by Ivory King
As late as the 1960s, the United States made 95 percent of its clothes. That has been reversed more than completely, as of now we only make three percent of the clothes used in the country. Much of this has to do with how little clothes cost here when they are made abroad, and the recent industry disruption known as “fast fashion.” Transforming what was a three season system to what is effectively several dozen per year, fast fashion is described in detail in the documentary “The True Cost.”
What exactly are the filmmakers referring to as the true cost? The havoc that is wrought across the globe by environmental irresponsibility, corporate greed, and consumerism run amok, and is paid by each person listed below.
Cotton farmers and people that live in Punjab, India
GMO seeds, mostly from Monsanto, make up most of the conventional seed sold in India. These cost double what unmodified seed costs, but is promised to need less chemicals and grow more product. Of course it turned out that this cotton is vulnerable to pests after all, and the Roundup pesticide required another Monsanto product, adding to the cost of this type of crop for the farmer.
But the cost of GMO crops goes deeper - into the soil and water supply, in fact. In the fifty years that the Punjab region has been such an intensive cotton producer, local organizations have noticed increased need for medical support. Director of the Baba Farid Center for Special Children, Dr. Pritpal Singh, saw a rise in cancers, birth defects, and mental illness.
Organic cotton farmers in South Plains, Texas
In Texas, the largest producer of cotton in the United States, the effects are also felt. In the High Plains in West Texas, the effects of conventional cotton farming were such that traditional growers created the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative. But since so much cotton in Texas is conventional, pollen drift has contaminated the organic crops, leading to lost income for organic farmers. One member of the TOCMC featured in the documentary, LaRhea Pepper, has started a pro-GMO-labelling, anti-Monsanto campaign, highlighting the more litigable impacts modified seed has caused in the Texas organic cotton farming community.
Leather tanners and people that live in Kampur, India
Demands for cheap leather has led to effects in the city of Kampur, also in India. The manufacturing process runs nearly 3.75 million gallons of toxic waste, including chromium, into soil, local drinking water and shows up in crops. This manifests in the people who live there as skin problems, limb numbness, digestive issues, jaundice and liver problems.
Garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Standard practice for price competition means that manufacturers must cut corners as the only way to stay in business. In Bangladesh, this has meant clothing manufacture in buildings that have too much heavy equipment and too many floors for their structures to withstand. When several factories collapsed, it was a risk the owners were taking, but the workers were the ones that paid the price. By far the largest of these tragedies was at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, in April of 2013. Over 1,100 people died, but that tragedy was just one of many. Clothing companies do not directly own the buildings or employ the workers, and local laws are lax. Ali Enterprises and Tazreen Fashion were some of the local companies that came down in flames or rubble.
Striking garment workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
In Cambodia, the clothing industry is similarly under-regulated and pays very little for long hours. But governments of these intensive industries are desperate to keep the business of multinational fashion corporations. When garment workers protested in Phnom Penh, they were asking for a raise to $160 per month. They were met with live gunfire from riot police in 2014 and four workers were killed.
Tailors in Haiti
Clothing lines have restructured themselves to create a near constant stream of new products throughout the year, creating a system that encourages customers to buy items more often, at the lowest conceivable price. This constant stream into our closets means more being tossed into the trash or given to charity, which we wearers think is less wasteful. But only 10 percent get sold at thrift stores, the rest gets shipped to other countries. When charities receive clothing, they can’t sell, they ship them to countries like Haiti. This in turn impacts the jobs of local clothing and tailoring industries.
According to Eco Age founder Livia Firth, the garment worker is the human element in clothing production that is squeezed the most, but the consumer is also victimized. Manufacture devalues products, but our culture encourages us to believe that we will be happier and feel more affluent if we purchase more clothes. Then we end up in debt when the credit card bills come. Saving money by buying more clothes doesn’t make logical sense, yet that is the structure that Fast Fashion creates, and that many of us fall into. This is clearly illustrated in The True Cost’s montage of YouTube haul videos, with shoppers showing off their new clothes, some with no conviction that they will even wear them.
What’s the best way to break the cycle of Fast Fashion? It’s clear that the onus isn’t on the big brands - they bear no legal responsibility for the pollution or labor practices of the facilities they order from. Instead, we consumers are the ones that will make a difference when we choose brands that make good choices for farmers, workers and people who live where clothing is made.