Can We Ever Break Our Collective Grip on Fast Fashion?

06/10/2015 04:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

(Photo: Courtesy of The True Cost)

By Véronique Hyland

The global juggernaut that is fast fashion is a fairly recent phenomenon, but if you ask Andrew Morgan, the director of The True Cost, a new film about the garment industry, it's not entirely to blame for the environmental and labor ravages. "It's accelerating; it's pushing the pedal way, way, down on an already-problematic system," he said at a panel about the film on Thursday. "I don't want to put all the blame on the back of fast fashion, because it did not invent a very irresponsible way of manufacturing. It did not invent over-marketing the consumption of things to people. That already existed. It just came in and took it as far as it could possibly go."

With today's verdict in the Rana Plaza case, which charged the factory owners with murder, the issue is more timely than ever. The documentary, produced by Livia Firth and which counts Harvey Weinstein and Zosia Mamet as admirers, looks the severity of the fashion system's social and environmental impact in the face. It was screened last week before a panel moderated by fashion consultant Julie Gilhart, consisting of designer Eileen Fisher, Linda Greer of the NRDC, and Safia Minney, the CEO of ethical label People Tree.

Despite the director's disclaimer, it's hard to come away from the film not feeling that global fast fashion doesn't bear a good part of the burden for contemporary environmental and labor problems. Morgan contrasts images of modern consumerism, such as bubbly YouTube haul videos and Black Friday melees, with the human toll of those same products -- from Cambodian garment-worker protesters to environmental activists in India to a Texan organic-cotton farmer who believes commercial farming contributed to her husband's cancer.

Polluted bodies of water and landfills stuffed with cast-off clothes that release harmful gases are just some of the byproducts of the global appetite for new clothes. The NRDC's Linda Greer pointed out during the panel that the environmental and labor issues are equally worthy of our attention. "It's not just simply the long labor hours and the terrible ways [garment workers] have to live," she said, "but it's the air they're breathing, the water they're drinking every day."

Morgan was inspired to make the film after reading about the Rana Plaza tragedy in the newspaper and realizing he, a socially conscious person, didn't know where his clothes came from, or who made them. Throughout his investigations, he wasn't able to get anyone from a fast-fashion brand to speak to him, though Stella McCartney does appear in the film to talk about her ethical convictions and how she incorporates them into her (much higher-end) segment of the industry. "I think it's a business model built on the assumption that a lot of us won't care and ask questions," Morgan told me after the panel. "And I think it's [considered] dangerous to open up that conversation." It's certainly a story that a lot of corporations -- with quarterly goals to meet and shareholders to answer to -- would prefer wasn't told.

In the film's least compelling thread, a professor of psychology and a professor of media studies broke down, in Psych 101 terms, the reasons why people consume: to feel loved, to attain status, to pursue a fleeting and ultimately empty vision of joy. This may have been true in the Mad Men era, but this Freudian-adjacent reasoning struck me as dangerously simplistic. The film depicted the haul girls and the Black Friday locusts, but it didn't talk to them or give them a chance to explain why they consume. People buy cheap clothes for a number of reasons, and the film never delved further into their motivations for doing so, which seemed like a crucial missed opportunity.

Do they think there is a way to change this ingrained consumer behavior? I asked the group. Gilhart felt that instead of expecting consumers to change their behaviors, the best way to improve conditions is to start with the companies. "We have to give them opportunities and ways to make them feel comfortable doing it," she said. "Either [that] or force them into doing it because if they don't do it they'll be left behind. And no one in fashion likes to be last."