Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion. Directed by Joakim Kleven. Boulogne-Billancourt: Java Films, 2015. 52 minutes.

Sweatshop: The Hunt for a Living Wage. Directed by Joakim Kleven. Boulogne-Billancourt: Java Films, 2016. 52 minutes.

The True Cost. Directed by Andrew Morgan. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2015. 92 minutes.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Verklan

Teaching students how their clothing is made remains an important feminist endeavor, albeit a fraught one. Finding ways to expose the reality of globalized production without simultaneously reinforcing ideas such as (white) saviorism, Northern superiority, or an overwhelming sense that all is doomed is a delicate art, and documentary films can assist in this process.1

In Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion the audience is introduced to three young Nordic people: Frida, Ludvig, and Anniken.2 These fashion lovers are set to visit Cambodia on a trip that will expose them to the process responsible for the fast fashion they love so much. The film follows the main characters as they spend a day working in a garment factory, sleeping in a garment worker’s home (on a dirt floor), and trying to live on a garment worker’s daily wage (3 US dollars). Unsurprisingly, Frida, Ludvig, and Anniken fail in the latter task and are appalled at the working and living conditions of the locals. In a statement that summarizes the film’s intent, Ludvig comments before the trip, “You don’t know how bad it is before you see it.” By the end, all express a commitment to share what they have learned when they return home and to work to change things; however, what that work entails remains vague for the viewer.

The film relies on a framing device quite common in materials relating to global production industries: the act of witnessing undertaken by economically and racially privileged Northerners on behalf of persons (often women) of color of the global South. While this lens may be of some use in introducing students to the realities of globalization, it also runs the risk of eliding some very important power dynamics that are inherent to the system the film positions itself against. For example, all three characters are fairly successful fashion bloggers. Anniken, whose blog receives 120,000 daily views, very literally depends on the labor of the garment workers with whom she interacts in the film, an important dimension of the power dynamics carrying the narrative but unfortunately not made explicit for the viewer. Doing so would have gone a long way toward highlighting the ethical dimensions of acts of transnational solidarity.

Sweatshop: The Hunt for a Living Wage is the second film in the Nordic series, featuring two of the previous film’s characters, Anniken and Frida, as well as two new individuals, Lisa and Sarah (also young, stylish, and Nordic). ┬áIt begins with an update about the public reception of Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion: media attention has garnered Anniken and Frida meetings with public relations at H&M, and the pair—along with their two new friends—are set to return to Cambodia in an attempt to hold H&M accountable to their stated production policies. Once in Cambodia, the four young women travel from factory to factory with a local guide, attempting to obtain a tour yet being denied at every point of entry. The film intersperses these visits with scenes of the women discussing contemporary issues in garment production in Cambodia, such as fainting and the fight for a living wage, providing some background information.3 One of the film’s greatest moments shows scenes of Cambodian workers demanding a living wage, and emphasizes the risks involved in doing so. Anniken, Frida, Lisa, and Sarah appear truly inspired, and, unlike the previous film, turn this inspiration into action. In this regard, The Hunt for a Living Wage makes great strides over Deadly Fashion, as it shows the film’s characters organizing, agitating, and learning from the actions of those directly impacted. However, this sequel also has some very explicit limits: the subtitles are obstructed several times throughout the film, at moments literally overlaid with text boxes (that contain additional information). For those who do not speak Norwegian or Khmer, this will be a serious problem in English-dominant classrooms. The film also utilizes the same framing device as its precursor, in that the viewer is introduced to the problem of sweatshops primarily through the emotional turmoil of privileged Northerners. The film may be of use for educators seeking to “shock” their students into the reality of global production; however, accompanying materials that underline the infrastructure of global production or connect it to other arms of fashion’s production are needed. Texts such as Ashley Mears’ Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, are useful in this regard.

The True Cost, a film completed in conjunction with the Fashion Revolution campaign, is a welcome exploration of the fashion industry.4 Narrated by director Andrew Morgan, the film highlights several aspects of fashion’s production, many of which are rarely touched upon in other texts: ethical fashion design and consumption, upcycling fashion design in Haiti, haul vlogging, the role of ideology in advertising, and defenders of sweatshops (to name a few).5 The film’s educational value is squarely centered in its attention to the total cost exacted on humans and the planet by fashion and its expansive, interconnected analysis of how the fashion industry exploits people and the planet for profit. One of the most powerful aspects is the attention given to environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry; it is the second most-polluting industry after petroleum) a fact too often overlooked. In this regard, the film bears an interdisciplinary value, and educators working within environmental studies, or those seeking materials that touch on environmental issues, may find The True Cost of use. Another strength is the representation of garment workers. Rather than portraying them as voiceless victims, the film follows Shima Akter, a young Bangladeshi woman who works in a garment factory. Shima informs the audience that she has received beatings from her employer for trying to form a labor union and that her daughter must remain in a village outside Dhaka (away from Shima) so that she can focus on her education and have a life that does not include garment factory work. In this way, Shima’s exploitation is framed through her words rather than a traveler’s feelings, an important and unfortunately all-too-rare representation in texts on the global supply chain.

One drawback is that feminist educators may find the film lacking some gender consciousness. For instance, one scene contains a montage of young female haul vloggers “mindlessly” consuming. As many feminist cultural studies scholars have argued, these kinds of representations re-enact this stereotypical notion of girls and women, a trope that is part of a larger cultural presumption that fashion is frivolous and superficial (an assertion often charged at feminine activities). Marianne Conroy’s “Discount Dreams” and Minh-Ha T. Pham’s “If the Clothes Fit” may be useful in fostering a more nuanced discussion of fashion consumerism, attentive to these very gender dynamics, in an undergraduate classroom.6

1 On the politics of “saving” garment workers, see: Dina M. Siddiqi, “Do Bangladeshi Factory Workers Need Saving? Sisterhood in the Post-sweatshop Era,” Feminist Review 91 (2009): 154-74.

2 Both films, Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion and Sweatshop: The Hunt for a Living Wage, were originally aired in Norway as five-part documentary over two seasons.

3 As the film outlines, fainting while working in the garment factories in Cambodia is quite common due to the heat and lack of ventilation.

4 See Fashion Revolution.

5 Haul vlogging refers to user-generated content wherein the user details recently made purchases. These vloggers may discuss factors contributing to their purchases, such as emotions, sales, or personal tastes; others may simply document their purchase.

6 Marianne Conroy, “Discount Dreams: Factory Outlet Malls, Consumption, and the Performance of Middle-Class Identity,” Social Text 54, no. 1 (1998): 63-83; Minh-Ha T. Pham, “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion,” Ms. Blog, January 17, 2012.

Elizabeth Verklan (everklan@cottey.edu) is an assistant professor in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Cottey College. Her book, Seeing Labor (under contract with the University of Illinois Press) examines representations of fashion’s labors in US media. Her most recent work, “Doing What You Love in the Age of Mass Debt,” is in Lateral: The Journal of Cultural Studies (Spring 2018).