It’s that time of the year again! The Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close and the fall film reviews are in! We at Lux Second Chance have taken a specific interest in films that deal with the topics of sustainability, the luxury market, and the ethics around fast-fashion. This year TIFF delivered with two titles that virtually speak for themselves: Rubaiyat Hossain’s insightful feature debut, Made in Bangladesh, and Michael Winterbottom’s latest mockumentary, Greed.
Both films deal heavily with the subject matter of ethical fashion production, corporate greed, and the class disparity between those working at the ground-level of the fast-fashion industry and those at the top of these gigantic empires like Zara, H&M, Topshop, and Forever 21. Although neither film blatantly mention any real fast-fashion companies, subtle hints here and there make it clear as to which ones they are taking aim at.
To start we dive into the purposefully ignored life of sweatshop workers in Rubaiyat Hossain’s self-explanatory feature, Made in Bangladesh. A raw look into the story behind your $19.99 H&M jeans, the film opens with a scene in an overcrowded, musty, hot sweatshop comprised of all female laborers (minus the supervisors and managers). The camera close-ups focus on fast-running Juki sewing machines chewing through yards of fabric, blistering steam spewing out of hot irons, and wires and rods taking up all the overhead space above the swarm of workers feverishly sewing through piles of red fabric.
Made in Bangladesh, 2019
If the incredibly loud and messy sweatshop hasn’t given you enough anxiety already, as you watch the scene you can feel an increasing fear that something bad is about to happen. Within minutes of the first scene a fire breaks out in the factory sending dozens of hot, overworked women into a frenzy as they scramble to the exits and stampede down flights of narrow stairs. We find out only one garment worker was lost in the accident, but still, it sets a precedent for the rest of the film.
Sweatshop accidents like these are not rare. In 2013, the worse garment industry accident in history took place in Bangladesh when an eight-storey garment factory in Dhaka collapsed killing 1,138 people and injuring roughly 2,500. The working conditions in the factory were inhumane and dangerous, resulting in significant lives lost and the fashion industry backed into a corner. The world was outraged and demanded justice and transparency from fast-fashion giants who sourced their products from these types of factories. Still, six years later very little has changed.
Made in Bangladesh looks to ignite some of that outrage again; giving a first-hand look into the lives of the women that work at these factories. The story follows a young woman named Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) who, after fatefully meeting a local union organizer, Nasima, fights to unionize her factory. In one scene, Shimu mentions to Nasima that she’s heard that the shirts they make in the factory are sold at an insane markup. Nasima replies back that those shirts sell for the same amount as two months of wages for Shimu. She can’t believe it. This is almost the only time in the film that we are reminded of the western world in comparison to theirs.
However, another instance where the western world comes to light is when we see a white man walking through the rows of workers with one of the factory supervisors. The male supervisor explains loudly over the blaring noise of the machines, “Everyone is very happy to work here!” obviously overcompensating for the dismal conditions even the white man can’t ignore. But still, he does.
It isn’t uncommon for fashion companies in the western world to visit garment factories in the third world to “check on the working conditions”; if not to source and bargain with factory owners to find the best price to produce the fast-fashion brands. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, far away from the injustices and inhumane standards these employees face, North Americans find it hard to care about these issues without having to give up inexpensive, disposable fashion. This film also cares to mention that 80% of all garment workers are female. This means the injustices they face as garment workers only add to the ample amount of injustice women in third world countries already face.
Made in Bangladesh, 2019
Now over to the more glamorous side of the spectrum, those at the top of the fashion industry food chain: the owners and CEOs. Michael Winterbottom’s Greed is a fictitious, though scarily realistic, mockumentary that looks into the life of billionaire high-street fashion mogul Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie (Steve Coogan). Many sources have stated that the “Greedy” McCreadie character is a spoof of Topshop tycoon Philip Green.
I wasn’t expecting the film to show not only the frivolous, wealthy lives of those who own, run, and profit (and I mean PROFIITTTT!) from our conspicuous consumption, but also a great deal of back stories that showed how McCreadie first traveled to the third world in search of sourcing the cheapest labour he could find to build his multi-billion fashion empire. A much younger McCreadie is seen bargaining tooth and nail with factory owners over the production cost of cheap t-shirts and jeans, always arguing that he’ll find someone else that will do it for cheaper.
Possibly one of the most ethically cringe-worthy scenes in the film—and there’s a lot—is when McCreadie’s hired biographer goes to one of these garment factories that manufacturer M&J (one of McCreadie’s high-street retailers) clothing to capture footage for McCreadie’s birthday video. He asks a group of garment workers (once again, comprised of all women) to stand together in front of the camera to wish McCreadie a happy birthday with big, and evidently fake, smiles on their faces. Set against the backdrop of a loud, hot, overcrowded sweatshop, the irony isn't lost on anyone. The footage is to be played for McCreadie at his extravagant 60th birthday party on a private island, Mykonos, off the coast of Greece. Surrounded by hundreds of his guests all adorned in tacky, ancient Roman-inspired robes—yes, ancient Rome, but in Greece—the video basically translates into McCreadie having all his modern-day slaves to do a little song and dance for him on his birthday.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed this film, from a movie-buff’s perspective and also from someone who has an educational background in fashion, my favourite scene was possibly the very end. As you expect to see the final credits role, instead appears facts about the harms of fast-fashion and just how extreme the class disparity is in the world as a result of it. Like Made in Bangladesh, it reiterates that 80% of all garment workers are female. In addition, Sri Lanka (the country where Sir McCreadie employs his off-shore garment factories) actually has one of the higher standards of working conditions in the third world, which is shocking once you see the conditions they show throughout the film. Probably the most shameful fact presented at the end of the film was that the 26 richest people in the world possess the same amount of money as the 3.8 billion poorest people in the world. Many of these “richest” are fast-fashion tycoons, while the majority of these “poorest” are the bottom-floor laborers of these fast-fashion brands, who are forced to do more for less as the western world continues to demand cheaper and cheaper clothing.
So what do we do about the ever-growing concern surrounding fast-fashion and the injustices it is responsible for around the world? For one, we can keep the conversation going, which I believe these films reaching western audiences have the potential to do. Second, we can continue to demand transparency and hold fast-fashion companies accountable for their actions at every step in production. Last, but not least, as we always encourage here at Lux Second Chance: reduce, reuse, recycle. Quality fashion products are meant to be enjoyed through many years, not just a wear twice and throw away deal. Make an effort to shop the resale market and shop quality brands that not only put love and attention into their product’s manufacturing, but also into the workers at every stage in production. Ask questions, demand answers and think twice about ethically sourced fashion.