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Op-Ed: “The True Cost” of the Global Garment Business

It’s about time. Someone has finally produced a compelling documentary about the ills of the global garment industry. I’m speaking about “The True Cost,” a new documentary by director Andrew Morgan. Morgan’s documentary does well at showing some of the seedy aspects of the global garment industry, as well as the downside of globalization.

Having worked in textile and apparel industry for more the 30 years, I can attest that Morgan’s documentary is an accurate portrayal of the global garment sourcing business today. In my experience, globalization is great, but only to a point. When excessive consumerism acts as a carrot for profit, abuses occur all under the name of “just doing business.” And morality seemingly takes a back seat.

After the end of the Multifiber Arrangement—the much-maligned government program of global quotas that regulated the international trade of textiles and apparel for more than two decades—the global garment trade took off. However, as the industry’s supply chain expanded and efficiencies improved, new costs crept into the system.

Some say these costs are hidden, but as “The True Cost” demonstrates, most of these costs are hidden in plain sight.

The industry suffers from a long history of worker abuses, measurable environmental damage, and over-consumption of garments throughout the world. Today’s garment industry is a balance between low-cost supply in the developing world and hyperactive consumption in the developed world.

Indeed, we live in a time of extreme change. Developing countries are growing rapidly while developed countries are turning into consumer societies. From a different vantage point, fast fashion has succeeded in convincing consumers to buy what they really don’t need. How many T-shirts can one consumer have? How low do prices need to go? Is consumer demand insatiable?

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Too much of a good thing can lead to problems. If you drink too much booze for too long, you may become an alcoholic. In turn, too much free trade, open markets, with weak regulation may result in hyperactive industries that over-produce, harm the environment, over-saturate consuming markets and leave a trail of worker abuses. It’s not an attractive picture. Although “The True Cost” is a sound portrayal of many the problems in the global garment industry today, I fear the film fails to offer compelling solutions to those problems. Let me explain.

The film’s director suggests that perhaps the global economy is at fault. He also questions the long-term viability of capitalism.

Morgan notes that as free markets are left free to run amok, a plethora of problems will result, like over-consumption, worker abuses and degradation of the environment. He’s right, but ending capitalism, as he implies, is not the answer. What would be the alternative?

The world has tested lots of other systems—Socialism, Communism, Dictatorship—and the results haven’t been great. Capitalism comes with good and bad; it’s not perfect. Of course, people aren’t perfect either. But despite its faults, capitalism has provided far more benefits to the world than detriments.

Morgan then suggests that environmentalism provides hope to clean up the industry. However, I believe he has gone too far in incorporating environmentalism as a catch-all solution for the industry’s shortcomings. Specifically, I think his enthusiasm for organic cotton is misplaced and takes away from his core message. He may have added a discussion of organic cotton to provide an example of the effects of globalization on the textile supply chain. Certainly, without the global success of GMO (genetically modified) cotton production, ever more voracious textile mills would never be able to buy enough cotton to meet their needs. Organic cotton suffers from modest yields per acre, is difficult to grow, lower quality and costs much more than GMO cotton.

Price, quality, and quantity are essential for any cotton mill.

Organic cotton may have predated GMO cotton, but organic production has never been able to meet the demand of mills around the world. But GMO cotton has successfully met that demand for decades. Organic cotton is just like all other types of cotton in that it still has to be shipped halfway around the world to meet the demand of Asian textile mills. At home, organic cotton needs water to grow and its soil needs to be tilled. In that regard, organic is not much different than GMO cotton.

But there’s also another problem and it has to do with what Morgan failed to expound upon: synthetic fibers.

The environmental downside of synthetics is well documented. After all, these products are made from oil. It is true that many brands (to their credit) use recycled polyester and other recycled synthetic fibers, but there so many more brands that do not. Morgan dramatically portrays the truism that so much used clothing ends up in landfills, clogging the planet with products that are not biodegradable. But he fails to highlight that most of the clothing sold (and discarded) today contains synthetic fibers. Most plastic-based fibers are not biodegradable, but cotton is. That’s a significant omission. Making a point about organic cotton opposite GMO cotton misses the point—most of the clothing clogging our landfills is made of non-biodegradable synthetic fibers.

Making the case that organic cotton is somehow pristine is misleading. I looked on with some amusement as a so-called organic cotton farmer pick his cotton with a gas-guzzling, smog-producing stripper machine. How is that organic? What’s really at stake is the fact that two-thirds of all textiles sold today contain synthetic fibers. Morgan might have been better served by describing today’s industry, not in terms of organic versus GMO, but instead as an over-producing industry that abuses labor in poor countries, pollutes and is increasingly incorporating synthetic fibers.

Well, I’m not a documentarian. And my critique is meant only to augment what is an extremely watchable, valuable and insightful film. I recommend all sourcing executives watch “The True Cost.” However, rolling back the clock on cotton production to solve today’s problem is not the answer. The organic moniker may make consumers feel good—who doesn’t want to buy products that are perceived to be pure and pristine? The reality is different, though.

There are significant deficiencies with organic cotton; there are significant shortcomings in the textile and apparel industry. Regardless, GMO cotton is a solution for the global textile industry, not a problem, and it is a testament to our ability as intelligent beings to find solutions to the world’s problems. Even solutions that come about in seemingly disparate, unforeseen ways.

Does today’s globalized business have its share of problems? Of course. Does it pollute? Yes. Does it abuse workers? Yes. Does it generate a profit? Yes. Does it provide more products to meet the demands of consumers? Definitely.

So there’s the balance the industry needs to solve: how to meet customer demand without wrecking the planet and our species in the process. I believe a first step to managing consumer demand with the realities of the supply chain production is to alter the throwaway mentality so many have.

Fast fashion is a units game; cheaply made is fine as long as there are lots of units produced. Whatever happened to the days of quality production?

Perhaps less units were produced in the past, but the quality of the garments were so much higher than can be found into today’s fast fashion stores. Call me a cynic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that so much of the talk about sustainability and organic production is really nothing more than messaging to make consumers feel better about their habits of buying more than they need. As I have heard from others, the world doesn’t need more organic T-shirts. I agree. There are plenty of shirts in supply already. What the world really needs is some human common sense and problem solving. Hopefully our industry is up to the challenge.


By Robert P. Antoshak

Managing Director

Olah Inc.