by Helen Caswell

“The True Cost” of the cheap clothes sold at Salem retailers like Walmart, Target and Forever 21, says this documentary coming to the Salem Progressive Film Series, [is human misery and environmental degradation.]

Shot in crowded garment factories in Third World countries and peppered with ads, old documentaries, vintage fashion images and news clips, the film discusses the changing way garments are sold in the United States and Europe.

The price of clothing in our country has decreased markedly in the last few decades, and that has to do with where it’s made. In the 1960s, 95% of North American clothing was manufactured in the United States. Currently, only 3% is. Stateside garment making has been inexorably replaced by a grim, highly-competitive supply chain that runs from impoverished countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America where clothing is constructed in squalid conditions and under appalling labor practices – to the malls of the West where the resulting garments are sold so cheaply, and through advertising that creates such an insatiable demand for more and more – that Americans throw out an average of 82 pounds of textile waste every year.

The film explores a number of the “prices” the world pays for this excess, including the toxics used to meet increased cotton demand and the fundamental unhappiness that results from compulsive spending. But is most empathetic when it describes the living conditions and workdays of Third World countries like Bangladesh or China.

A woman describes the horror of the falling factory that crushed her and cost both her legs. Workdays are long; factories are dangerous and uncomfortable and the pay is terrible. Cambodian textiles workers are shown being shot at when they demand a living wage.

Clearly, these are jobs for people with no alternatives who live in hard circumstances, and the film examines arguments by moneyed interests who say this work is a salvation for them.

The least successful part of the movie is its somewhat unfocused, flighty nature and the self-indulgent narration of director Morgan. But if you didn’t know that Bangladeshi workers earn as little as $2 a day to make garments that cost Americans not much more than that, the movie is an essential eye-opener.

Two speakers will round out the evening by addressing the audience after the film. The first, Professor Jerry D. Gray, who teaches economics at Willamette University, has examined institutional labor market theory and income equality, themes shared by “The True Cost.” Known for his enthusiasm and dedication to making economics relevant to everyday life, Gray was honored as the 2005 CASE Oregon Professor of the Year for his dedication to teaching, commitment to students and innovative instructional methods.

Ann Niederehe will be the second presenter. She has lived in Oregon for more than 40 years, and found her interest in fair trade sparked 15 years ago when she was invited to join others to bring a fair trade outlet to Salem. She is one of the founding board members of Salem’s non-profit fair trade shop, One Fair World, on Court Street in downtown Salem.

“One of our greatest powers as individuals in the western world,” says a One Fair World pamphlet, “is how we choose to spend our money.” The publication lists Fair Trade business practices that would make a profound difference to the workers described in the film, including: ensuring a living wage, ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for all, providing a daily meal, and providing for retirement.

Because the film asks how real changes can be made to better the lives of workers in different parts of the world, the appearance by Professor Gray and Ms. Niederehe should be inspiring and instructive.


The True Cost

Salem Progressive Film Series

Guest speakers & audience discussion follow 

Tuesday, April. 19, 7 p.m.

The Grand Theater

191 High St. NE, Salem

(503) 881-5305