'The True Cost' attacks the business of fast fashion

Maybe next time you'll think twice before buying that $3 T-shirt.

"The True Cost," an eye-opening documentary that examines the business of fast fashion, scrutinizes the process every step of the way—from the overworked, underpaid factory workers in Bangladesh, to the American consumers who view cheap apparel as a disposable item, all the way through to the after effects of pollution in developing countries.

Filmmaker Andrew Morgan, who raised nearly $80,000 through Kickstarter, said his idea for the documentary was sparked by the 2013 factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 people. That disaster for the first time made him question how his clothing was made—and what he found out, he said, was heartbreaking.

Film still taken from "The True Cost"
"The True Cost"
Film still taken from "The True Cost"

Morgan's film follows a 23-year-old Bangladeshi garment factory worker named Shima, who made the equivalent of $10 a month when first on the job. In an attempt to improve the factory's unsafe working conditions and earn a living wage, she and several other workers started a union. When they gave the factory owner their list of demands, they were severely beaten.

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Aside from the low pay, the film shows how factory workers are confronted each day with a hot and chemical-ridden work environment. Many of the buildings are also structurally unsound. Prior to the collapse at the eight-story factory in Bangladesh, workers were required to enter the building despite reporting cracks in the walls.

According to the film, the three worst disasters in the history of the global fashion industry happened within the same year, killing more than 1,500 people.

Beyond the toll on workers in impoverished nations, the documentary showed the environmental aftermath caused by toxins used to farm cotton and tan leather, as well as landfills filled with unwanted clothing. These practices have caused severe disabilities among the population in places like Punjab, India.

"When I hear a phrase like 'environmental damage,' it's like that still is in the category of a very esoteric, far off someday [thing]," Morgan said. "To be in those places and to realize that's actually [the] impact that's being felt by real human beings today... that was jarring."

Film still from "The True Cost"
"The True Cost"
Film still from "The True Cost"

Though Morgan points a firm finger at fast-fashion companies including H&M, Zara and Forever 21, "I don't want to put all the blame [on] the back of fast fashion," he said. "It did not invent a very irresponsible way of manufacturing, it did not invent overmarketing the consumption of things. ... It just came in and took it about as far as we could possibly go."

In particular, he said, these companies have done so by making apparel so cheap that people view it as a disposable good. In the U.S., clothing consumption has risen 400 percent in the past two decades, Morgan said.

An H&M representative said the film "raises important questions for the fashion industry, which H&M welcomes." The company, which owns six brands and operates more than 3,600 stores around the world, said it has also taken "significant steps to address the valid concerns raised."

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As examples, H&M cited that it is now the largest user of organic cotton in the world, and it uses technologies that allow it to make new garments from recycled fabrics, therefore limiting the use of natural resources.

"We want our customers to feel proud to wear clothes made in Bangladesh and Cambodia and to be confident that they have been produced with respect for the environment and for the people who made them," the company said. "We believe affordability and sustainability can go hand in hand and we will openly demonstrate our commitment to meet this ambition."

A representative of Inditex, the parent company of Zara, said that although most of its manufacturing takes place in European areas, "the company has implemented straight procedures to monitor all the supply chain through nine clusters in the different geographical areas."

The company added that it works with the Federation of Unions IndustriALL, which represents 50 million workers around the globe, and follows the guidelines of the International Labor Organization's Better Factories program, as well as the the criteria of the United Nations' Global Compact.

"Inditex agrees with the opinion of the Ethical Trading Initiative and understands that all the room for improvement in this never-ending task of achieving better supply chains must come from the joint effort of all the players involved in the industry," the firm said.

Forever 21 declined comment.

"The True Cost," which showed at the Cannes Film Festival, hit select U.S. theaters Friday.