Last night I watched the documentary The True Cost (2015) on Netflix. I’ve known about it for a while but held off watching it in the knowledge that it would most likely fast track me further down a path that is a little scary to go down. The one where you shine a light into dark places in your life and realise how much more you could be doing. The one where you see that you can do better.

There was nothing new for me in the content about how our clothes are sewn and the suffering of the people who make them. I knew that workers were being overworked, underpaid, forced to work when ill, denied holidays, made sick by the conditions in the factories. I knew that many live lives of suffering and some die while working behind sewing machines in unsafe factories.

I knew a little about the effects of ‘Fast Fashion’, a term that is applied to the changes in the fashion industry that have come about in the last 15 years or so. I didn’t know that people now buy 400% more clothing items per year than they used to 20 years ago and that this leads to changes around the globe, including:

  •  Huge expansion of the cotton growing industry, largely based in the Punjab in the northern part of South Asia
  • This expansion in cotton growing relies on greater use of toxic pesticides, that make people sick with cancers and cause increases in birth defects
  • The politics surrounding pesticide and seed patents leads to an alarming number of cotton farmers committing suicide due to debt to large seed and pesticide companies
  • The toxins used in dying fabrics and treating leather are leading to environmental devastation, including water toxicity, in areas where people don’t have access to safe drinking water
  • The demands by shoppers for cheaper and cheaper products leads to factory owners cutting costs by doing away with worker breaks and holidays, meaning workers are not able to raise their own children and must send them back to their villages to be raised
  • As factories must cut cost to meet the demands of shoppers in the West, they choose not to repair faulty buildings and this leads to increases in fires and building collapses

Two moments stood out very strongly for me and I’m going to call them up in my mind whenever I feel inclined to spend. The first was the look on a young garment factory worker’s face when she said goodbye to her 5 year old daughter who she had to leave in her village so she could work. Yes, she has a job. Yes, her job means that she can send money to the village to educate her daughter. But she says that no job is worth the pain of leaving your child when those that buy the clothes you make have access to childcare so they can work AND care for their children in their own home. Why can’t she do the same?

Image of a young Bangladeshi mother hugging her small daughter who is kissing her mother’s cheek

The second moment was an image of a large flat bed truck with a cage around the outside filled with Chinese garment workers being driven in to the factory to work pre-dawn. As a vegan, I’ve seen images of cattle being driven in these same sort of trucks – squashed together with sad looks on their faces, on their way to their deaths so that people could eat them. The garments workers were not being driven to their immediate deaths. But they were suffering so that those of us who want a new T-shirt – or two or three, can have what we want. The parallels stunned me.

Don’t shy away from this movie. It will likely disturb you but it will move you forward.

This morning I went to wear a striped T-shirt from Cotton On that I bought a couple of years ago. I saw the tag and I thought of that young mother separated from her child. And I put the T-shirt back in the drawer. I don’t want suffering on my back.