan hopes to start a conversation around current consumption habits. “I don’t want anyone to see this like a guilt trip,” he said. “I’m interested in stories that are alarming, but are hopeful.”