Livia Firth (Photo: Courtesy of Livia Firth)
Remember when you were younger and you’d get excited about buying one cool concert T-shirt or a dress from the Gap? Now imagine that you’d bought 10 times as much stuff, vlogged about it, wore each once (or not at all), and ran out like a banshee to buy another handful of $10 tops. This is the modern conundrum of fast (i.e., disposable) fashion. Over the past 15 to 20 years, the fashion landscape has changed immensely as the apparel industry increased its output by 400 percent. Where these clothes come from and how they made is the central focus of The True Cost, a new documentary directed by Andrew Morgan that traces the garments back to their origins in factories in China, Cambodia, India, and even to cotton farms in Texas where workers are reportedly contracting cancer because of the chemicals used to treat their mass-produced crops.
The film is full of shocking but need-to-know statistics, such as that factory workers in Bangladesh are making as little as $1 per day and can’t afford to feed (or spend time with) their families. One 23-year-old woman, after an attempt to unionize and secure better wages for the staff, was locked in a factory where the owners beat her and her supporters. Pollutants from the clothing pour into rivers that millions of people in India use for drinking water, making them sick and reportedly making their children mentally ill. And all for what? An $8 dress that you might wear once and then discard?
Yahoo Style spoke to Livia Firth (yes, the wife of the dashing actor Colin Firth), who, in addition to being the executive producer of The True Cost, is also the founder of The Green Carpet Challenge, which partners with fashion labels to find sustainable ways to produce their garments. Here, she offers her firsthand insights on where the system is breaking down and how you can do your part (e.g., if you aren’t going to wear something at least 30 times, then don’t buy it!).
Garment workers heading to factories in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo: Courtesy of The True Cost)
Yahoo Style: You have been championing green fashion for quite some time. Do you think this film will help to awaken the rest of the industry? And the world? What has been the response so far?
Livia Firth: I don’t like to use the word green fashion as if there should be a color to define what fashion should be like — that is, an industry which has complete respect for the resources it uses and the people who work in it and are part of its supply chain. The True Cost movie shows the state we have arrived at today, thanks to this relatively new phenomenon called fast fashion, which started 15-20 years ago and is now responsible for “disposable fashion.” We buy it fast and we discard it as fast and without thinking, move on to the next piece of clothing. Don’t you think that is an oxymoron? And don’t you think that it is killing all fashion, too, and the love we have for it?
It was just announced that officials are charging 41 people with murder for the deaths of the Rana Plaza factory workers in Bangladesh [where 1,129 people were killed and twice as many injured after the building collapsed in 2013]. Do you think other factory owners and businesses are now re-evaluating their businesses, given the global awareness that this has raised?
There is no easy answer to this question. It is a very complicated machine. I just came back from Bangladesh, and whomever I spoke to there — factory owners, government officials, garment workers, organizations — everyone said the same thing. Brands know the system, and in fact the system that they have created is now so complicated that it is almost impossible for them to be held accountable for anything. It is good to see justice is trying to be done after two years, with the factory owner being charged with murder.
But hopefully this won’t distract people from thinking that justice has been done and to close the chapter as, until we change the system, this could happen again. The brands are there today and in other countries (such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Turkey, and so on) behaving exactly the same: putting huge pressure on factory owners and garment workers to produce huge volumes, process huge orders, and do it very cheaply. This is why the Rana Plaza factory owner sent the workers back into the building: He had a noose around his neck, with the brands saying they would not pay him if the order was not delivered on time.
As I said before, the system today is very complicated. Yes, fast fashion is this evil machine, and no matter how many “organic cotton” collections are produced, they still are produced in volumes which can be made only by slave labor.
A landfill of textile waste in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: Courtesy of The True Cost)
Does the responsibility fall on just fast fashion brands, or are there issues with luxury brands as well?
It is not a matter of buying luxury or not. It is about buying things we really want, clothes we really know we will wear a minimum of 30 times (you will be surprised how many times we do not!), things which we value for quality and durability and will form a part of our “sustainable” wardrobe. A wardrobe full of “fashion memories.”
I noticed that Bruno Pieters is an associate producer of the film, and Tom Ford attended your London premiere. As fashion designers, what have their reactions been to The True Cost? Tom Ford is obviously extremely influential within the industry; what can he do to help make a difference? Or what could or should he be doing?
Everyone who saw the movie loved it and was shocked beyond imagination. There is nothing as powerful as “visual advocacy.” It is hard to ignore what you are seeing with your own eyes. The movie is particularly empowering, as it puts together so many issues, such as environmental justice and climate change, social justice and slavery, trade regulation, economic relationships — all trickling down to what we wear every single day.
So we are ALL influential, whether we are a famous designer or a consumer. Consumers have the power — we vote every single time we buy something.
A former leather tannery worker in Kanpur, India. (Photo: Courtesy of The True Cost)
Which ethical fashion designers (or brands) are you most fond of? Who is doing it right? Do you think that free-trade fashion is a possibility for all high-end designers?
I buy in a very different way, as I am 45 and when I grew up fast fashion did not exist. There were not “good brands” and “bad brands,” only brands that produced good quality and others that didn’t. And if you were smart and had not much money, you would always save to buy the good-quality brands, as the clothes would last forever. I still have so many clothes from my mum and so many from my youth. So many! So now I buy clothes only when I see something that I know I will wear when I am 70!
The montage in the film that juxtaposed the street-style stars versus the poor factory workers was very moving. If you could speak directly to these fashion types, what would you say?
Do you know who made this? Do you know that behind this there is a woman who is suffering? Do you know that it is not democratic to buy so cheaply … and it is immoral for you to throw it away so quickly? But above all, I would say: Fashion can empower you, so communicate beautiful stories via what you wear.
How could a concerned citizen help to make a difference in the battle for better wages in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh? On a small scale is it a matter of boycotting the brands that are responsible?
Never boycott, but with fast fashion just stop going into these shops once, twice a week (like we do today), and start going there “only” once a month. See what a loud-and-clear message you will send to the brands that they must start paying their garment workers a living wage. They could change their business model slightly and start paying all garment workers in every single factory a decent living wage and solve the problem single-handedly overnight!