Modern Slavery in the Fashion Industry // “The True Cost”

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Letter from the Editor…

The following post is written by first year Blog Team Member Gracie Huffman. She does an incredible job summarizing the secrets of the fashion industry based on the documentary “The True Cost” currently on Netflix. The film focuses on the perils of a form of human trafficking called “forced labor.” After you read, definitely look into ways you can support local thrift shops & sustainable fashion brands to help combat this issue.

If you have read anything about Breaking the Shackles or heard about it in any capacity, you probably are familiar with our mission statement. In Breaking the Shackles, we are a nonprofit that exists to raise awareness, collect funds, and mobilize students to combat modern day slavery in order to glorify God and share His love to all people. The truth is that slavery did not end with the 13th amendment in the 19th century. Slavery still exists in many forms today. Under the mission tab on our website, it lays out the facts including: 20-30 million people are trapped in some sort of slavery today, slavery generates over $150 billion per year, and that 1 in 5 victims of slavery is a child, averaging at about 12-14 years old.

One way people are tied down in human trafficking is through forced labor, defined as any work or service an individual is forced to do, against their will, under the threat of punishment, with little to no pay. The documentary called "The True Cost" on Netflix ties in how the need for fast fashion in today's society creates slave labor and human trafficking issues in the fashion industry. Fast fashion changed the industry from having two seasons per year to having 52 seasons per year, or having new trends readily available every week; meaning clothing had to be produced and distributed in faster rates than ever before. Opening up with shots of models getting ready for the runway and women in third world country sweat shops sewing those clothes, this film provides a powerful and captivating image into the hard truths behind the scenes of the garment industry.

Mainly digging into the life of low-wage workers in developing countries, “The True Cost” juxtaposes the feelings of greed and power in the clothing industry with the fear and poverty that women face every day while churning out clothes. The after-effects of the garment industry are also brought into light such as: river and soil pollution, pesticide contamination, disease, and death. Approaching issues from environmental, social and psychological aspects, it also examines consumerism and mass media, ultimately linking them to global capitalism. The documentary is a collage of several interviews with environmentalists, garment workers, factory owners, and people organizing fair trade companies or promoting sustainable clothing production. Fashion designer Orsola de Castro says, “While I love absolutely everything about fashion, the color, the texture, the communication it provides… the shift is moving ruthlessly towards a way of producing that really only looks after big business interest.” In the 1960s, the American fashion industry produced 95% of the clothes its people wore, while only 3% of clothes in 2010 were produced in the United States, leaving the rest to be produced in developing countries.

Operating in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, and China, major brands emphasize the need for fast fashion produced at low costs. Therefore, manufacturers minimize costs and maximize profits by having companies in those countries compete against each other and hire as many workers as possible for increasingly low wages. The international brands pressure the factory owners, threatening to close and move production to another country if the clothes are not cheap enough. The owners in turn pressure their workers. One owner said, "They're hampering me, I'm hampering my workers." While designers in the fashion industry worry about what they wish to communicate through their clothing, the women who produce the clothing worry about their well-being and staying alive.

The film also shifts to focus on America, where it looks at how media affects the desire of people, mainly teenagers, to buy and create an identity manipulated and based on consumption. This is mainly caused by a 500% worldwide increase in clothing consumption compared to the 1990s. However, these clothes are quickly disposed of, due to the 52 different seasons of clothing per year. While workers tirelessly slave away to produce clothes, an average American wastes 82 pounds of textiles a year. Only 10% percent of donated clothes go to thrift shops, leaving the rest to go to landfills, such as those in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This constant disposal of clothes not only weakens local industries, but land and water are also polluted because most apparel is made from non-biodegradable materials.

According to the director Andrew Morgan, despite garment manufacturing being a three-trillion-dollar industry, the working conditions in countries of production are poor. In addition to having to work in those conditions and live on low salaries, the workers have a difficult time demanding their rights. In every country, oppression looks different: Bangladeshi workers in Dhaka may be beaten by their employers while Cambodians are shot by police. In Dhaka, workers must work in hot, chemical-ridden environments and structurally unsound buildings. The film shows the events of the horrifying 2013 Savar building collapse when an eight-story commercial building named Rana Plaza collapsed. Just prior to that, workers had been forced into the factory, even though a crack was seen in the walls. The search for the dead after the collapse ended on May 13, 2013 with a death toll of 1,134 and approximately 2,500 injured people rescued from the building alive. This is only one example of the horrors suffered by underpaid workers every day. This is why we do what we do: to speak up for those who are stuck in seemingly hopeless situations and, one victim at a time, provide freedom for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Sources: The True Cost. Directed by Andrew Morgan, An Untold Production in association with Life is My Movie Entertainment, 2015. Netflix.