In the world of Ethical Fashion, The True Cost documentary has served for several years as the best primer for understanding the depths of the harm caused by Fast Fashion. But the documentary was only recently uploaded to Netflix, attracting a much larger audience and therefore expanding the conversation on Ethical Fashion, and ethical business in general.
We recently re-watched the documentary and wanted to break down a few key points of information and discussion from the film, so that perhaps you'll consider seeing it for yourselves.
Globally, there are about 40 million workers in the garment industry.
In Bangladesh, a favorite hub for manufacturing by Western Fast Fashion brands, 85% of garment workers are women and are paid an average of less than $3 a day, producing garments for companies like H&M, Gap, and ZARA, who boast annual profit margins as high as 70% on the backs of these workers.
These factories have earned the name "sweatshops" because of the extreme heat brought on by crowded and poorly-ventilated buildings, steam and other garment-work byproducts, and chemical odors, all of which contribute to an unsafe and unhealthy work environment. One interviewed garment worker discussed sending her daughter to another city to live with family, because she couldn't afford childcare and she was unwilling to bring her daughter with her to work and expose her to the heat and toxic steam.
The documentary also discusses the issue of raw materials in the garment industry: fabric. Cotton (fun fact: the English word cotton comes directly from the Arabic قطن or "qoton") remains the most popular fiber worldwide. And many people think that because cotton is a natural fiber, it has no negative environmental impact. This film debunks this common myth, naming the industrialized cotton farming industry as one of the world's greatest agricultural polluters.
16% of insecticides used annually worldwide are used to grow cotton. Much of this growth is done in India, where pesticide runoff is polluting the water and soil of local communities. It is also, the documentary suggests, polluting the physical and mental health of these communities. The rates of mental retardation in children are rapidly rising in areas near industrial cotton farms. And cotton farmer suicides are extremely high, both because of the impact of breathing pesticides and because of the tremendous stress and cost on the farmers who must buy expensive engineered seeds from companies like Monsanto who then also monopolise the pesticide market, controlling both ends of the farmer's margins. In the past 16 years, 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India.
The film also discusses the predatory behavior of fast fashion companies on the poor in the West. Clothes are one of the only products which have been “depreciating” i.e. getting cheaper and cheaper over the past 20 years, as compared to most other products over the same period. The Fast Fashion world has engaged in a “race to the bottom” competing with each other to see who can produce impossibly cheaper and cheaper clothing (think $3 tank tops and $8 trousers) This means not only is there more stress on the garment factories to cut costs as much as possible or lose their clients, but the consumer of these companies also buys into the lie created by these companies that clothes are cheap, low-cost, and disposable.
This is perhaps the biggest epiphany brought on by the film and its greatest success, that fast fashion is not only destructive to its workers and the environment, but also to its consumers. It is a form of warfare against the poor and middle class. The gradual decline of the prices of clothes maps perfectly on to the gradual decline of the American middle class. As clothes have gotten cheaper, Americans have become poorer, and the things they really need like homes, healthcare, and education are out of their reach while quick buys like a $6 sweater drain their bank accounts further.
The average American throws away 80 pounds of textiles per wear, much of it unworn. And for those who think donating clothes is the answer, consider the harmful effects these cheap donated clothes have on local garment economies in poor areas at home and abroad, subjecting the locals to the same dependence on mass-produced, disposable clothing that the rest of us are struggling to free ourselves from. Meanwhile, at the time of the film, H&M brought in $18 billion in revenue from its global fast fashion empire.
We simply don’t need this many clothes to exist in the world. 80 billion pieces of brand new clothing are produced each year, 400% more than 20 years ago. Again, we return to the idea that they’ve turned clothing into a disposable product, more akin to plastic forks and spoons than something like a laptop which is meant to serve you well for many years.
This is all, of course, without mentioning the objectification of women in the industry and the harms to our psyche of the constant creation within us of desires for more and more products which we don’t need, harming our sense of self-worth, dignity, and satisfaction and gratitude for what we do have.
The fast fashion industry lies at the nexus of so many key issues of injustice in the world today: global inequality and poverty, worker’s rights, women’s rights, environmental catastrophe, predatory capitalism, physical and mental health, and more. It is a focal point for so many issues inherent to modern capitalism, and the film displays this complex point brilliantly in a short period of time.
However, as such, the garment industry also has the potential to be the home of radical change. It can be a turning point for how we do business in the world today, how we trade with one another and fulfill our interdependent needs. Will we produce and trade in good faith and community? Or in exploitation and trickery, irrespective of the consequences of our actions?
Note: this is not to say that there aren’t issues in the “ethical fashion” sector, there are many. But these are for another post.