, January 29, 2016

What is the true cost of fashion?

Have you ever wondered why clothes are now a lot more affordable than before? Why more collections are constantly introduced to the market, breaking the previous two season per year pace? We all want nicer clothes for less, but how cheap can it get and who really pays the price for our clothing?

Andrew Morgan’s new documentary The True Cost explores the devastating environmental and social effects of the increasingly pervasive fast fashion industry. I found it really hard to watch what happens in sweatshops in third world countries, producing garments for us in the West to wear and consume.

In 1960 America produced over 95% of its own clothing, while today the figure stands at a modest 3%. The supply chain has been outsourced to developing countries. The message of the film is simple and clear: the true cost of the bargains we buy everyday is indeed very high, and we won’t stop worsening the situation unless we avoid cheap stores like Primark, H&M, Topshop and Zara. It’s not only fast fashion that abuses people and the environment; most large brands like Gap and Uniqlo are also offenders.

As a fashion marketing lecturer and consultant at Grain, I have to admit I was quite naive about the shocking impact the Western fashion industry has on thousands of lives in third-world countries as well as on the environment. I thought that by donating old clothes to charities before buying new garments, I somehow helped less fortunate people and did my part to save the environment. I was wrong: according to the documentary, only 10% of clothes donated to charities are actually sold in thrift stores. The rest of them are dumped onto poor countries mostly in Africa – or worse, relegated to landfill. Textile waste could take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose along with releasing toxins into the air we’re meant to breathe.

The figures revealed in the film about the fashion industry are sickening and alarming: fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, only after oil. Can you believe that we now consume five times more clothing than we did two decades ago all thanks to what we call ‘fast fashion’ trends?

As a professional in the fashion sector, I am also environmentally concerned and hence will forever change the way I shop. As an agency, Grain is already responsible to the environment, contributing 1% of turnover to environmental charities Trees for Cities and the Marine Conservation Society through our membership in 1% for the Planet, and we will continue to incorporate these values into what we do.

But I’m sad to say, as much as the film has had an impact on me and others, it’s difficult to see whether the film will affect the shopping habits of mass consumers, who have been addicted (perhaps literally) to low prices in difficult financial times. The recent financial crisis leaves millions of people feeling insecure about their spending and understandably still drawn towards cheap high-street fashion stores.

However, I’m hopeful that there will be more films like The True Cost investigating these issues and, as The Hollywood Reporter commented, will mark the beginning of a movement and not just a brief, painful journey into a world we’d rather forget. 

For brands and companies who look forward to becoming more socially responsible, I’d recommend a subscription to Ethical Consumer magazine to stay abreast of what’s going on in the industry from an ethical perspective and to have an idea of how you can make a positive impact as a consumer. The magazine provides guides to everything from luxury labels to high street and ethical brands. Only the dedicated ethical brands can really make a difference.

Have a look at the Ethical High Street Fashion Index from The Good Shopping Guide to see how well (or badly) your favourite brands are doing and make your own decision.

Image credit: The True Cost film, Andrew Morgan

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