The True Cost - A Film Review

I first watched this documentary on Netflix a few months ago and was affected much more than I thought I'd be. First of all, I thought I sort of understood the concept: most of our clothes come from poor countries and it's bad. Like, duh. Okay, well ... actually seeing it is a whole different thing. 

The True Cost is a documentary from director Andrew Morgan that explores fast fashion's impacts on society and the environment. You get to see the juxtaposition from the clothing factories of Bangladesh, the daily lives of its workers who make $2 a day, the conventional cotton farms of India, to the organic cotton farms of the United States, pioneers of "slow fashion" like People Tree, and other Fair Trade clothing companies. 

I'll talk about a couple points they make here, but then you should really watch the whole thing on your own. It's so worth it. Scroll to the bottom to watch the trailer.

Let's talk about clothing factories.

"The world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. As new clothing comes into our lives, we also discard it at a shocking pace. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone. Historically, clothing has been something we have held onto for a long time, but with cheap clothing now abundantly available we are beginning to see the things we wear as disposable." (source)

There are three parties involved in the fashion industry. Consumers that buy the clothing, fashion brands that design and sell the clothing, and the manufacturers that actually make the clothing. We consumers want more and more new clothing at increasingly cheaper prices, but the large clothing brands still want their same profits so they have to find ways to cut costs. Though their factories are in developing countries around the world where wages are already low, companies have to negotiate their costs lower and lower. The manufacturers are forced to compete for these contracts if they are to sustain their business and they end up making the products for less and less money, but where are their costs dropping? They're not.

Prices for clothing in America have gone down in the past decades, but production costs have gone up.

"Ultimately, something's got to give. Either the price of the product has to go up, the manufacturers have to shut down, or you cut corners to make it work." 

Cutting corners all too often means disregarding safety measures.

At the Rana Plaza disaster near Dhaka, Bangladesh where a five-story factory building collapsed in 2013 killing 1,129 people, the workers had already warned managers of their fears of the building. Cracks had been noticed and examined in supporting pillars the day before, but the factory owners ordered workers back inside to work. All it took was a generator to turn on on the top floor and all five stories collapsed.

That year, three of the four most deadly garment factory disasters of all time took place. Astoundingly, the next year, 2014, was the fashion industry's most profitable of all time.

Let's talk about cotton farming.

"Cotton represents nearly half of the total fiber used to make clothing today. More than 90% of that cotton is now genetically modified, using vast amounts of water as well as chemicals. Cotton production is now responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use. The largely untested impacts of these chemicals on both the land and human health are beginning to be questioned by those working in the industry. As our skin is the largest organ, these chemicals are passed into the bloodstream of the people wearing these clothes." (source)

The film spends time in India which is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of cotton. India also has the largest area of genetically modified cotton in the world where GM cotton accounted for 88% of the country's cotton in 2011. (source)

Most of India's cotton is grown in the Punjab region, which has become the largest user of pesticides in the country and, curiously, has also seen an unbelievable increase in birth defects, cancers and mental illness especially in the children of farm workers who cannot afford to pay for treatment. 

The take-away.

What does this mean for us as consumers? How can we consume clothing more ethically? Here's what I try to do. 

  1. Wear what you have first.
  2. Borrow clothing for a special occasion if you know you won't need that outfit again soon.
  3. Buy clothing second-hand. Thrift stores are my very favorite thing. They have everything you'd ever want - except for new and trendy items that will go out of fashion in a few weeks anyway, so why bother? That's not sustainable anyway.
  4. Buy organic, Fair Trade clothing. There's a reason this is at the end. New, ethical clothing isn't cheap. In fact, it shouldn't be cheap if all the farmers and workers in the supply chain have been paid a living wage, if the materials have been produced in an environmentally sound way, or if it was made by hand by a local artisan. There is added value to those items, and I believe those workers should be paid for what they do.

How can you afford a $50 organic t-shirt? Some of us cannot, but we can certainly follow steps one through three. While those of us in the middle class may also scoff at a $50 t-shirt, in theory, your clothing budget is being put to better use by buying quality and not quantity. Your clothes will also last a lot longer, because it was produced outside of Fast Fashion's throwaway intention. 

Vote with your dollars.

Here are some links to clothing brands and online retailers that I've discovered since watching this film. Some produce fair-trade clothing in Asia, some use organic and recycled materials, and some are made in the U.S. I encourage you to do your own research when you're buying clothes from now on. Where is it made? What is it made of?


Further Reading

You can watch The True Cost on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or by downloading it from their site. (watch)