The True Cost and the Value of Compassion

I watched The True Cost earlier this year. If you haven’t heard of The True Cost, it’s a 2015 documentary about the fast-fashion industry, conceived of and filmed after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. The filmmakers interview survivors of the collapse, factory workers, activists, farmers, founders of several fashion brands, and factory owners.

It’s a hard movie to watch. The images are devastating and the truths in it are hard to swallow. But whether or not you agree with every single point that is made in this documentary, the larger point remains: we have to acknowledge that we are aiding and abetting in the destruction of millions of lives when we purchase from massive retailers that emphasize excess consumption over human rights.

Fashion is an industry that affects us all. Even if you don’t care one bit about the latest trends, you still wear clothing. And, especially after recent elections and world events, I think we need to reexamine many of our daily actions, including our spending trends. I believe that in order to be better citizens, we all have to be better consumers.

The way fashion operates right now is not sustainable. The cheaper it is to produce clothes overseas, the more our environment suffers from the production of what are essentially throwaway goods: synthetic fabrics from cheaply produced, low-quality clothing pile up in our landfills, and toxic chemical dyes leak into our water and soil. The less we value the work that goes into our clothing, the more our local economies suffer from a culture of consumption that doesn’t concern itself with the people making the goods we purchase: the products on the shelves are conceptually detached from the humans who created those products with their own hands, with their own blood, sweat, and tears, so it becomes easy to ignore what those fellow humans are enduring in the production of these objects, and it becomes easy to forget the need for better environmental and labor regulations. We are all struggling against a larger force of greed.

One of the most consistent arguments that I’ve heard against being a more ethical consumer is that ecofriendly and fair trade brands can be prohibitively expensive. I would say that is not true. (For examples of affordable brands, see the companies tagged as $-$$ in my list of ethical and ecofriendly brands.) I think this “prohibitively expensive” argument stems from the fact that, as consumers, we’ve been trained to value a low price tag above all else. For many of us, a $5 t-shirt is normal. Some people might say they would never pay more than that for a t-shirt. But why is this? It’s because that’s what’s been made normal. Fast-fashion stores thrive on constant, sustained shopping. In order to get the customer to return a few times a month, even a few times a week, trends have to be constantly changing and advertising has to suggest that you are only desirable if you wear the latest trends or if you have a constantly changing wardrobe. And so the customer returns every month, every week, every few days, in order to be this desirable person. And so the stores have more incentive to churn out massive quantities of cheap clothing. And the more we are surrounded by $5 t-shirts, the less we wonder how these items came to be so cheap, and the more we become accustomed to ignoring the human rights violations that make the $5 t-shirt possible.

I think it’s important to start looking at clothes differently. Even if buying ethically made or sourced clothing is a little more expensive than what we have become accustomed to, if we can each reduce the quantity that we buy, then our wallets will still be full and our consciences will be lighter. If we make a point of buying less and buying ethically, brands will have to change their practices to meet the demand.

There are also means of being an ethical consumer that are still “cheap.” If the idea of paying more than $5 for a t-shirt is still difficult to handle or truly financially impossible, you can go to a neighborhood thrift store or consignment shop (ones I like are Crossroads Trading, Buffalo Exchange, Housing Works, or Beacon’s Closet, the latter two of which are pricier but have online stores or auctions). If your clothes and shoes are getting worn out, find a neighborhood tailor or cobbler. Organize clothing swaps with friends or go online to find a clothing swap nearby. Save up to buy higher quality garments and shoes that will last longer, so that you feel less of a need or desire to purchase “throwaway” goods. Wait for sales (most brands have at least one in the summer and one in the winter).

For the past two years, I’ve been on my own sustainable and ethical consumerism journey. I’ve been trying my hardest to avoid the fast fashion retailers (H&M, Forever 21, Old Navy, Gap, Urban Outfitters, etc.) for the past year and a half. Ethical consumerism requires some willpower, but once you start forcing yourself to do it, it becomes second nature. And I fight the occasional urge to browse the fast-fashion racks by reminding myself of the Rana Plaza collapse and of the sisterhood I share with these factory workers (most of them women) overseas. If I really need that physical shopping fix, there’s always my local thrift store.

I’ll leave you with an illuminating quote from Livia Firth, who is featured in one of the segments in The True Cost: “Is it really democratic to buy a tee for $5, a pair of jeans for $20? Or are they taking us for a ride? Because they’re making us believe that we are rich or wealthy because we can buy a lot. But in fact, they are making us poorer. And the only person who is becoming richer is the owner of the fast-fashion brand.”

❤ S. (a.k.a. AMisplacedPen)

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