Eight Years Later, What’s Come From ‘The True Cost,’ Rana Plaza?

Fashion documentary “The True Cost” was an “a-ha” moment for many to pursue a path toward sustainable fashion since its 2015 release.

Now the film’s director Andrew Morgan is again teaming with Livia Firth, cofounder of the Eco-Age sustainability consultancy, to release their latest 15-minute short film to the “Fashionscapes” video installment.

“Fashionscapes: A Living Wage” debuts on the eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24 — where more than 1,130 garment workers were killed and several thousand injured in a Bangladeshi factory collapse. The short film specifically focuses on the women organizing for living wages in fashion amid pandemic times. It was filmed in countries across the world using local film crews abiding by COVID-19 regulations.

Reflecting on efforts since Rana Plaza and the making of “The True Cost” — the documentary that indescribably shaped his life — Morgan believes the conversation is long past creating awareness although not much has systemically changed for workers.

“The ‘what do we do about it’ is where it begins to get complicated, but also where we have to be really careful of who is driving the conversation. Because the ‘what do we do about it’ has been hijacked by brands, frankly, because they have enormous resources and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” claimed Morgan, on the new pitfalls created since awareness has risen.

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With awareness has come greater greenwashing and more “dishonest storytelling on behalf of the industry,” in his words, which is why the latest short Fashionscapes film was important.

Garment workers, labor activists like Kalpona Akter and legal professionals from non-governmental organizations like The Circle carry the discussion throughout the film.

“Workers aren’t accidentally in poverty. Workers are in poverty because the system was created to keep them in poverty,” said Thulsi Narayanasamy, business and human rights researcher, in the film. “We’ve got 60 to 80 million women who are not earning enough to live on,” she added, outlining the sheer scale of the problem. “[Prior to the pandemic], they were already in destitution; 17 percent of workers were facing hunger…most workers said they were more scared of starving than they were of [COVID-19].”

With a global value of $2.5 trillion, fashion’s race to the bottom has been ripe for wage theft and wages far below countries’ potential for sustaining a basic livelihood. Despite companies signing up to voluntary commitments and the presence of international entities like the International Labour Organization, a 2019 report from The Clean Clothes Campaign revealed that no brand could prove that a living wage was being paid to workers in developing countries.

Chan, a garment worker interviewed in the film, described the work as a “race against time” to complete tasks on time with rarely any time to rest and grueling hours.

Having, through Eco-Age, advocated for more than a decade for sustainability, Firth is unabashed about putting brands and retailers in the hot seat. While not isolated to just fast fashion, Firth said: “The fast-fashion brands that have fobbed off civil society activists for years on living wage are being driven to change by a powerful alliance of women,” citing a “string of broken promises [that] can now be challenged on the basis of a legal obligation to protect human rights.”

Still, Firth and Morgan are adamant about pushing for a day of justice for garment workers — and, hopefully soon, one rooted in a legally binding framework, as the film champions.

Throughout, the film musters support for the proposed European Union legislation (submitted on behalf of the Lawyers Circle, a subdivision of The Circle, in April) to ensure garment workers receive a living wage.

Jessica Simor, human rights lawyer at The Circle, believes the current conversation needs to be steered away from brands’ stalling indecision on what constitutes living wages to enforcement mechanisms modeled after successful cross-border legislation from the EU and the handling of “people issues” like monetary issues have been regulated in the past.

Still, a sense of urgency accompanies the latest projects.

Out of Rana Plaza came the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, but the Accord is set to expire May 31. Under the landmark Accord, brands and retailers are legally bound to create safe working conditions for the people who make their clothes.

Organizers (under Fashion Revolution, The Clean Clothes Campaign and more) are among the investors, designers and labor groups seeking an extension that includes enforceable obligations for brands, while maintaining the Accord’s independent nature and adding an international application.

On the impact of the films he’s worked on in fashion, Morgan said the takeaway for viewers is that fashion is human identity. “I think what fashion extends us — as an invitation actually — is not a new set of problems but a very personal way to make choices that line up with the values that we hold…I don’t want anyone to feel an obligation of guilt and shame,” he said, equating inquiry about garments (probing a label, asking a store associate more about a company’s practices) as meaningful actions along the way toward rejecting a system that creates “human rights atrocities.”

The next episode will be in June, available on YouTube and Eco-Age TV, debunking lies in circularity, according to Morgan.

For More, See:

Update on the Bangladesh Accord — and Its Global Apparel Impact

‘The True Cost’ Premieres in London

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