The True Cost of Fast Fashion

Last year, I began a minimalist wardrobe project, with the goal of buying fewer items of clothing over the months and years to come. In the process, I found myself evaluating my clothes more meticulously, shopping for styles and fabrics with longevity and versatility. But there was one factor I didn't really consider: where do my clothes come from? 

Thanks to a reader's recommendation, I recently watched The True Cost, a documentary about "fast fashion" and its drastic ethical and environmental implications. Clothing production has increased by 400% in the last decade, largely due to the growth of fast-fashion sellers like H&M, Zara, Topshop and other retail giants offering an ever-changing selection of cheap, trendy clothes. The film takes us to sweatshops in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the site of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1,000 garment-industry workers. One female worker, who began her job with a monthly salary of $10, reveals that after she attempted to organize a union to advocate for safe and equitable working conditions, she and other employees were locked up in the factory and beaten. In a particularly emotional scene, she states, "I believe these clothes are produced by our blood."

The documentary also examines the frightening toll of fast fashion on the planet. The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after oil. The toxic chemicals used to produce fabrics have caused a surge of health issues and birth defects. Donating our clothing, which often eases our consciences, is not a viable solution; the film reports that the majority of donated clothing ends up in landfills or is shipped out to developing countries, destroying their local garment businesses. 

One of the main reasons I took a huge step back from blogging and social media is that my blog was promoting a form of consumerism that I had come to question. The affiliate program I joined, from which I have since unaffiliated myself, is a huge advertising engine for fast fashion, perpetuating "haul culture" and incentivizing members to "create a sense of urgency" (their words, not mine) in marketing items to readers. I enjoy fashion. However, it's a little perverse that people are being paid handsomely to say "I bought this shirt!" while the people who made the shirt aren't paid enough to live with dignity. When I decided to live with less stuff, I realized that social media was constantly bombarding me with messages to buy more.

No love of clothing should override one's regard for human welfare or the environment. The True Cost offers few solutions to the issues it exposes, and from a little research, I understand that the solutions are far more complicated than simply replacing one kind of consumerism with another. We need to consume less, and policies need to change. We can't ignore the argument that sweatshops lift people out of extreme poverty, even if we question its soundness. But we are all consumers, and it's undeniable that the small decisions of many people -- shopping 10% less, demanding transparency, finding ethical and sustainable alternatives to fast-fashion fabrics and practices -- can make a positive difference. 

As I research more into these issues, I also hope to reconcile my love of fashion with my responsibility to reduce my own consumption. I highly recommend the documentary; its message is easy to ignore but, for me, impossible to forget.