Tackling Unsustainable Fashion with Filmmaker Andrew Morgan
Film director Andrew Morgan felt the strong need of tackling the issue of fashion sustainability when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killing over 1000 and leaving countless more underpaid garment workers injured – workers that make possible the deeply unsustainable global fashion market. His film The True Cost, produced by Livia Firth and featuring Stella McCartney, Vandana Shieva and Safia Minney, examines the problematic models and systems on which today’s globalised fashion industry is built on – we interviewed him to hear more about his experiences documenting the underbelly of the world’s second most polluting industry.
Watch the full film online here
Andrew Morgan, a trained filmmaker from America’s east coast, had never as such worked in, with or about fashion. Rather, his previous films, such as After the End, explore themes of growing social inequality, extreme poverty, globalisation and environmental issues, vague and all-encompassing as they are. “The challenge as a filmmaker is always to address these in a way that is not too uncontrollably large,” he explains over Skype from Los Angeles, where he currently resides. “I was kind of wrestling with a film dealing with these things, and I just couldn’t get it right from a story standpoint.”
It was the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in which over 1,000 garment factory workers lost their lives as a run-down clothes factory producing garments for the Western market collapsed above them, that triggered Andrew to find an angle on these devastating issues and take political action. After reading about the incident in a local newspaper, he spent the next couple of days making phone-calls to people around the world, doing research and getting insight. “Fashion sustainability is a really fascinating topic because it addresses all of these major social and environmental issues – but it’s not this stodgy, detached industry [like oil] that we as consumers don’t interact with – it really does link the whole world together,” he explains. “I fell in love with pursuing the idea, not just in terms of what is at stake, but also what was unseen about the industry, and how it could inspire to really immediate action.” Fashion became a way for Andrew to address macro issues through a tangible prism that the whole world interacts with on a daily basis.
“I’M INTERESTED IN COMPANIES COMMITTING TO LONG-TERM TRANSPARENT, TRACEABLE RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEIR SUPPLIERS.”
From left: director Andrew Morgan, executive producer Livia Firth, fashion journalist Lucy Siegle
After a massively successful crowdfunding campaign, Andrew and his team set out to document the specifics of fashion’s global system, taking them to over countries around the world where he would speak to factory workers, environmental activists, economic scholars and fashion industry leaders. Despite a good amount of research and pre-production, he felt “completely caught off guard” how his findings impacted him on a person level – completely altering the direction of his life. Travelling to the massive garment factories of Bangladesh and Cambodia, and the cotton farms of India, he encountered what he describes as the “gross inequality, and grotesque inhumanity” of the fashion industry – in which factory workers work day until night on a wage so little they can’t even afford to educate their children. And, farmers are pressured into using costly GMO seeds (courtesy of American agrochemical seed-producer Monsanto, of course) that while damaging the environment and communities as it contaminates drinking water, forces farmers into extreme debt and at an increasing rate, suicide (Farmer suicides account for 11.2% of all suicides in India). Because of their production schedule, they would travel back and forth between these countries and the West, attending fashion weeks and lavish dinners with royalty literally the same week as they would be shooting in the slums. “Just seeing the contrast of that was really startling,” he reflects. “I wasn’t naïve as I was familiar with much of these issues beforehand, but it was startling to feel the weight of the amount of profit being accumulated, the amount of success and growth of the industry – and the fuel that was actually making that possible.”
“WE’VE ACTUALLY CREATED SOMETHING HERE THAT IS, FUNDAMENTALLY, IN THE TRUEST SENSE OF THE WORD, UNSUSTAINABLE”
The unsustainable system that the global fashion industry is finds its genealogy in a variety of developments that have taken place in the last century. The demise of haute couture, the emergence of ready-to-wear, Fordist mass production methods, and the exponential growth of cheap, super accessible fashion with a fast turnover (also known as ‘fast fashion’) are some of the components of this unhealthy development – but Andrew traces its roots most of all in the form of consumption capitalism that developed in the US after the war. “A striking feature of today’s form of consumption capitalism is an economy that is built on individual consumption,” he explains. “Phenomena like the shopping mall brought the ethos that ‘you can have it all – you deserve it all – you can afford it all,’ which generated a hunger that globalisation became an instrument of.”
Globalisation enabled a temporal acceleration of consumption as well as extreme price reductions – but most importantly, a form of production and distribution that completely estranged the consumer from the production process, leading to today’s oblivious system that favours quantitative, financial growth before anything else. Over 90% of American fashion is today produced outside America. “Fast fashion only measures quantity, GDP and growth – we’re very into growth,” he argues, “but in fact, there’s a whole price that is being paid for this stuff that we’re not talking about.” Consumer capitalism considers human labour and nature as resources rather than capital – the only capital considered is, of course, the economic.
With this critique, it’s not that Andrew argues for a return to exclusively localised production. Globalisation is, to him, firstly an inevitable part of our lives, and secondly not all bad, but it has to be continuously questioned and discussed. The problem is an unquestionable positivist account of these processes narrated by many politicians and multinational companies, where exploitative fashion systems take advantage of weak governance situations in the pursuit for an even cheaper product, on the expense of the actual makers of these garments. According to Andrew, the challenge is to re-write rules and systems that take into account today’s global economy. “We’re sort of living in this gap of history right now, where we’re operating in a global economy, but we’re still working on a very regional, outdated and broken set of systems and laws, which leave multi-national companies to stand outside a lot of our constructs because they just haven’t been built with that size and scope in mind,” he argues. “I’m interested in companies committing to long-term transparent, traceable relationships with their suppliers.”
“FAST FASHION ONLY MEASURES QUANTITY, GDP AND GROWTH – BUT IN FACT, THERE’S A WHOLE PRICE THAT IS BEING PAID FOR THIS STUFF THAT WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT.”
On his path of exposing the extent of exploitation led by the mass-market fashion system, he luckily also met and interviewed some of the top pioneers and advocates for sustainability in fashion – including designer Stella McCartney, creative director of sustainability consultancy Livia Firth, environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and Safia Minney of fair-trade fashion empire People Tree. He encountered a multitude of fashion practices that were indeed ‘sustainable’, practices that ensured ethical sourcing of materials with respect for the environment. They were, however, remaining radical, ‘alternative’, as they were swimming so much up stream in an industry that gives no incentive to make these kind of considerations, only measuring success through quarterly profit results. “Only measuring profit is going to be considered insane by history one day,” he exclaims.
The True Cost, which premiered at Cannes in 2015 to a star-studded audience, primarily targets the ‘fast fashion’ of the mass-market, high street fashion sector, looking closely at the supply chains of high street giants like H&M, Zara and Primark. We discuss the role of high-end and luxury fashion in this complex issue – are they equally to blame, and in which way does it have to change for a more sustainable profile? To Andrew, luxury fashion has the potential to pivot much quicker and easier, as it often relies on a much shorter supply change, with a more direct relationship to its suppliers. Change, in other words, is easier to implement and follow up on, and as such the model on which it operates is more open to direct change. The other element that links luxury closer to sustainability is its historical heritage of artisan production and craftsmanship – practices that lately have been reinvigorated by young brands like Atelier Baba (link), what Andrew calls ‘the second wave of luxury.’ “We all saw luxury getting sort of sold out; handbags were made in China by child labour, and luxury got kind of diluted – it wasn’t what it used to be,” he reflects. “The second wave of luxury we’re seeing emerge emphasises more that ‘this thing is precious, not so much for what it is or who it is, but actually because how it was made’. That’s an amazing trend; that’s something that I think will continue ‘cause I think it’s one of the only ways to actually distinguish what luxury actually is. Ironically, it’s very in line with what luxury was all throughout history.” According to Andrew, this trend happens mostly amongst independent designer brands who are in charge of their company – as opposed to the brands owned by conglomerates, who in recent years have bought up much of the luxury sector.
Most sustainable fashion businesses today are reactionary in the sense that they tend to be the second part of a fashion career, a pursuit of an alternative path after having familiarised oneself to the mainstream fashion sector previously. But as Andrew argues, sustainability has to be vocalised much earlier in the design career, beginning with education – and Andrew actively tries to target the fashion-studying demographic with new screenings planned in New York and London, collaborating with the United Nations as well as Parsons. “We’ve been taught, not just in fashion school, to really see ourselves as incredibly disconnected from the effects of our choices on the world, and that certainly has had its effect on the consumer,” he begins – “but as a maker of things, that idea of really stepping back and saying, ‘I have responsibility to all of the hearts and the hands that make the clothes that I sell’ – the idea that responsibility is something that exceeds what is being done right in the design studio. If designers could come forward at the beginning of their careers saying ‘you know what, I’m not passive, I’m not just going to go with the flow, I’m not just going to believe that someone out there is going to take care of the production, I actually want to take a real part of that’ – that would be a remarkable shift, and I think that kind of shift would impact companies from the inside too.”
Indeed, responsibility and change has to come from a variety of angles; producers, suppliers, distributors, governments, designers and consumers. “We’ve actually created something here that is, fundamentally, in the truest sense of the word, unsustainable,” Andrew argues quite clearly: “It literally cannot continue. We will have to find an alternative, and that alternative might change our habits, it might have to change our relationships to clothing. As Livia Firth famously expressed at a conference in Copenhagen, it doesn’t matter how many recycling bins there are in your stores; you simply can’t open multiple ones every single day for several years in a row. It’s simply a matter of volume. Instead, she urges consumers to completely re-think the idea our relationship to fashion, creating a wardrobe of selective, sustainable pieces that will last much longer than the cheap, disposable and deeply unethical fast fashion. At 1 Granary, we urge all designers, creative practitioners and students to take action now: begin by informing yourself by watching The True Cost, available online via Yifi.