Even though I spend a lot of time already thinking about clothing, why we buy what we buy, who makes our clothes, and trying to be more conscious about my choices, The True Cost documentary STILL had a profound impact on me. SEEING it, the true cost of fashion, in all its horror, brought it home to me in a different way. And opened my eyes to a few things I’d been “ignoring” for all intents and purposes (leather & pesticides on cotton) so that I can’t any longer.
Some key takeaways:
Shima (a garment worker in Bangladesh, seen above, with her daughter) mentions in the movie that
I believe lots of these clothes are produced by our blood…I don’t want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood.
She is right, and I agree. Much of the clothing that was made in Bangladesh – IS made in Bangladesh – is tainted by the Rana Plaza factory collapse (more than 1,000 deaths) and other factory tragedies in the region. I personally do not ever want to think that someone DIED for me to be able to purchase and wear any item of clothing. That is unacceptable.
All people are important. We are all the same; we want to do meaningful work, earn a living wage, raise our children, and have a good life. The women in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India want what we want. But the reality is that many of them are living far away from their children (so that we can buy t-shirts for $5), widowed (because their husbands committed suicide by pesticide in India, or died of a brain tumor in Texas), and waiting for their children to die (of diseases more than likely directly related to the amount of pesticide/tannery pollution in their villages).
How is any of that an acceptable cost for cheap clothes? For clothes we more than likely do not even need?? It is not. Not ever. There is a factory worker in Bangladesh who no longer has legs after the Rana Plaza collapse. She lost them, for what? For some greater good? No, so that Americans (not only Americans, but we are the biggest consumers) can buy cheap things we don’t need, and don’t even really want, and will probably not wear anyway. It’s sickening when you think of it that way…and what a waste.
(there was a very chilling section of the film with a few haul vloggers, in which one held up a blue sweater from H&M and said
I don’t even know that i’m going to wear this now that I got it because I don’t even like it that much
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that she bought it because it was “cheap” and she felt like she could afford it. Something we all do.)
We are so insulated here, in the western world, from women in developing countries. We don’t think of them as we do our closer neighbors; we don’t think of them at all sometimes. Until we see images of their dead bodies under piles of rubble, or feel their grief at leaving their children behind in villages so they can work in factories in the city. We must though. Think of them.
The justification that many give for lower wages and poor working conditions in sweatshops in developing countries that those jobs are the least worst among much worse jobs, is no longer good enough*. That is not a reason or an excuse to exploit people who need better jobs, who want to do better for their families. They must be paid fairly and have a safe place to work. There is no reason why that should not be possible given the profits in the apparel industry. Where is their share? These women (and men) are working hard to produce for us, for the apparel manufacturers and brands who sell fashion. How are they being rewarded for their contribution? They are beaten in Cambodia when they protest for $160/month, and they are scolded in Bangladesh for bringing crumbling walls and buildings to the attention of factory owners.
If they’re lucky, their ultimate reward is to earn enough money to live and support their families. If not, it is death.
I do not have an answer for this, and it is much more complicated than “change the system,” or “buy or don’t buy.” It is not as simple as it seems, and there are many things at play that we don’t understand. All I know is that I don’t want anyone to die or get sick for me to have something to wear. And although the film talks specifically about fast fashion, and items produced in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India, what about clothing that is NOT cheap? What about other fashion? A question that needs an answer…
Leather tanning and pesticides
To be honest, up until now, leather tanning and production has been something I’ve not paid enough attention to. It is very difficult to find out very much information on leather production and processes, so it becomes overwhelming. Short of stopping buying leather at all (which honestly, I’m tempted by), I’m not sure what the answer is. This is something I want to learn MUCH more about, but the film did a great job of illuminating the true cost of cheap leather production in India, specifically. There are villages in India where women and men have dermal conditions where their skin seems to be “bleached” from chemicals, there is jaundice, other liver diseases, and severe mental illness in children from pollutants as a result of leather tanning/processing and pesticide use. Again, this is unacceptable. Children should not suffer jaundice and mental illness so that we may have cheap shoes and handbags.
Of course, the film mentions “cheap” leather specifically, but what of more expensive leather? What of leather bags that are “made in Italy”? Where does that leather come from? How is it treated? Questions that need answers…
I think a lot of us buy/have more than we need and justify that sometimes, somehow, thinking that we can donate or sell items we no longer want and others will benefit. But the reality is that only about 10% of items we donate are sold in our local thrift shops, the rest goes to developing countries. Wow. I was sort of floored by that. So even though we THINK we are doing something good by donating clothing/items we are finished with, we are also contributing to the breakdown of local apparel industries in countries like Haiti where a lot of our “un-wanted” clothing ends up. To say nothing of the landfills that are piled high with cheap clothes, a lot of which does not breakdown (polyester, non-natural fabrics…).
What is the answer? What can we do?
- Become a more conscious consumer: Educate yourself, be aware of what/why you’re buying, where your clothing comes from, and who made it. Think, think, think. Learn, learn, learn. Because, as Maya Angelou said, when we KNOW better, we DO better.
- NOTHING is disposable: IF you’re going to purchase fast fashion, do so consciously; with the intention to wear it, use it, and treat it with the respect it deserves, not as disposable fashion. Inexpensive clothing can last quite a long time if you take care of it. Don’t be wasteful.
- Buy less. Don’t buy into “consumptionism” – the idea that even things that were meant to be used for a long time now are disposable, that we must re-buy them more frequently. Buy what you need when you need it and use/wear that item for as long as you can. Take good care of the things you do buy and they will last longer.
Some of the people, interesting points in the film:
Lucy Siegle (The Observer) – fashion industry not seasonal anymore – problems in the supply chain – risk is being carried by those who are the most vulnerable and the least paid: rana plaza articulated that – why is the industry unable to support the workers, and guarantee their safety whilst generating huge profits. does the industry not “work” properly?
Roger Lee , ceo TAL group (China) : produces one in six dress shirts sold in the US – prices have gone down but their costs have NOT gone down. prices have to go up, or manufacturers have to “cut corners”
John Hilary – War on Want – workers pointed out to management cracks in the building at Rana Plaza, but we rebuffed.
Arif Jebtik – bangladesh factory owner – pressures of target price, factories need the business, so they have to keep taking costs down – everybody should take the responsibility for the deaths at rana plaza, we have been ignoring other people’s lives for too long
LaRhea Pepper – organic cotton farmer, lives among 3.6 million acres of cotton in high plains of texas, 80% GMO, round-up ready, no spot-spraying, have to spray whole fields. Our skin’s the largest organ on our bodies – we’re more aware of organic foods, etc., than we are of fiber – huge impact in the community where the cotton’s grown – (India – and Texas). Husband died of brain cancer at 50, Lubbock, Texas sees high cancer rates among men who work in the agricultural and oil industries.
Vandana Shiva – push nitrogen fertilizers on third world countries, don’t do well with native crops (india) – had to re-design the plant to take on more chemicals – the new GMO cotton is a way for companies to own the seed – monsanto owns the seed/plants, farmers have to go to monsanto to buy seeds every time (expensive) farmers get into debt, cost is 17,000% more – doesn’t deliver on promise to use less pesticides. They are ecological narcotics: the more you use them more you need to use them. Farmers committing suidide by pesticide, 250,000 reported suicides in India the last 16 years – largest recorded wave of suicides in history
Punjab region of India – largest user of pesticides, leading to dramatic rise in number of birth defects, cancers
Dr. Pritpal Singh – 70-80 kids in every village mentally retarted – symptom of toxicity – have accepted the death of their kids
Tim Kasser, Knox college – The more people are focused on materialism, the less happy they are. more depressed, more anxious.
Mark Miller, culture nyu : advertising is propaganda. “consumptionism” – two kinds of products, you use (washing machines, cars – use for a long time) things you use up (gum and cigarettes) – consumptionism is all about getting people to treat the things they use as the things they use up: disposable fashion. Smart advertisers tie consumption of their product to a message that suggests that your needs will be satisfied by consuming this thing. And we buy into it…
Guido Brera: investment manager trying to figure out what happened to the middle class – what has changed in his lifetime? fashion. used to buy a few t-shirts a year, now, for “every party” my children buy a new t-shirt. prices have decreased, has followed the middle-class disappearing. things people need have increased in price, and consumption of cheap clothes is a source of consolation – I can’t afford to buy a home, but at least I can buy a new dress or t-shirt : we buy 80 billion pieces of clothing a year, which is 400% more than 2 decades ago
Patagonia – our consumers understand they are part of the problem, reduction in consumption is necessary to find a solution
Stella McCartney – fashion industry needs to stop and think – bigger challenge is looking at the industry – try and do it in a way that’s not as harmful to the planet—customer has to know that they’re in charge – you don’t have to buy into it.
Livia Firth – the apparel companies are profiting from people in developing countries’ need to work, treating them as slaves, they’re not different from us. fast fashion wants to produce fast, so the garment worker has to produce faster. is it really democratic to buy t-shirt for $5 or jeans for $20 – making us believe that we are rich because we can buy a lot, but they’re actually making us poorer
Ultimately, the director ends the film and his narration by acknowledging that so many things are beyond our control. Maybe we want to change the economic system altogether, work on bigger issues, but perhaps we can just focus on things we can do something about right now? for all the items that are beyond our control, that feel bigger than us, maybe we can just start with our clothing? Couldn’t have said it better myself…
for all the items that are beyond our control, that feel bigger than us, maybe we can just start with our clothing?
I could write forever on the film, the messages, and the people in it, and I will, but I’ll try to space it out over a few posts. I would just encourage you to watch the movie and share it with as many people as you can. I know if you’re reading this, you’re probably already converted, or at least knowledgable about the main issues, but you probably know a few people who may not be. Your Conscious Closet Challenge for this month, should you choose to accept it, is to watch The True Cost and share its message with at least 2 people in your life, more if possible. Throughout the month, I’ll be writing more on my thoughts, and I’d love it if you’d join in, share what you’ve learned, and how the movie made you think more about your clothes.
*This is a tough issue. I do believe that bringing industry to countries ultimately helps them develop faster and raises people’s standard of living, which is what I want for them. But the way in which it is done in the early stages is not good enough. We have moved beyond the learning curve with regard to capitalism – we know how it works, and ultimately, it works best when everyone benefits, not when one class is exploited. Of course, when profit is the only motive, at the expense of everything else, many people will suffer. Modern capitalism doesn’t have to be that way though. Modern capitalism takes into consideration other factors such as environmental sustainability, human capital, and social justice, and many companies have been very successful (profitable) in this way (Whole Foods, etc.). much more to think about this issue…
What were your thoughts on The True Cost? What impact has it had on how you think about your clothes?