By Connie Allen, Films for the Earth
The power of film and documentary is undeniable. After so long, text and endless statistics and news articles fall on deaf ears as we become numb to their content. But watch a film that connects to your inner humanity through beautiful imagery, engaging interviews, real people and their stories, and you will often find yourself a changed person, carrying the key messages of these films with you for life.
Social and environmental documentaries are often passion projects with no hidden motives from corporate funders – and are used to expose injustices otherwise hidden from the average viewer or consumer. For example “The True Cost”, which we look at below, was entirely funded by Kickstarter, as the producer did not wish to accept funding from companies or NGOs, in order to maintain autonomy. These films explore solutions to the biggest problems of our times, dispel hatred and stereotypes, provide fresh perspectives, give a voice to the voiceless and inspire changes in perception that can eventually lead to debate, action and policy change.
Nowadays, we are more conscious about living in a bubble – we want to explore different realities and lives, and we are concerned about how the globalisation model is having detrimental effects on those kept invisible from us further down the supply chain of products. “Fair trade” refers to institutional arrangements whereby the producers of products achieve better trading conditions – including for example fair payment for services, improved working conditions, environmental protection and intolerance for discrimination and child labour.
In the list below we explore all things fair trade; from the effects of “fast fashion” on ecosystems and global social justice, to fair trade farming of food and mining of minerals and the exploitation of indigenous groups. We provide a mixture of factual documentaries, and heart felt memoirs. Without delay, let’s cut to the films that far excel at doing the talking, here we present our top 10 film recommendations on fair trade:
1. China Blue
A great introductory documentary for understanding the realities of the lives of those at the start of the globalisation commodity chain, “China Blue” follows the lives of two young teenage workers as they try to survive the harsh working environment of a “sweatshop” and provide for their families.
China Blue was largely shot in secret at a blue-jeans factory and the project was nearly shut down by the Chinese government for its distasteful exposure of poor working conditions and abuse experienced by the workers.
“Made in China” – the booming economic power in the far east is considered “the” production site of the world. Anyone watching China Blue, with its scenes such as workers clipping clothes pins to their eyes to stay awake during work, will understand that fair trade is not simply a lifestyle issue, but an absolute ethical necessity.
More information, including on how to watch, click here.
2. Bitter Seeds
India, the setting of this documentary, is the world’s largest exporter of cotton. “Bitter Seeds” investigates the link between rising suicide rates among Indian farmers, and the introduction of Monsanto engineered GMO cotton seeds – created to reduce the need for pesticides. Shockingly, over a quarter of a million farmers of these Biotech seeds commit suicide each year owing to financial stress and debt.
The documentary is largely formed through the eyes of a young aspiring journalist, herself having lost her father to such a suicide – providing a moving and heart-wrenching connection for the viewer to the humanity of the issue which can be at times painful to watch.
A prime example of manipulation of vulnerable groups for profit by a large corporation. Bitter Seeds won over 18 international awards and sparked an interesting debate on the role of GMO’s in India. Cotton is a common material used in our daily lives, found in 40% of all clothing, but is it worth considering how this cheap material reaches us?
More information and viewing details can be found here.
A large factor determining the quality of peoples lives is the natural environment they live in; “RiverBlue” focuses on the negative environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Currently, fashion is one of the most pollutive industries, this documentary explores the impact of toxic chemical waste from irresponsible (often illegal) disposal into rivers.
RiverBlue demands environmental justice and change in the textile industry – a responsibility they argue lies with the top fashion brands. Usually when we think of the most polluted rivers we think of sewage and plastic waste, however the leather and textile industry also have a huge role to play, from the toxic pesticides used in the production of raw materials, to synthetic dyes and waste products such as nitrous oxide from the production of nylon (300 times more potent than CO2). The dumping of untreated chemicals from the fashion industry has left entire rivers in Indonesia and China uninhabitable for fish and other animals – let alone drinkable by humans.
A strength in the film is the glimmer of hope offered at the end of innovative and sustainable fashion brands that are working with new, less polluting methods for clothing production.
For more details, including how to watch, visit this page.
4. Sweatshop I (Deadly Fashion) & II (Hunt for a Living Wage)
Social documentaries often face criticism for encouraging “armchair activists”; to be aware of a problem is not enough – one has to address and act. The Sweatshop series is a great example of persistence and perseverance against a social injustice – and how minds can be changed and organisations as large as H&M forced to address to demands of their consumers.
The series begins with teenage beauty and fashion bloggers traveling to Cambodia to see how their clothing is made, and experience the lives of a work force denied a basic living wage. The transformation of attitudes among the bloggers is fascinating to observe; the viewer goes from cringing at main character Anniken’s
“They see it as an ok job. A job at least! But I wouldn’t do it. I’m not used to it. The others do this everyday. Its tougher on our bodies than theirs because they are used to it. .. Sewing’s not the worst job in the world. It’s just sitting at a sewing machine. Lots of things are much worse. They just sit there all day. It is not physically tiring in that way.”
whilst donning a dress with “HERO” plastered in large letters; to eventually respecting her realisations and transformations by the end of the film:
“But when you begin interviewing a person you understand she’s worth just as much as you are”
The series continues with bloggers returning to Cambodia after series one caused a global storm, where they follow up with activists and workers to see how lives have been changed.
For more information, visit:
5. Freightened: The Real Price of Shipping
An often overlooked, but seemingly obvious aspect of globalisation is how the billions of items physically get from different ends of the world. “Frightened: The real price of shipping” looks at the global cargo shipping industry, how every button, zipper and thread in the assembly line is shipped repeatedly around the world before finally landing as a finished product on the clothes rail.
The film is varied and informative – approaching the multi-million dollar shipping industries effect on animal life, noise pollution, working conditions of seafarers, policy and crime, global regulations, and environmental emissions – all considerations largely hidden from our daily lives as casual consumers of these products – 90% of what we consume in the west is bought over by ship.
For more information, including on how to watch, click here.
6. Dirty Gold War
“90 million people around the world kept in poverty because of a precious metal, which actually they own – it comes from their lands!” … “Dirty Gold War” quite literally exposes the dirty side of gold. Through a thorough journalistic approach, and expertly filmed – the film illuminates to corruption, injustice and lack of transparency in the world’s gold market.
The film focuses on the current disregard for human rights of indigenous groups, and the environmental destruction caused by the gold mining businesses in Peru and wider Amazonia. On the former the concern is for lack of regulation, illegal digging, disregard for indigenous land and livelihoods and child labour; and the latter a complete lack of control on use of toxic substances such as cyanide and mercury, and large-scale deforestation.
Director Daniel Schweizer argues that at present, all gold is dirty and we are only just now making our first efforts to fair trade in the gold business, the film acts more as a plea for ethics in this global business rather than offering direct solutions.
Visit this page for more viewing details.
7. Clothes to Die For
Making clothes for the west is the single biggest earner for Bangladesh’s 150 million people – accounting for 80% of exports. Surely then fashion companies should provide these workers with as adequate working conditions as would be expected in the west?
In 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housing five garment factories, collapsed – killing 1,132 people, and injuring thousands more. This tragedy ranks among the worst industrial accidents on record and raised questions as to the poor labour conditions provided in the factories that supply the cheap clothing products of the west. This documentary explores the disaster and the lives of workers and survivors. Addressing the unsafe working conditions, and lack of building safety regulations in place by these companies.
Through a series of compelling interviews and unseen archive footage, the film gives a voice to those directly affected, and highlights the greed and high-level corruption that led to the tragedy. It also provides an insight into how the incredible growth in the garment industry has transformed Bangladesh, in particular the lives of women.
More information, including to watch the feature for free, click here.
8. The Corporation
A film for those more interested in the political and economic aspects of fairtrade and globalisation. Featuring big thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Naomi Klein – “the Corporation” is a dense film that refutes and attacks some of capitalisms key values.
A topic loathed or loved to be bought up at any dinner party, the film approaches the issues in an engaging and challenging manor – and whilst broadly this is a film about the lack of public control over big corporations and their extraordinary power and influence over our lives – it does at various points tie directly to specific case studies of fair trade such as the working conditions of factory workers producing cheap clothing, as well as environmental disregard by large corporations.
To watch the feature for free, visit this page.
9. The True Cost
It is likely that no documentary has done more to get awareness of fast fashion into the zeitgeist than the ground-breaking “The True Cost”. Addressing human rights, consumerism, mass media, environment and workers rights – the film follows the full life cycle of a piece of clothing from farmers crop to sale rail.
Filmed around the world in thirteen countries – from the brightest runways to the darkest slums – the True Cost is about the impact of fashion on people and the planet. The unsettling juxtaposition between the struggling low-paid-overworked laborers against the excessive-ignorant hedonism of the consumer is at times sickening to process – but the film is a true work of art. Adding to this is a stellar line up of interviewees from the experts in the field – Stella McCartney, Livia Firth, Vandana Shiva and more.
A great introductory film to watch for an overall idea of the issues surrounding this highly relevant and emotive topic.
For more info and viewing details, click here.
10. Black Gold
A product we brush off humorously as being dependent on consuming every single day, how is that we are not able to provide the workers that the coffee industry is most heavily dependent on with a fair price for their work? Staggeringly, after oil, coffee is the most actively traded commodity in the world.
“Black Gold” asks us to face the unjust conditions under which our favourite drink is produced and to decide what we can do about it. The film traces the tangled trail from the two billion cups of coffee consumed each day back to the coffee farmers who produce the beans. Founder of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, Tadesse Meskela is fighting to help his 70,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers by seeking out buyers willing to pay a fair price.
A great documentary for emphasising the power of the consumer vote in driving positive social change: “The consumers can bring a change if awareness is given to consumers to ask for more fair trade products”, as well assessing the importance of developing sustainable trade in Africa over reliance on international aid: “If Africa’s share of world trade increased by just 1 percentage, it would generate a further $70 billion a year – 5 times the amount the continent now receives in aid”.
For more information, including on how to watch, click here.
This post was contributed by Films for the Earth who know the best films and documentaries about sustainability and environmental issues and have the most comprehensive film and sustainability directory in the world. They aim to amaze, create awareness, and inspire action for a better world. Follow them on Instagram @filmsfortheearth.
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Feature image of dignity factory workers producing shirts for overseas clients, in Accra, Ghana on October 13, 2015. Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank.