What would you do if you knew that behind the clothes you wear…
…there are low-wage workers without basic rights, people dying from diseases caused by chemicals and pesticides and suffering from psychological illnesses caused by mass media propaganda?
I would say, is this (1) A science-fiction scenario? (2) An impossible dystopian future? Or (3) one of the realities of the global capitalist industry?
The True Cost (2015) – written and directed by Andrew Morgan – explores how the fast fashion industry affects economic systems, the environment, and societies. And, unfortunately, the right answer is the third one!
The garment industry is the second-most-polluting industry globally and the most labour-dependent one: 1 every 6 people globally work in some part in the fashion industry.
This industry has changed a lot: while in the 1960s, clothes in the western world were produced mainly internally (for example American fashion industry manufactured 95% of the clothes its people wore), in the 2010s, almost 100% of it was outsourced to developing economies, where wages are kept low, and workers’ rights are not respected.
The Fashion industry had exponential financial growth when the new fast fashion model has transformed the way clothes are produced and used. With quick changes in fashion (from 2 seasons new collections – summer and winter – to 52 – one per week) and extremely low prices, new buying habits emerged: people passed from buying 2-4 T-shirts per year to one every weekend. And from keeping clothes for years to throwing them away without thinking about it.
However, this production and consumption model is causing many hidden and unaccounted costs on the societies and on the environment. The end of life clothes disposal causes land and water pollution (as most attire is made from non-biodegradable materials) and huge socio-economic problems (i.e., loss of skills in developed countries, where clothes donated by western throwaway societies cannibalise the market of local artisans).
The movie is a backward journey of a fast fashion garment, from the shiny shops of New York through the garment producer sweatshops in Dhaka and to the intensive agriculture cotton fields.
You might be surprised to know that most of the fast fashion brands cannot say that their supply chains are free from exploitation, violence, or environmental contamination. Therefore, the protagonists of the story might be behind what you are wearing now!
1. Shima is a 23 years-old worker in one of the 5000 garment factories in Dhaka (Bangladesh). She earns less than $3/day, working incredibly long hours.
At her workplace, abuse, humiliation, and exploitation are very common: violent repression followed her requests to managers, as a founder of her factory’s labor union. Scissors and chairs were used to hit workers, and their heads were kicked and crashed to the wall.
Like many of her colleagues, Shima is also unable to keep her 5yo daughter, Nadia, with her in Dhaka (no-one can take care of her). For this reason, Nadia lives in a village outside the city, and Shima only gets to meet her daughter once or twice a year. She has no choice! She works hard to give Nadia an opportunity for education and a better future.
Shima wants better working conditions for her and for the 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh, of which over 80% are women: “We work all day long to do clothes that people wear. People do not have an idea of how difficult it is for us to make these clothes. They do not think about it: they just buy and wear them. These clothes are made with our blood: many garment factory workers die in accidents, like in Rana Plaza. This is painful. It is unfair that someone wears something that has been produced with our blood.”
2- Dr. Pritpal Singh is an Indian scientist who explores the effects of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides on human health. His report shows a dramatic rise in the number of birth defects, cancers, and mental illness in the region. And here is where all begins, the cotton fields.
The demand for more material, cotton specifically, has led to genetically modified agriculture that is systematically poisoning the earth. Nowadays, 80% of the cotton land is GMO (Genetically Modified Cotton). Most of it is rounded up ready, meaning that instead of the farmers’ spot-spraying seeds occasionally in their field or hiring labourers to walk the field and eliminate the weeds, they’re now spraying whole areas. Moreover, GMO seeds need specific chemicals to grow and to keep productivity. Monopolies on patented GMO cotton means farmers are forced to pay higher prices for seeds and chemicals that usually don’t deliver on their promises, causing a need for even harsher pesticides.
Most of India’s cotton is grown in the Punjab region, which has quickly become the largest pesticide user in India. Unsurprisingly, there is an increasing rate of cancer in cotton farming areas because of those pesticides, with suicide rates also on the rise as farmers face mounting debt while struggling to keep prices low enough for fast-fashion clients. If the farmer cannot afford these production costs, their land is taken as a payment form. Subsequently, the sad story is that the demand for cotton – and the voraciousness of multinational seed and pesticide companies – has wreaked environmental devastation and caused 250,000 farmers in India to suicide.
However, in every village, you can find hundreds of patients suffering from cancers. As an example, there are 60 mentally retarded kids and others 70 to 80 kids facing severe mental retardation and physical handicaps in one village. Therefore, it’s a hazardous phenomenon in Punjab. Poor people, farmers, labourers, and small farmers have maxed their labour means, so they can’t afford treatment. Ultimately, they have accepted the death of their kids.
Besides that, what kind of impact is that having on their soil? What kind of impact is that having on the people in their communities? Where is the cost of that?
The documentary also shows the other side of the coin – initiatives for the fair fashion industry.
3- Orsola de Castro – Fashion Revolution co-founder, is another character of this documentary:
She dreams about clothes that do not exploit people or destroy our planet, instead of clothes that conserve and restore the environment and people’s values over the growth and profit. She lighted up the business interests over the productive processes. Fashion Revolution respects cultural differences, involves small productive communities, valorise their work in a collaborative process, respects the environment by choosing natural colouring processes, and provides a fair financial return. She calls for a radical and revolutionary change in communication, information, regulations, and fashion industry policies.
Have you ever thought about these stories? Do you feel they are so far from you? Just think about how much of an impact fashion is having on our world.
Some costs are clearly not considered in product prices we pay or cannot be priced – dignity, wellbeing, and happiness. When you save your money by buying cheap stuff, usually someone else is paying your share throughout the productive chain. The weakest links in these global supply chains carry the burden of these costs (people with no voice, trapped in a system, which does not preserve their rights, their natural environment, and their resources). This translates into economic activities with no dignity, no wellbeing for workers, no environmental care, and no policies or regulations.
What we should understand is that the “true cost” exists. If we are not paying for it now, we will all pay for it soon or leave it to be paid by future generations. It won’t be easy for them. No money will fix extreme weather events, reverse the harmful high temperatures for life on earth (human lives, extinction of other species, food insecurity due to decreased productivity of crops), and provide wellbeing. Is it worth it to keep producing and consuming at this ever-growing pace? Should we keep producing in that way?
Who is responsible for this? There is not an easy answer. Fast fashion brands benefit from cheap female labour (Shima is among the lowest-paid garment workers globally), which allows them to create massive profits. At the same time, multinational brands remain free of responsibility for the effect of poverty wages, factory disasters, and violent treatment of workers. The system is structured in such a way they do not own any of the factories or employ the foreign workers directly. To avoid these situations, voluntary codes of conduct are put in place, but factory owners often do not respect them. And developing economies governments often keep wages low and don’t enforce or control the respect of existing regulation, to be more attractive to foreign brands investments, which create local jobs and economic growth. Should we keep leaving the control of human respect only to voluntary codes of conduct? Or put them as requirements for brands, as an essential condition to play in the market?
Imagine a world in which we can buy only brands that accept the responsibility for the production phase, in which they respect the environment and respect the people throughout the supply chain. Imagine a world where everyone has a voice (farmers, garments workers, distributors, customers), in which risks and profits are distributed fairly. And, finally, an economic system which is organised in such a way to reward who cares. Can global industries evolve so that they become fair to people and to the planet? How initiatives as the Fashion Revolution can reach and involve more and more people?
To be honest, the film is genuinely eye-opening. All stories made us think about our role as responsible consumers, made us think about our consumption behaviour, and changed how we buy clothes. What are you going to do now that you know all those things?
Responsible consumption is not only related to consuming less or just buying what is strictly necessary. It is a broader concept involving socio-environmental responsibility in all phases of the chain, from the cotton fields and inputs consumed until the retail shops, final consumer, and disposal processes. Inform yourself about your consumption’s adverse effects, choose responsible brands, and think with your own head. We can have information and make choices based on them!
This does not apply only to clothes, but also to all markets and goods we use to consume in our modern lives. For example, technology (are you aware of the socio-environmental impact of rare earth metals extraction and processing?), food (what is the amount of chemicals used to produce your meal? How much water is needed to produce a hamburger? How far do your fruits travel?), personal care, bottled water, kitchenware, furniture, cars…. Everything actually!
The degree of freedom, justice, peace, dignity, fraternity, and happiness are respected also depends on our next T-shirt. And not accepting these injustices is also a matter of choice.
Final notes: after the last review of this blog, initiatives as the Fashion Revolution started to pop up in our minds. Would we be more aware than before? Check the initiatives and tell us if you know any other!
• InnoTherm – ReTraCE industrial partner that produces acoustic & thermal natural fibre insulation from recycled denim;
• Fairfone – smartphone producer that believes a fairer electronics industry is possible.