Will we continue to search for happiness through the consumption of things? If I were to sum up the story told in the documentary The True Cost (directed by Andrew Morgan), I’d have to say it is a story about clothing. We use clothing in a multitude of ways. Clothing are not merely items we don to cover our bodies. Rather, we use clothing to communicate to others. In fact, throughout history people used clothing to communicate status, emotions and personal style. Kings and Queens conveyed their status through robes and crowns adorned with jewels. Marie Antoinette relied on her dressmaker, Rose Bertin, to make certain she was the most beautiful and stylish woman in France. And fashion designer, Orsola de Castro, said, “I love everything about them (clothing). I love the fabrics, the colors, and textures. They are our chosen skin.”
And today, fashion is ever present in the minds of most of us on a daily basis whether we realize it or not. We judge others by their appearance. What they wear dictates to us where they stand in society, what jobs they may hold and their income. But did you know that while the human demand for fashion has increased dramatically over the past decade, the environmental and social impact it has had has made some ask the question, “What is the true cost of fashion?”
During the past decade, the way we create, buy, and sell fashion has changed. Previously, we purchased fewer items at a higher cost. But today’s ever increasing demand for fashion has created what we know as “fast fashion” or “disposable fashion”.
Fast Fashion is defined as designs that move from the runway quickly to retailers at a reasonable cost. This concept of “fast fashion” has transformed the way clothing is now bought and sold. Whereas there used to be 2 seasons a year in fashion, fast fashion allows for 52 “seasons” a year in order to move more and more product to consumers.
This high-speed revolution is representative of the disposable nature of our society as a whole. Disposable fashion fits in perfectly with social media. If you need something new every day to wear on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you can purchase “fast fashion” quickly and cheaply and then throw it away as it is so easily expendable. In other words, globalized production creates products that are made so inexpensively that you can “throw it away” without even thinking about it.
But in order to keep up with “fast fashion’s” demands, 97% of manufacturing is now outsourced to developing countries in the world. As a result, the making of goods has been outsourced to countries where the economy is low and wages are kept low. Because of this, fast fashion produces only for big business interests and disregards the needs of the factory worker.
Workers in third world countries such as Cambodia and India need work so badly that they will continue to work for low wages. Manufacturers want the business so badly that they will keep these wages low or even lower to keep up with the demand from foreign countries to keep supplying stores with cheap goods. Laborers continue to work in hazardous conditions simply because they need to in order to survive. There are no safety guidelines to be met in these factories and large corporations are not held accountable for unethical safety practices in these third would countries.
Perhaps one example of the true cost was best illustrated when garment workers paid the ultimate price in Bangladesh when a building in Rana Plaza collapsed after factory owners chose to ignore warnings to evacuate the building that had cracks and unsound foundation. As a result, 1120 workers died as the building collapsed. Also that year, at Ali Enterprises 289 died and Tazreen Fashion Plaze 112 factory workers died. And incidentally, the year Rana Plaza disaster happened, it was fashion’s greatest profiting year of all time.
The fashion industry is currently a 3 trillion dollar a year industry.
These tragedies have caused many to say there must be a better way to generate clothing without taking such an enormous toll on human life. In addition to loss of life, workers in the garment industry in third world countries are among the lowest paid factory workers in the world with a wage of less than $3.00 a day. And 85% of factory workers are women who have no other means of supporting their families. Shima, a 23-year-old factory worker profiled in the film, said, “I believe these clothes are produced with our blood. Many factory workers die. In different accidents…it is very painful for us. I don’t want anyone to wear anything that is produced by our blood.”
Tansy Hoskins, author of ‘Stitched Up’, summed it up by saying, “Capitalism is the reason why the fashion industry look like it does today. It is the reason why workers in Bangladesh are paid so little. If you are working in a capitalistic system the main thing you have to do is create more profit. And you have to create more profit than your competitors. And this is what drives companies to drive wages down and down and down. Like, they don’t go to places like Bangladesh other than they can get the cheapest labor possible. There are no collective rights, no trade union rights, there is a very low minimum wage, there are no maternity rights and there is no pension. That is why the fashion industry is in Bangladesh because it can reap the biggest profit out of those people that are making the clothes for them.”
And with corporations wanting to make this quarter better than the last at any cost, businesses will cut corners to make it work. This means keeping labor costs at an unethical low.
Another ethical dilemma that arises out of fast fashion pertains to cotton. As our desire for fast fashion grows, so does our need for more cotton because most garments are made of this fiber. So now we are genetically modifying our cotton. We are also spraying pesticides over entire fields rather than spot spraying or hiring labor to pull the weeds manually. The old ways of farming included treating the land and growing according to the seasons. Now, we are treating the land as a factory. Cotton farmers are now spraying acres of cotton fields with pesticides.
No one knows the long-term impact this will have on the soil, cotton, or people who work the land and families that live nearby. As one farmer profiled in the film said that nature has a tendency to heal itself in small pockets. When you spray literally hundreds of acres of pesticide, no one really knows what’s going on yet. What is the true cost to the people living in these communities and to the soil on a microbiological level? These farmers have said that pesticides have been labeled as ecological narcotics: the more you use them the more you need to use them.
Already as a result of overuse of pesticides, there has been a rise in birth defects such as mental retardation physical handicaps, cancers and mental illness in areas in Punjab, India.
Another negative result of the fast fashion industry is the amount of clothing that is piling up in landfills over the past couple of years. Fashion is ever more being seen as a disposable product. Unbelievably, the average American throws away 82 lbs. of textile waste a year! And even worse yet, 80% is non-biodegradable which means it sits in landfills for 200 years or more.
Even if you think you are being charitable by donating your clothes, did you know that only 20% of clothing donated is actually sold in charity stores? The rest is sent to 3rd world countries like Haiti. The problem with this template is that Haiti is now saturated with clothing. So much so that the once thriving clothing industry in Haiti is no longer.
What can we do to help combat the desire for fast fashion? Firstly, understand that the fashion industry is perpetuated by propaganda in advertising. It is advertising that tells us that having material goods will make us happy. In reality, owning items doesn’t make us more or less happy than we already are. Notice that billboards, commercials, magazines and radio spots are telling us to buy, buy and buy. This type of advertising is telling us that if you are feeling empty in life and purchase an item, you will feel fulfilled. Tim Kasser, PhD, psychology professor at Knox College believes this type of advertising says,“The way to solve the problems in your life is through consumption.”
Instead, why not be a conscience consumer and ask yourself a simple question, “Where do my clothes actually come from?” “What is the true cost of this item?”
Endless consumption will lead to manufacturers wanting a cheap price and a good profit all at the cost of the factory worker. And perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. best summed it up by saying that what America needs is a revolution of values. It needs to stop treating people like things. It needs to stop treating people in ways that are about profit. But rather, it needs to treat people in a real and human way.