Most of us do not think twice when shopping at places like Forever 21, H&M, or Zara. In fact, the affordability of these stores has contributed to their consistent popularity, so much so that these so-called “fast fashion” retailers have become the primary destination for shoppers on a budget.
Cheap, stylish clothing has become so easily accessible to consumers due to a globalized economy that hide the processes which make these industries possible. The fashion industry, which is now the most labor-dependent industry on earth, generates roughly 3 trillion dollars annually, with about 80 billion new pieces of clothing purchased each year. The rise of consumerism, buoyed by the ready availability of inexpensive, fashionable products, creates a dynamic in which the fashion industry is driven by a never-ending demand for new products without regard to the human cost of producing the goods.
The documentary The True Cost, released in 2015, explores how we got to a point where consumption in the developed world is prioritized while human rights in the developing world go ignored.
In the United States, much of Europe, and other wealthy countries, high labor standards tend to be regarded as the norm, the expectation being that workers are paid fairly and treated with respect. In many parts of the world, however, the rights of laborers are disregarded in favor of maximizing profit and production. The violations of these rights range from unsafe working conditions to substandard wages. The workforce of the fashion industry in poorer countries is largely made up of women. For example, out of 40 million garment workers worldwide and 4 million in Bangladesh alone, 85% are female. These women often have extremely limited alternatives to factory work, due to lack of access to education and minimal economic mobility.
The long working hours in garment factories create further problems for female laborers. Many young women have small children and childcare is expensive and scarce. They are thus forced to send their children to live with relatives, to receive care and education, while they remain in the cities, often the only place they can find work. Garment workers sometimes make as little as $10 per month, placing them among the lowest paid workers in the world. Moreover, workers in countries like Bangladesh lack the ability to form unions, preventing them from seeking improved conditions. Therefore, the system in which workers’ rights are violated and the fast fashion industry continues to flourish is self-perpetuating.
A notorious example of the dangers of fast-fashion is the 2013 collapse of the textile factory at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. More than one thousand workers were killed and about 2,500 were injured. The astonishing part of this horrific tragedy was that managers of the factory had been aware of faulty construction and potential dangers, yet the factories remained in disrepair. Rana Plaza made global headlines, but it did not stand alone. That same year, three of the four worst tragedies in the history of the fashion industry occurred. Despite widespread knowledge of the event, consumers in the developed world continue to shop at fast fashion retailers at high rates.
The global human rights crisis caused by the fast fashion industry, however, is not limited to factory workers in Bangladesh. In Cambodia, workers protesting for a living wage faced extreme police violence. In Haiti, traditional local clothing industries all but disappeared in favor of large scale factories producing cheap clothing for export to the United States. In the Kanpur region of India, chemicals from garment production contaminate the sacred Ganges river and even the drinking water of local communities. Many people then have to spend their limited wages on treating illnesses contracted from the contaminated water, furthering the cycle of poverty.
Even in the United States, organic cotton farmers have suffered at the hands of Monsanto, with fertilizer chemicals linked to cancer and physical and mental disabilities, which disproportionately impact poor farming communities. As with factories, the rapid industrialization of agriculture contributes to the “consumptionism” that now drives fast fashion and the subsequent disregard for human rights. Finally, the waste from the fashion industry contributes to the global environmental crisis, with the average American throwing away 82 pounds of textile waste annually. The environmental concerns related to the fashion industry go hand in hand with the related human rights violations.
The True Cost makes a plea for a change of approach to fast fashion by interviewing everyone from Rana Plaza survivors to reporters to fair trade designers. The interviews and reporting draws attention to the shocking ease with which consumers disregard the human cost behind cheap clothing. As one interviewee remarks, “we just ignore other people’s lives, how come?” It is impactful because it puts a human face on a large-scale tragedy, hopefully to the end of generating empathy and perhaps a newfound awareness.
The convenience of fast fashion simplifies what once was an exclusive commodity for those who could afford it: high fashion clothing, at least in the minds of consumers. What we truly cannot afford, however, is the human sacrifice behind each $8 t-shirt or $15 pair of jeans. The filmmakers showcase alternatives, mostly in the realm of pricey fair trade brands, which treat their workers with dignity but are, at this point, largely inaccessible to regular consumers of fast fashion. Yet, those that can afford more expensive, more ethically produced clothing are not necessarily likely to forego the easy choice of cheap, stylish clothes. Even so, the other alternative, thrift shopping and buying used clothing, is more affordable and less glamorous. A solid solution to the problem of fast fashion has yet to emerge, but in the meantime, we can work to raise awareness about the far-reaching human rights violations and environmental concerns, while countering the fast fashion industry in our own lives.
If you can afford to buy from ethical producers, do so. If not, try to start at your local charity shop. These are relatively easy changes we can make in our everyday lives, while the changes they could influence in the lives of global factory workers and farmers would be profound.
The True Cost is currently available on Netflix. More information about the film and the relevant research can be found at truecostmovie.com