Our relationships with our clothing can be very fickle. We see a blouse at a great price and feel compelled to have it. We buy it and treasure it, but after some time that initial love fades. Inevitably we become bored of that forgotten top or deem it out of style, or it was cheaply made and doesn't last more than a few wearings. We end up throwing it away or giving it to charity. This type of impulsive mentality encourages us to keep spending without considering what happens when we throw away our clothing, which in turn impacts our environment and economy. This mindset also prevents us from giving thought to where our clothing comes from, who makes it, and how we are able to have this clothing at such an affordable price.
The 2015 documentary, The True Cost directed by Andrew Morgan, gives us a stark glance into the realities behind the fast fashion industry. What transpires in order for us to have that low-priced on-trend garment is eye-opening. The documentary reveals the unsafe and unhealthy conditions in which Garment factory workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh work making less than a living wage, less than the minimum necessary to cover their basic needs. Workers are often beaten and mistreated by their managers if they try to speak out for their rights. As we have seen from the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy, they often risk their lives by working in hazardous conditions. Unfortunately, these people are at the bottom of the supply chain, and their rights are typically ignored or intentionally denied. As a result, the workers are essentially reduced to slaves of their factories with few favorable alternatives. In truth, these conditions perpetuate poverty as the children of these workers go to work early in life to supplement the families' inadequate income and have neither the opportunity nor funds to go to school. Without an education, they are caught in the same cycle of poverty as their parents.
Large apparel companies often justify these conditions saying that if these workers did not have the opportunity to work in these garment factories, their situations would be significantly worse. In our opinion, this does not justify the shameful conditions in which workers are forced to work or starve. In contrast, the film makes note of fair-trade clothing companies such as People Tree which sells ethically and sustainably made clothing. People Tree works with and purchases fair trade products from disadvantaged communities in developing countries. The company sets an example for others on ways we can ensure that these workers also benefit from trade.
Another startling truth that The True Cost reveals is regarding the impact that the increasing demands of the fashion industry has on the environment. Our donated and discarded clothing is shown in its final resting place in enormous landfills in Haiti. In an interview with a cotton farmer and organic cotton activist, we get to learn about the cotton production industry in Texas and the impact the use of GMO seeds and increased herbicides has had on it. The toxic chemicals involved in cotton farming have shown to be the cause of cancer in many farmers. In another part of the world, in India’s Punjab region where most of the country’s cotton is grown, a large amount of pesticides is used on the crops. The effects of this increased use of pesticides have been a rise in birth defects, cancers, and mental illness.
The film also touches on other concerns such as the materialistic nature of our society and our obsession with accumulating possessions. Again, this an all too common feeling that we must own items which we may not even need is troubling, wasteful, and also neglectful of the greater problems with the fast fashion industry. We can become so concerned with what we have that we do not stop to think of the impact our clothing has on the rest of the world. It is important for us as consumers to be aware of this and to make more mindful, conscious decisions regarding what and how much we buy. A great outfit can of course can give you a heady, confident feeling in the moment, but before you make that purchase, ask yourself “do I really need this?” - “Is this something I will tire of in a few months?” - “Will the style and quality be lasting or fleeting?” If each of us makes an effort to be mindful of what goes into making the clothing we own, perhaps we can start making better, more socially sound purchasing decisions, and treat what we already have in a more environmentally conscious way.
If you’d like to learn more about The True Cost and about the importance of fair trade, please check out http://truecostmovie.com/.