“The True Cost” Was Bleak. Has the fashion industry improved since it premiered?

Leah Wise
7 min readJul 30, 2019
Film still courtesy of The True Cost movie

A few weeks ago, I helped coordinate a screening of The True Cost documentary in partnership with local sustainability advocates in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I hadn’t watched The True Cost since it premiered in 2015 and, while I remembered feeling a bit hopeless afterward, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of tragedy and turmoil woven into the narrative.

In case you haven’t watched The True Cost (you really should — it’s available as a rental on YouTube and Amazon Prime, and I think it’s still up on Netflix), the premise is simple: documentarian and fashion industry novice Andrew Morgan is profoundly affected by the Rana Plaza collapse, which killed over 1,130 garment workers in April 2013, and sets out to uncover “the true cost” of the international fashion industry, from the cotton fields to the tanneries to the factories to the high street stores.

Though the film runs around an hour and a half in length, it’s more than enough content for opening conversation, and it manages to weave in the environmental, health, and psychological toll global Capitalism takes in a way that’s every bit as overwhelming as reality.

While watching it this time around, I took mental notes on what was missing from the narrative, and was struck by two main weaknesses:

  • The fashion industry and its related industries change quickly, and so a four year old documentary is, by nature, not going to tell an up-to-date story.
  • The film doesn’t provide a true call-to-action, but instead requires the viewer to stew in existential dread and helplessness. This was even more apparent in a group setting — we had actually planned to do a fun photo booth for social media afterward, but everyone was too sad to pull it off.

In this post, I want to address both of those concerns, highlighting a few bright spots in the ethical fashion conversation and providing a sense of hope so that we can move forward.

What’s Changed Since The True Cost?

A Living Wage in Cambodia

The True Cost covers worker protests over low wages in Cambodia, particularly state-enacted…

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Leah Wise

I write on ethics, theology, sustainable fashion, and the thrift shop economy on stylewise-blog.com.