[The True Cost] of Fast Fashion: Response to the Viral Documentary

Written by: Tessa, contributor

If you’re like me, you’re feeling inspired by the record-breaking Women’s Marches held around the world on January 21, 2017. I came away from the weekend feeling inspired yet also overwhelmed and unsure of if our actions can actually make a difference.

Then, I watched The True Cost documentary (it’s on Netflix = no excuses) about the destructive tendencies of the global fashion industry. Although the outlook may seem pretty abysmal, we’re faced with the opportunity of a lifetime to take a stance against these atrocities. Instead of feeling hopeless, I was reminded that this is one way I can affect real change--by voting with my dollars.

Due to global capitalism our lives are more intertwined with our earthly neighbors than ever before, for better or for worse. The documentary cites that “1 in every 6 people alive today work in the global fashion industry, making it the most labor-intensive industry in the world.” Yet the hearts and hands behind our clothes are virtually invisible to Western consumers. The director creates chilling montages that contrast footage from third-world factories and labor strikes with runway models and Black Friday mobs. I, for one, don’t want to step foot inside a department store ever again.

The True Cost tells the story of the clothes we wear: the people that make those clothes, and the impact it’s having on our world. The human and environmental costs of the fashion industry are too great to ignore--but there ARE alternatives. In fact, we have a great opportunity to condemn the current, unsustainable fast fashion model and re-invent the fashion industry. It all has to do with how we choose to spend our money. After learning some truths you can’t unlearn, it should hardly feel like a difficult choice to be choosey with where you’re buying.

Human Cost

While the cost of living has gone up in the past few decades, the cost of clothing has gone down. How is this possible, you ask? Cheap female labor. The fact is that without it, the fashion industry would not be generating the profits that it is. 80% of all garment workers are female, so we are indeed talking about female laborers--often poor women in developing nations simply trying to make a better life for their children. One such Bangladeshi woman comments in the film--I don’t care if I have to be a garment worker if it means that my daughter won’t ever have to be.

Big companies don’t actually own the factories where they produce, or employ the workers that make the garments--freeing them of virtually any form of regulation. As consumers, it’s our responsibility to demand fair pay and decent working conditions for people making our clothes. The unfortunate truth is that if we don’t look out for them, no one else will.

The most infamous example of this is the horrific Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 that killed over 1,100 people in Bangladesh. Appropriate outrage ensued, and big retailers like Nike and Reebok have put in place new standards and regulations to save face and market share. But in reality, experts say on the whole conditions have not improved because those companies have little control over what happens in those outsourced factories.

In very poor regions where these large foreign companies outsource labor, the factories are often seen as blessings, as they provide the only job opportunities for miles. This means a job with unsafe and abusive working conditions is seen as better than no job at all. While workers strike, nations fail to protect their people because they fear that companies will simply move to a cheaper, less-fussy place.

Environmental Cost

It should come as no surprise that intensification of capitalist production is stripping our planet-- we treat the land as nothing but a factory for raw materials. But you may be shocked to find out that the fashion industry is the second most environmentally detrimental industry on the planet--second only to the OIL INDUSTRY.

The cultivation of cotton and other plant materials used in garment production is chock full of chemicals that poison soil, air and water. Fertilizers and pesticides have been called ecological narcotics because the more you use, the more you need. In “developing and developed” countries alike, these unregulated chemicals are wreaking havoc on local populations. 

The film visits a cotton farmer in Texas who lost her husband to brain cancer--common among local males who grew up on chemical-ridden farms; she has since switched to organic cotton cultivation and calls for an industry-wide switch. Even more tragically, the film follow farmers in India, where there is even less regulation. There, thy are forced between buying pesticides and GMO seeds to increase yields and medications to treat the diseases acquired from said pesticides. Thousands work themselves into debt and end up committing suicide. 

Disgusted? You should be. But here’s some REAL, CONCRETE, choices you can make in 2017 to change this abysmal reality:

 ≫ Buy less. Avoid large retailers like the plague.

⁘  When you must buy, do your due diligence! Find out who makes your product and where. Are they being fairly compensated? Where do they work?

 ≫ Buy secondhand, vintage, and recycled, whenever possible.

⁘ Buy high quality that will last more than a couple seasons! Clothing can NO LONGER be treated as disposable. The average American throws out 82 pounds of textile waste a year. Oh, but you donate, you say? Only 10% of clothes donated actually gets sold in stores like Goodwill--because of sheer excess quantity, the rest gets shipped in bundles to developing countries.

 ≫ If you do buy new, consider buying organic--for your own sake and the environment’s. The skin is the largest organ of the human body yet we often pay more attention to what we put into our bodies rather than on them!

⁘ Get political: encourage your lawmakers to pass regulations that prevent large chains from taking advantage of loose or nonexistent regulation in other countries.

 ≫ Dispute consumerism by checking in with your buying habits -- do you buy things to make yourself feel better? How long does that happiness last? What would make you truly happy?

The True Cost is a must-see documentary for anyone who buys clothes (so, everyone). After learning about this haunting side of the fashion industry, you won’t be able to look at Forever 21, H&M, or Nike the same way again. Luckily, there has been an explosion of ethical fashion alternatives in the past five years! Fulfill your duty as a responsible consumer and put your money where your mouth is. Visit our recent blog here featuring our favorite ethical brands!

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