The True Cost of Fashion

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A review of The True Cost, a documentary film that investigates the alarming environmental and social impact of the fashion industry.

Look at the clothes you’re wearing right now.

Picture yourself shopping for them. Try to remember what you were thinking as you weighed whether or not to take those jeans up to the cash register, whether or not to click “add to cart” on those shoes. You may have considered cut, color, cost, comfort. You may have imagined how you’d style your new threads.

At any point in the process, did you think about where they were made? Did you picture a woman pushing raw-edged fabric through an industrial sewing machine? Did you imagine a man with stained hands carrying leather through a tannery, or sheep being shorn of their wool, or a field fluffy with cotton bolls?

These are just the tip of an iceberg of questions that “The True Cost” documentary wants you to ask next time you’re considering a new clothing purchase. This film investigates the fashion industry’s impact on people and the environment. As such, it addresses fashion players you might expect—like a Bangladeshi garment worker and a British designer—as well as ones less often consulted in the fashion ethics conversation, like an American economist and an Indian environmental rights activist.

The end result is a movie that is a seriously worthwhile use of your time, whether you consider yourself a veteran in the fashion ethics conversation or have just started to realize that your shopping decisions have moral weight.

I appreciated the way “The True Cost” handled elements of the industry that can sometimes feel like abstract problems to Western consumers. Sure, I know in my head that garment workers in Bangladesh are affected by Americans’ decisions at the mall. But hearing a 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman talk about the violent resistance she faced in her efforts to organize a clothing workers’ union reminded me in my gut. I can intellectually assent to the idea that treating clothing as disposable is problematic, yes. But seeing garbage mountains filled with non-biodegradable clothing transforms that head-knowledge into a pit in my stomach.

The movie also brought up points I haven’t spent as much time focusing on. It made a case for organic cotton based on the health risks of pesticides for farming communities. It pointed out that only 10 percent of clothing donated to charity in the U.S. stays in the U.S., while the rest is shipped to developing countries where it undermines struggling economies—flying in the face of the idea that as long as we’re donating our used clothes, it’s okay to buy cheaply and frequently. It cited psychological research claiming that mental health problems like anxiety and depression increase in societies where materialistic values are on the rise.

I could keep talking about this film, but the truth is that I don’t want to neatly summarize it for you. I want you to watch it yourself. If you’ve made hard choices in the pursuit of integrity regarding your clothing, it will confirm the importance of those decisions and renew your desire to shop and live responsibly. If you’ve never thought twice about the ethics of a purchase, it will help you begin asking good questions.

What are you waiting for?