An experience that stops you in your tracks can be a good thing, especially if it contextualizes your day-to-day choices in the intersections of ethics, humanity and your life’s work. My world can feel very small as the days whip by and I run around with my ever-growing to-do list, but recently I had an experience that has forever changed how I look at clothing, and at fast fashion in particular.
Last week Seattle Muses invited me to view a documentary called The True Cost by filmmaker Andrew Morgan. The film addresses the repercussions of fast fashion on a global scale with a personal angle that I found profoundly moving. I was riveted the entire time, often with a giant lump in my throat.
The True Cost was filmed around the globe, from garment factories in Bangladesh to organic cotton fields in Texas, showing the impact that the fashion industry–fast fashion in particular–has on people and the environment. We see garment workers asking for a livable wage and safe working conditions only to be beaten in the streets. The film also reveals horrendous crimes against the environment, as factories send waste gushing into nature and discard heaping piles of clothing into dumps. The statistics disclosed were truly frightening : fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil; we now consume 500 percent more clothing than we did two decades ago; in 1960 America produced over 95 percent of its own clothing, while today the figure stands at 3 percent, with the majority produced in developing countries.
The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, which resulted in 1,130 worker casualties, sparked the long-overdue discsusion of what is sacrificed in the name of manufacturing product quickly and cheaply. Disconcertingly, the large companies behind fast fashion do not actually own the factories in which their products are made. The people who work there are not technically their employees, but rather work for the factories contracted to make the clothes. As a result, these businesses are not legally responsible for the unfair treatment of many of these overworked and underpaid laborers. However, it is undoubtedly the companies’ moral responsibility to implement proactive measures–a responsibility that is being ignored.
This is the issue targeted by activists like Livia Firth, an executive producer of the film, who introduced Morgan to the eco-fashion world and connected him to big-name supporters such as Stella McCartney and Tom Ford. McCartney, who appears in the film, tells us that we–the consumers–are in charge. The choices we make as consumers greatly impact the industry and the factory processes behind clothing. It is true that by forgoing fast fashion products, we can positively affect these workers’ conditions…because in the end, those $20 jeans might not be such a “bargain.”
Shima, the garment worker in Bangladesh whose story is a large part of the film, says, “I believe lots of these clothes are produced by our blood…I don’t want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood.” Shima had tried to organize her fellow garment workers for the first time and the result was a brutal beating for her and her fellow workers at the hands of the management. For now, she is forced to leave her young daughter behind with her family in rural Bangladesh and returns to a factory in the city. She talks of continuing to try to improve the working conditions and work towards a better life for her daughter than she has herself. It is a very moving part of the film.
So many of these issues addressed in this film may seem overwhelming and out of our control. But at the conclusion of The True Cost, Morgan challenges, “For all the items that are beyond our control, that feel bigger than us, maybe we can just start with our clothing?” Following the film’s release he goes on to say, “The eyes of the world are opening, and I believe history is giving us this moment to choose a better path. Human progress moves forward when those who have a voice use it on behalf of those who do not. It moves forward when a moment is seized rather than ignored. And it most certainly moves when we decide that the profit of some must never come from the exploitation of others. I hope with all my heart that this film serves as a needed step in that progress.”
Even before I saw The True Cost, I had walked by the enormous Gap and Forever 21 in downtown Seattle and dismissed them as soulless stores that have absolutely nothing to do with what I love about fashion–but I sure did love my new Zara shoes. This film highlights the hypocrisy of that ideology, illuminating the awareness that we all need to adopt concerning our fashion choices. As style is both my career and my passion, this film greatly affected me and will continue to affect my fashion choices going forward–no matter how much I love a high/low mix.
The harsh reality is that fast and cheap fashion is also hugely affecting the world of higher-end artisan designers, whose vision of art and beauty fuels their designs. Why buy the beautifully sewn locally designed jacket when you can get a knock-off down the street for a quarter of the price? When you choose where you shop, you may be supporting an artisan, a luxury brand, or unintentionally endorsing sweatshops and their horrific working conditions. It is up for you to decide if the true cost aligns with your real priorities.
The host of this evening’s film and discussion was Muses, a Seattle-based conscious fashion studio that offers low-income immigrants and refugees with hands-on training in apparel production. Focusing on existing skills, Muses nurtures their trainees’ talents to meet the demand for sustainable, local, ethical and high-quality apparel manufacturing.
I encourage you to view this film, which is available at many different venues. Check out the complete list here.