“Is it really democratic to buy a t-shirt for $5 or a pair of jeans for $20? Or are (companies) taking us for a ride? Because they’re making us believe that we are rich and wealthy because we can buy a lot. But, in fact, they’re making us poorer,” Livia Firth, co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age, knocks runaway greed in the textile industry at a panel discussion on the future of fashion.
The True Cost highlights this scene and, throughout the film, asks consumers to look further into their clothing choices through interwoven storylines. Unpacking the many problems with cheap fashion in almost every hit along the manufacturing process, the documentary links major brands to marginalizing people in poverty.
“And the only person who’s becoming richer is the owner of the fast-fashion brand. So that makes (me) a little bit angry,” Firth concludes.
I remember the rise of Forever 21 and H&M soon after high school. It was like suddenly, we had access to “style.” Even if it was the cheap, fall apart on the first drunken night you wear it kind of style. But it didn’t matter because we could afford to replace it and shop for nearly every super important outing on Friday and Saturday night. Every weekend.
Early-20-something-year-old women hit the clubs in bargain bin jewelry, bedazzled purses, shiny halter tops and pleather pants with seams about to rip open at any inappropriate dance move (and there were many). Fashion was, by all means, accessible in a new way… at least in our own wrinkle-free-forehead minds.
These overwhelmingly stocked stores marked a first for fast fashion — low-cost, rapidly made clothing mimicking the latest runway styles.
Now, a decade plus later, The True Cost investigates what compromising values and lack of guilt (or just plain naivety of the supply chain) have brought us. The film takes us to sweatshops and monopolized, chemical-sprayed cotton farms — where the industry has evolved (or devolved) since those beginnings.
“As recently as the 1960s, we were still making 95 percent of our clothes (in America). Today, we only make about 3 percent, and the other 97 percent is outsourced to developing countries around the world,” Director Andrew Morgan says.
And our consumer habits have changed. We’ve nearly doubled the items of clothing we buy in two decades.
“Instead of two seasons a year, we practically have 52 seasons a year, so we have something new coming in every week, and fast fashion has created this so that it can essentially shift more product,” reports Lucy Siegle, journalist and author.
What we can do
When a problem seems too overwhelming to solve alone, it may seem easier to ignore implications for people on the expense side of making our fast fashion dreams come true. But a movement is growing to encourage and create positive environmental and labor changes in the industry. If we all begin to support it, we could help eliminate tragedies from continuing for workers.
In 2013, a damaged building collapsed and killed more than 1,000 textile workers in Bangladesh, bringing the issue out of the shadows through a run of concerning international media reports.
“Three of the four worst tragedies in the history of fashion had all happened (that) year,” Morgan narrates. “The year following the disaster at Rana Plaza was the industry’s most profitable of all time.”
Fashion is a $3 trillion industry. It’s strung along from the developed countries with a consumerist culture to those in impoverished regions with governments paying little regard for the garment workers.
“Everybody should take the responsibility for those deaths… It’s a global world we’re living in, and we just ignore other people’s lives. How come?” Arif Jebtik, garment factory owner.
There’s a common argument that the alternatives for workers in these countries are worse than what the fashion industry offers for work — despite poor conditions, abuse, long hours and child labor.
However, even if you agree with this notion, it doesn’t resolve the environmental issues. Also, should Americans and Europeans — who already went through labor reform and established laws around these same issues for themselves — pay for cheap clothes that will end up thrown away?
In other words, should we pay $120 for jeans (that will probably last longer) instead of $20, or buy second-hand, if it meant helping people to a better life?
I won’t go into all the other ways this film slathers a clear picture of the destruction lurking behind what seems like the most G-rated thing we could do — shopping for clothes. (I definitely recommend watching it to see for yourself though).
The silver lining is we can change this.
“The customer has to know that they’re in charge. Without them, we don’t have jobs. And that is really important. So you don’t have to buy into it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy into it,” says Fashion Designer Stella McCartney.
So the message is: Don’t buy cheap clothes and support companies helping to improve the lives of garment workers. The positive repercussions of doing so are extreme for people and the environment. One example the film offers of a company improving the industry – People Tree.
Buy long-lasting clothes from companies making quality threads and from thrift shops whenever possible. It’s not about taking away profits from those living poorer regions, it’s about creating a larger demand for ethically-made clothes and making smart choices for the environment.
The True Cost pushes people to use their dollars to help improve the world instead of perpetuating a problem. And with each American trashing approximately 82 pounds of textiles each year, there’s a huge opportunity for us all to help change it.
Header image: Idealish
All other images: The True Cost film stills