In years past, only the richest individuals could afford to own multiple sets of clothes to switch out depending on the day or activity. The rest of the world made do with one suit or dress for formal occasions, and perhaps a handful of humble garments for day-to-day life. That traditional approach to clothing has changed steadily for the past several decades as modern technologies and garment factories have driven down prices. Today, we live in a world of fast fashion, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transition from the catwalk to the store to the consumer and then quickly to the donation bin as styles fall back out of fashion. The cheap prices we enjoy today don’t really cost less than past clothing did, though – it’s just that rather than paying in money now workers are paying in suffering. Nothing is truly free, not really, which is a topic being explored by the new documentary directed by Andrew Morgan, The True Cost.
The True Cost holds a mirror up to the practices of an out-of-control industry, practices which are not only devastating to workers but also have a huge negative impact on the environment. Air pollution, water pollution, and deforestation can all be laid at the feet of the garment industry, though of course not exclusively. Alberta Energy states that about 10 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions come from this overproduction of apparel and textiles. Fossil fuels are being consumed at all ends of the garment process, from the farming machinery to the factories themselves to the huge container ships used to bring the finished clothing from the third world countries where they are produced to the first world countries where they are consumed.
Enormous swathes of land are being used to grow cotton and other textiles that are made into disposable clothing that ends up in landfills long before it’s worn out. The film’s own website informs readers that 25 percent of all insecticide used in the world is for cotton crops alone. Water is being used in the production of fabric which sits in the back of closets unworn. The factories themselves pump out smog and smoke in such amounts that it sickens entire cities. Yet companies continue to try to find ways to slash prices and speed up production even further, contributing to the longer term problem of climate change while also causing a great deal of instant suffering for their employees.
This eye-opening documentary doesn’t stop there. Garment workers lives are also being sacrificed due to dangerous work conditions. Not only are conditions unsafe but long shifts result in abysmally low pay for the workers, all in order to create one more disposable dress or shirt that has less value to consumers than the cost of a nice dinner. The team who put together The True Cost includes author Lucy Siegle, Oxfam Global Ambassador Livia Firth, executive producer Vincent Vittorio and executive producer Christopher L. Harvey, and their goal with this documentary is to bring real awareness to the average consumer of the damage this system is doing.
The team walks viewers carefully through the clothing production process, stripping away any blinders they may have worn in regards to their own contribution to this unsustainable system. However, the film also makes sure to give its audience a way to redeem itself, offering solutions and suggestions on how to more thoughtfully purchase clothing in the future.
While the problem of mindless consumption continues to grow, there are signs of hope. The True Cost website gives several tips on how to be a good buyer, including asking consumers to only buy clothing they like enough to wear at least 30 times. Fair Trade clothing, organic clothing, and eco-friendly clothing are gaining ground amidst a sea of mass produced garments. The idea of buying local, rather than buying cheap from the other end of the planet, is also becoming more popular. Though these are just small steps to change, if they are taken by everyone they will make a real difference.