Getting Dressed in the Dark: Understanding The True Cost

(3BL Media and Just Means) - Ten years ago, I had a breakdown in a dressing room at the mall. I needed to buy my first suit for a new job with a leading anti-slavery organization. Oh, the irony. Bangladesh, India, Guatemala, Vietnam. I knew the likelihood of forced labor, low-wages, and zero possibility for something besides garment factory work for the people who made the clothing I was trying on. But what choice did I have? Spend hours sorting through racks at Goodwill? Spend my entire budget on one fair trade piece? Like most middle class Americans, I had neither time nor money. I needed to ignore the origins of my new clothing, pay the grossly, inflated retail price, and suit up for my social justice job. It felt like hypocrisy. It felt like I had no other option.

Flashbacks of this moment—and the dozens of similar moments to follow in the last ten years—flooded my memory as I took in the complex facets of fast fashion during the opening screening of the documentary, The True Cost. It’s the most systemic view of the fashion industry in film. Directed by Andrew Morgan, The True Cost, pieces together the disturbing puzzle of the global, garment industry. You are confronted with angles of the industry you never knew mattered. The film follows the lives of several individuals who contribute to the industry: garment-workers in Bangladesh; organic cotton farmers in Texas; fair trade producers in Japan.

I considered myself a conscious consumer before I watched this film. But, I’ve been dressing in the dark.

Here’s what hit me the hardest:

Our donations are backfiring. Today, we consume more than 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year. This is 400 percent more than 20 years ago. Less than five percent of our unwanted, donated clothing is bought by Americans. Thrift stores ship off unsold items to developing nations where they are given away for free or sold at a very low price. The True Cost portrays the impact of this problem where once thriving, local fashion industries have been eliminated in developing nations. We’ve wiped out jobs, local economies and cultural creativity in fashion because we clean out our closets and think we are being generous by giving our clothes “away.” But think about it. Where is “away”?

Landfills are the “dirty shadow.”  Interviewed in The True Cost, Redress CEO Christina Dean, says that over the last ten years, landfills show the environmental devastation of fast fashion. Over an image of a massive landfill, Morgan narrates, “The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste each year, adding up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the United States.”

I was lucky to have interviewed Morgan last year, before filming commenced, and again, a couple of weeks ago, after the worldwide premier of The True Cost. In our recent call, he addresses a black-and-white response to the slave labor in the fashion industry. Myth: It’s better for garment workers to have low-paying, factory jobs than no jobs at all.  Truth: We can make a way for dignified work.

“The crux of this argument is that horrible jobs are better than no jobs at all. Either people put up with exploitation or they walk away [from any work at all]. What if we could actually give dignified work? It’s an industry with profit margins that are margins of envy to so many other industries. There is so much capability. It’s almost a crime. We don’t need to pull out and go back to a nationalistic way of producing. We need to reclaim ownership of what it means to provide jobs,” says Morgan.

Suicide. Cancer. Toxic Drinking Water.  Corporate agriculture is in on it. Its ownership of cotton seeds, the pesticides needed to kill the bugs for the GMO seeds, and the unrepayable loans offered have devastated farming communities. According to CNN and a farmer’s advocacy group, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), 3,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 2013.  The True Cost also sheds light on the cheap, leather industry in Kanpur, India, where every day, 50 million liters of chromium-contaminated water flows into rivers, agriculture and drinking water supplies. Kanpur residents suffer from cancers, sores, liver disease, and extreme jaundice. There’s no option but for many families to spend their life savings on medical treatment and return home to continue drinking from local water sources.

The Solution? We Are All Responsible.  Who’s to blame for this systemic crisis? Greedy corporations? Yes. Unequitable legal protection of the poor? Yes. Western brands? Yes. Average consumers? Yes. You and me? Yes and yes. We’ve all contributed and we must all take ownership.

“The solution must be crowdsourced. I think there is an amazing amount of brave pioneering happening to pave the way for entrepreneurs and we need more to step up.  What’s needed now is for market share to shift in their favor. We are hoping the film will do just that. We aren’t going to see massive stores close up shop, but we could see market share shifted,” says Morgan.

Morgan encourages us to remember that our choices add up. We can shop with our values, buy less, buy long-lasting and talk to our favorite brands about their long-term commitment to justice in their supply chains. Maybe if we turned on the light and stopped dressing in the dark, we’d step out of excessive consumption and see our opportunity to use our wealth to create great change in a broken industry.

 Watch the film The True Cost. Check out the trailer and clips. Find a screening. Join the Fashion Revolution. Read my first interview with Andrew Morgan.