Read, Debate: Engage.

The documentary rocking the fashion world

October 06, 2015
topic:Sustainable Consumption
tags:#environment, #fashion, #fast fashion, #human rights, #the true cost
located:Bangladesh, USA
by:Vanessa Ellingham
The True Cost documentary exposes the grim realities of the fast fashion industry

Remember when your mother bought your clothes a little too big so that you could grow into them?

Perhaps you don’t.

Whether you remember this or not probably depends on whether you were born before or after the fast fashion revolution that took place in the 1990s.

Before that, clothes cost more and they lasted longer. People bought quality, rather than excess. Thanks to the fast fashion industry, today the opposite is true.

It’s the cost of the fast fashion industry that the documentary The True Cost aims to expose.

Fast fashion

In 2010, Swedish fast fashion monolith H&M ran a promotion for a dress that cost only $4.95 – about the same price as a coffee. The hype was all about the price, rather than the dress itself, because fast fashion relies on cut prices to entice consumers.

Where once fashion brands released new styles in two seasons: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, today chains like H&M and Zara produce clothing to be released 52 weeks a year, so there will always be something new for the consumer to buy. By cutting prices, they make trying to keep up with the never-ending trend cycles seem more affordable.

Fast fashion relies on hyper-consumerism, where reduced prices are designed to make us feel rich by allowing us to purchase greater quantities. According to the documentary, the average American consumes 64 new items of clothing each year, but two-thirds of those are quickly discarded in charity bins or landfills. Because clothing is abundant and cheap, we have begun to see it as disposable.

It’s easy to go along with the idea that cheap clothing is democratic, because everyone can afford it. But in reality, we are dumping our clothing purchases faster than ever before: so the more of these super-cheap items we wear a couple of times and discard, the poorer we actually become.

The True Cost’s executive producer Livia Firth makes it clear who really benefits from this system: “Two of the 10 richest men in the world are the owners of Zara and H&M. I think it says a lot about how they make their money.” It certainly isn’t the consumer.

The documentary briefly covers the psychological impact of consumerism: that it has been proven that the more we focus on materialism, the less content we are.

But the crux of the movie is not about the direct impact on us as consumers, but on how our consumerism negatively impacts others.

Human rights

It would be hard to pretend we don’t already know where our clothes come from. Usually a tiny “Made in Bangladesh” label is stitched inside a shirt collar or trouser waistband, and it is increasingly Bangladesh, China or Cambodia’s name that appears, rather than the country where the clothing is sold.

But The True Cost forces us to face the living reality of the workers making our clothing in ways we are unlikely to have otherwise experienced.

We learn that the reason clothing companies can sell items so cheaply is because they outsource production to countries where a lack of labour protection laws and minuscule minimum wages mean that the costs of production are heavily reduced. Corruption in these places ensures that, as companies demand lower and lower costs of production, factories can actually force their workers to work faster, harder, longer, making these lowers prices possible.

Not so long ago in 1990, about 50 percent of apparel bought in the USA was made there, while today only one percent of footwear and two percent of apparel is made inside the USA.

The Rana Plaza disaster showed the world how our demand for cheap clothes creates dangerous working conditions for the people who make them.

In the documentary we follow a Bangladeshi garment factory worker who barely sees her family due to the staggering long hours she works. She tells us of her hope that it will all be worth it if her own daughter can grow out of their poverty and have a better life than she has. But she also tells us about her fellow workers’ struggle to unionise and the political pressure from the government to prevent them from doing so, as the garment industry is so lucrative for the country.

We visit Cambodia, where violent clashes between garment factory worker rights activists and police end in deaths. We meet Indian families who bear the brunt of the industry’s pollution, with family members suffering irreversible birth defects.

Environmental impact

Birth defects caused by our insatiable demand for cheap clothing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental consequences of the fast fashion industry.

Cotton is by far the most common fibre used in the industry, and today 90% of the industry’s cotton crops are genetically modified. This is a direct result of an industry sped-up: the crops are genetically modified to respond to fertilisers and pesticides more quickly, so the plants can grow and be harvested much faster.

So there is the destruction caused my mutating crops, but the impact of this mass use of chemicals on the humans who wear the clothes is yet to be tested. The skin, being the largest organ in our body, quickly passes chemicals from our clothing into our bloodstreams. But as the fast fashion industry is still relatively young, it remains to be seen what health impacts wearing fast fashion will have on public health.

Then there is the incredible waste generated by the clothing our society has begun to see as disposable. The average American dumps 37 kg of textile waste each year, a number unthinkable merely two decades ago. This clothing sits in landfills, where it cannot decompose, and it also emits dangerous poisons, thanks to the chemicals used in its production.

Taking action

The choice between a $4 H&M t-shirt and a $40 ethically-made, organic cotton t-shirt really comes down to your principles or the size of your bank balance.

If you can’t afford more than $4 for a t-shirt, you don’t have much choice. But it’s worth remembering that just two decades ago, things cost more, but they also lasted longer. There was a time when people saved up for a t-shirt; it is doable.

The True Cost focuses more on the impact of the fast fashion industry, than what we can do to fix it. This is where they direct you to their website.

There they offer tips for educating yourself about which brands have committed to phasing out toxic substances through Greenpeace’s Detox programme, for example, and about slowing down your clothing consumption. Their hot tip: before you buy something, ask yourself if you will wear it at least 30 times. This will help you evaluate whether the item is likely to last that long, but also whether you like it enough to make it worth your spend.

Finally they ask you to join the fashion revolution, an organisation representing millions of clothing consumers demanding change by putting pressure on brands to increase transparency.

In their words, “(to paraphrase Gandhi): Be the change you want to see in your wardrobe”.

Article written by:
Vanessa Ellingham
Bangladesh USA
The trailer of "The true cost".
An Interview with the Director of the documentary Andrew Morgan.
"The true cost" - behind the scenes
Call to Action
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