Happy new year one and all! I hope you all had the holiday season that you wanted, and are feeling refreshed and ready to return to work, or if you’ve been working over the last few weeks – thank you, and I hope now you get to take a little time for yourself; and if you don’t celebrate, I hope you had a couple of nice Fridays!
I took a brief break from blogging for a number of reasons, but I’m hoping to be in a position to be posting regularly again – and I’m back with a deep post today, so grab yourself a cuppa, a coffee, or a glass of wine and a snack before you read on!
Recently, I watched a fascinating documentary on Netflix called “The True Cost“, which primarily explores the link between consumers wanting low-cost high-fashion items, and the meagre existence of sweatshop workers, it also considers the effect of such on the environment, and takes a small look at the effect on the human psyche also. Now, I feel I first must admit a couple of things before I go on:
- People fascinate me. I’m well aware – and very happy – that people have different tastes, opinions, interests, ets and I think this is a wonderful thing that should be supported and encouraged by even more people; I also like learning about other people’s point of view & opinions etc because I believe that we can only understand and be empathetic towards others if we understand a wide range of opinions – understanding something doesn’t mean we have to hold the same or a similar belief, or even that we agree with it
- I work in the ‘E’ arm of an EHS&Q (environment, health, safety, & quality) department, in part because I’m a huge believer in looking after our planet, polluting it as little as possible, recycling as much as possible, and generally taking little steps every day to look after the world around us; as such I’m a huge believer in recycling & reusing, not to mention creating new with as little waste & damage as possible.
I’d definitely recommend this documentary to anyone with even a vague interest in wearing clothes, although it’s unlikely to be up your average fashionista’s street as it deals with some pretty hard truths about both the manufacture of high-street clothes, as well as what happens when the wearer has finished with any given item.
One thing to remember: this is a US-centric film, so a lot of the points may not be applicable
I was so startled by some of the points raised in the film, I watched it a second time because I wanted to share some solid facts with you all; I made about 5 pages of notes, but won’t share them all now, just the most relevant:
- As recently as the 1960s, 95% of clothes were made in the USA, today it’s ~3%, with the remainder being made in developing countries
- One Chinese company that produces one in six of the dresses sold in the US has 25,000 employees on the garment manufacturing side alone
- Benchmarking the price of garments over the last twenty years shows that the price has fallen; however, associated costs have instead risen
- As the price of clothes has fallen, a new fashion model has appeared: fast fashion means that rather than having two defined ‘seasons’ (spring/summer & autumn/winter) we almost have 52 seasons – simply so that more product can be sold
- Stores play off one another when negotiating with factories, always trying to reduce their retail price below that of their competitors, meaning that manufacturers are left either to close down due to lack of profitability or cut corners as product prices are unlikely to increase; cutting corners & disregarding safety measures have become an accepted part of the ‘new’ business model
- Three of the four worst tragedies in the history of fashion happened in one twelve-month period, including the Rana Plaza collapse, in Bangladesh in which over 1,000 people died and another 2,500+ were injured – the year following the Rana Plaza collapse was the fashion industry’s most profitable of all time: at the time of making the film, fashion was an almost three trillion dollar industry (US$3,000,000,000,000)
Although the film notes that there is a difficulty in totally decrying “sweatshops” because often for the workers it’s the best & safest employment option in their local area – sewing clothes is, after all, inherently safe – it is noted that as the garment factories are, in effect, sub-contracted, that the retail store owners have little to no say over the running of ‘their’ factories, it also points out there are many who believe in doing better by the people who produce their clothes – What Katie Did immediately springs to mind for me (for a little more information see here, here, and here ), and of course we all know that all Pin Up Girl Clothing items are manufactured in America.
Another section of the documentary looks at the environmental, effects of this new ‘fast fashion’ model:
- In Texas, there are 3.6 million acres of cotton fields (it’s the biggest cotton patch in the world), 80% of this is now GMO (mostly being ‘Roundup Ready’)
- One Indian doctor who’s been studying the effects of pesticides & fertilisers on human health has seen a dramatic rise in the number of birth defects, mental illnesses, and cancers in the Punjab region of India – where most of the country’s cotton is grown
- Fast fashion has a huge impact on developing countries: the average American throws away 82lbs (37.2Kg/5.6St) of textile waste every year; this adds up to more than 11 million tonnes of textile waste from the US alone. Most of this is not biodegradable and will sit in landfill for two-hundred years or more, all the while releasing harmful gasses
- Of the textile waste that’s donated to charity about 90% of the clothes can’t be sold in thrift stores and so is bundled up and sent to developing countries; although this initially sounds like a good thing, the film points to Haiti – as the amount of donated clothing increased, so the local clothing industry disappeared; a once proud tailoring sector is now mostly producing cheap t-shirts for export to America
- In Kanpur, India the leather factories discharge more than 50 million litres of wastewater per day, which contains toxic heavy metals like Chromium(VI); this ends up in water that’s used by farmers and drunk by local residents. Soil is contaminated too, which means even vegetables and salad items contain heavy metals. The health of local residents is affected in various ways, from skin & digestion problems, to jaundice, and even certain cancers
- Today, fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet – only the oil industry affects our environment more.
A third segment looks at the way our outlook towards clothes is changing, as well as the psychological effects ‘fast fashion’ has on its’ consumers:
- It was noted that there are two types of product: those we use (car, washing machine, etc); and those we use up (food, fuel, etc). Consumerism is about getting people to treat the things they should be using like the things they use up
- The more that people are focussed on materialistic values, the more that they say money, image, status, & possessions are important to them, and the less happy they are, along with being more depressed & more anxious
- The consumer is made to believe they’re rich – so much clothing can be bought – but the only ones to profit are the owners of fast fashion retailers (as much of it is low quality/seen as so disposable)
Some other points that don’t fit anywhere else but are worth sharing:
- When workers in Cambodia were protesting for an increase in the minimum wage (to US$160/month), they were met by riot police, open firing with live ammunition. Five workers were killed, over 40 were injured, and 33 were arrested
- H&M is the second largest clothing corporation in history, with an annual revenue of more than US$18 billion
- All major retailers declined interview requests for the film
One of the things I was surprised that wasn’t mentioned in the documentary is the way that the quality of ready-made clothing has changed; at one of my recent physiotherapy appointments, my physio & I were discussing clothes and he shared that he used to work as a sales assistant in River Island (a popular UK High Street brand), and had to deal with a lot of customers who wore a garment once or twice, washed it (as per the instructions) and said garment was ruined – River Island is not a particularly cheap clothing store either! Although I suppose that in itself is neither here nor there, it obviously has an effect on the amount of clothing consumed by the average high-street shopper, as well as the amount sent to landfill by that same genre of shopper.
My main takeaway from the documentary is that we all should try to be a customer, not a consumer and put a little more thought into what we really need in our wardrobes, going for quality over quantity when we can, but understanding that buying cheaply-made mass-produced items once in a while isn’t the end of the world – supporting a hugely profitable multi-national does also support individuals and families in developing nations. Whether we’re pin ups, land girls, or high fashion fans – if we shop as ethically as we are able then certain companies will (eventually) have to change if they want to stay “in the black”.
As for those of us who buy, sell, or swap ‘genuine vintage’, as well as those who up-cycle clothing & homewares – not only are we being the most fashionable guys & gals on the planet 😉 but we’re also doing our planet a huge favour by preventing more items going to landfill; not to mention that – rather than looking like most everyone else – we have a myriad of options to let our personality shine through; not to mention that some people are lucky enough to have stories to share about their items – whether it’s because it once belonged to a family member, or because some information – physical or otherwise – was included with the item for sale.
Life, for many of us, may be about having an amazing, glamorous wardrobe that makes us feel like Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, or any one of various other starlets but we shouldn’t put our stuffed wardrobes above wearing our awesome outfits to spend time with loved ones, opening our minds, and helping others.