Sunday, June 7, 2015

Documentary Review – The True Cost

Today, a correspondent who goes by the moniker “TheBoss” shared with me a link to a documentary called “The True Cost.” For those who are interested, you can watch it for free here.

This documentary explores the “hidden costs” of fast fashion. The filmmaker, Andrew Morgan, highlights the terrible work conditions and pay in garment factories located in third-world countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. The film goes to list the hardships that these workers face – urban squalor, polluted environments, deteriorating health conditions, broken families, etc., and, of course, also focuses on the avarice and ignorance of shoppers in the developed world, all the while accompanied by a moody score.

I have already written an article where I defended the existence of sweatshops. You can read it here.

However, I felt that I had to add a bit more for this particular documentary. Although this documentary lasted for about ninety minutes, one question that is never asked throughout the whole film is “as compared to what?”

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This is a very important question. Essentially, this documentary is about economics and it calls for economic reform. However, it is calling for sweeping economic reforms but, at the same time, refuses to talk about economics by ignoring this question.

When we compare the work conditions and the pay that workers in Bangladesh receive to those of workers in the developed world, they are, indeed, awful. There is no doubt about that. However, that comparison is misleading.

The real comparison that has to made is those Bangladeshi workers' current pay and work conditions with these workers' realistic alternatives in Bangladesh.

What this documentary gets absolutely right is that their working conditions are dangerous as evidenced by the collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh, which resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand workers. So the question is why do so many of these workers still choose to endure such harsh conditions and low pay? After all, no one is forcing them at gunpoint to work in these factories.

The fact that they still choose to work in these dangerous sweatshops is powerful evidence that these workers' alternatives are even worse.

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Throughout the film, various activists, and Mr. Morgan himself, call for changes to be made in the fashion industry. It demands that workers be guaranteed a living wage. It demands that consumers in the developed world change their shopping habits and attitudes about materialism in order to alleviate the strains that those workers suffer.

Let us be generous and assume that they succeed in their efforts. Let us say that those workers are paid a living wage (whatever the hell that means) and affluent shoppers' demand for clothing produced in the third world drops significantly. Then what would become of those workers?

Naturally, they would be forced to choose to toil at jobs that pay even less and in conditions that are even dirtier and more dangerous. Case in point, local NGOs in Bangladesh estimated the total number of female prostitutes was as many as 100,000 and UNICEF estimated in 2004 that there were 10,000 underage girls used in commercial sexual exploitation in the country, but other estimates placed the figure as high as 29,000.

The intent of this documentary appears to be shame its viewers into believing that we are pointlessly destroying the environment and prolonging the suffering of the poor with our materialism, over-consumption, and avarice.

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As Milton Friedman used to say, these people are soft of heart, but, unfortunately, they are also soft in their heads. This documentary was all emotion and no perspective.

Never mind that most of the documentary was filmed in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia – countries with poor records of protecting property rights and encouraging market activities that promote industry, trade, and economic growth – things that Mr. Morgan seems to think are harmful.

What this documentary did not focus on at all are the benefits that would not have existed had the global trade that fast fashion helped to spur did not occur. For example, this documentary did not mention at all that in the past eight years, Bangladesh's GDP has doubled and the same can be said for Cambodia.

This is how economies develop. Before the Miracle on the Han River, Koreans, too, lived in conditions that were not too different from those conditions that we now see in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Many people in the developed world take our affluent societies for granted. Our ancestors had to suffer for our affluence to exist. The only difference is that we can see Bangladeshis and Cambodians suffer now but we cannot see the suffering that occurred in our own past.

Mr. Morgan and those other activists in his film may have good intentions. However, it does not change the fact that they all suffer from a debilitating case of economic ignorance; and it is this ignorance that is the true enemy of the poor.

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However, the point is that all of this may be moot in the not-too distant future because of improvements in technology. According to this article in The Economist, robots that can stitch and sew keep getting better and cheaper. Mr. Morgan might get his wish some day after all. The question is whether he will be happy with the results.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe this could serve as a nice counter point.