I recently stumbled across this post from the Sweaty Knitter (sidenote: lovely blog!), in which the Knitter herself implores us all to watch The True Cost – a documentary about the environmental and human effects of so-called ‘fast fashion’. Fast fashion is a growing phenomenon in the fashion and clothing industry, born from the mindset that more is more: many leading brands and retailers churn out endless clothes, bringing in new lines and new items every week, and knocking prices lower and lower. The True Cost explores the impact that fast fashion is having on the economy, the environment, and the people creating these clothes. Intrigued by the Sweaty Knitter’s post, I found the film on Netflix and gave it a watch. I was predicting a documentary on the horrors of sweatshops, poor factory conditions and child labour, such as we are used to hearing about. I could not have predicted the extent to which this film has opened my eyes to the broken and appalling state of the fashion industry in today’s world.
Watch this documentary.
No, seriously. Watch it. This one’s a game changer.
I, like so many other people, was aware that clothing factories are a major problem. Workers are made to work increasingly long hours, receiving inconceivably low wages, and their work environments can be dangerous – take, for example, the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when an eight storey building housing several clothing factories collapsed, killing over 1,000 garment workers and injuring a further 2,500. Authorities did not even know exactly how many workers were inside the building. In fact, three of the four worst tragedies in the fashion industry’s history happened in 2013. And what happened to fast fashion sales? Well, they increased in the week following the Rana Plaza disaster.
It’s easy to blame the factory owners and managers in these circumstances. For instance, they brushed aside concerns of the Rana Plaza workers that the building was structurally unsound, instead telling them to continue working and forbidding them to leave, even on the day of the collapse itself. We must consider, however, that all too often these factory owners are backed into tight corners by the large fashion companies which buy their products. The companies will point to a competitor and say, “They are making shirts for £4. You must make them for £3.50.” And if the factory owner cannot, they lose the business. But of course, if they can, the competitor then turns to their factory owners and says, “They are making these shirts for £3.50. You must make them for £3.” It’s a vicious circle. The factory owners cut every corner they can in order to make cheaper and cheaper garments, because they are afraid of losing the business and therefore their profits altogether. And the factory workers are the ones who lose out the most. All for the sake of a ‘bargain’ shirt.
So, I knew that factories were a huge issue. But there were so many other facets of the industry which I had not even considered to be problematic. The leather industry, for example, is not only cruel to the animals killed for it, but is also damaging to the environment. The harsh chemicals used to dye and clean the leathers are pumped straight into water supplies such as the River Ganges, from which thousands of Indians drink. Another pressing issue is the manufacture of cotton in third-world countries. Cotton farmers, in a desperate attempt to grow enough cotton to satisfy their buyers, purchase pesticides and other chemicals from bigwig pharmaceutical companies, chemicals which actually decrease the cotton yield over time. These chemicals have the additional consequence of causing or contributing to high levels of disease and illness within cotton-growing communities. But the pharmaceutical companies don’t care, because they are the same companies which sell the medicines to these farmers. If a client of theirs contracts cancer, it’s a win-win for them. It’s sickening.
The film juxtaposed these scenes of factories and cotton farms with video footage of Black Friday sales. Can any Americans reading this please explain to me why Black Friday is such a big deal? The footage showed hundreds of women storming into a clothes shop before the doors were fully open, pushing and shoving and screaming at each other, and grabbing any clothes they could get their hands on. It was horrible. These women were seized with panic and mania, exhibiting the sort of behaviour such as you’d normally see in wild animals. Also shown was a montage of vloggers’ clothing haul videos. They would pull out dress after dress, making throwaway comments like “I’m not sure I really like this. I probably won’t wear it. But it was only $3.99.” This, albeit in a much calmer fashion, portrays the attitude of the Black Friday shoppers, grabbing anything they could see. They did not care what garment they were buying, or whether they needed or even wanted it.
All they cared about was that it was dirt cheap.
To say I was saddened by these images would be somewhat of an understatement. I was truly ashamed to belong to a culture in which we allow this sort of behaviour to happen. I’ve been shopping in these fast fashion chains for years (they’re very appealing to teenagers and students), largely ignorant of the circumstances under which my purchases were fabricated. Because that is how the problems with the industry continue to exist and to worsen: I honestly don’t believe it’s because we’re cruel enough to allow them, but because we’re privileged enough to ignore them. We don’t want to think about them, and we don’t have to. But now I have watched The True Cost, I can ignore them no longer.
So what am I going to do about it?
It’s difficult to know what to do. The obvious action is to stop shopping in fast fashion retailers, but I’m only one person, and that won’t make an awful lot of difference. But at the other extreme, if everyone were somehow convinced to stop giving fast fashion their custom, surely these shops would go out of business, and the cotton farmers and factory workers would lose their income altogether? But something’s got to give. The prices can’t keep dropping forever. And if more and more people start thinking about where their bargains are coming from, and carefully choose the brands from which they buy their clothes, and ask companies difficult questions about their ethical policies, eventually the fashion industry will have to sit up, take notice, and admit that this is unacceptable. And then change can happen.
I’m hoping to use my year without new clothes to do a bit of research into which clothing brands are ethically sound and which are more dubious in the production of their clothes. If anyone knows a thing or two about this already, do let me know – I’ll only be shopping UK brands, of course. But The True Cost has given me a bit of a wake up call, and from now on I’ll be giving more thought to the clothes I put on my back.