The True Cost

Take a look at the shirt you have on. How much did it cost? I’ve got on a basic tee that was probably part of a 3 for $25 deal at Target or Old Navy. But I have no idea what the shirt really cost in the grander sense.

My friend Julia runs the Fair for All blog and hosted a screening of and discussion about the documentary The True Cost. I was so moved by the film that I immediately came home and dumped out a bunch of thoughts into this post. There’s so much more I could write but I highly encourage you to watch the full documentary, streaming on Netflix and also available for purchase.

From their site, this film is “a story about clothing. It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make them and the impact the industry is having on our world. The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically. [This documentary] pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider, who really pays the price for our clothing?”

I know what you’re probably thinking: “Great, one more thing I have to consider before spending my money.” It takes a lot of time and effort to be an educated consumer. Understanding how companies operate, what they do with their profits, how they treat their workers, and what values they put into practice can be tough and overwhelming. For example, I actively avoid a company who is outspoken about donating its profits to pray-the-gay-away organizations but turn around and buy clothes without considering the factory workers in Bangladesh who barely make any money and work in some of the most inhumane conditions. I am equally for human rights as I am against bigotry, but it’s hard to factor all the things into all the decisions I make every day as a consumer.

There’s also an environmental component that I was admittedly oblivious to. The film reported that clothing is second only to oil as the most polluting industry in the world. Part of this is chemical – toxins dumped into water sources, synthetic products that don’t break down, etc. But part of it is physical – a culture of waste we’ve developed where it’s a social faux pas to wear the same outfit twice, where you buy a skirt you don’t really need because it’s only $10, where you throw out pants that have a tear in them instead of patching them up, where only 10% of clothing donated to thrift stores is actually resold.

Another aspect that shocked me: Cotton, which represents nearly half of the fiber used to make clothing, is now being genetically modified with various chemicals, pesticides and insecticides. There’s been a significant shift in the food industry to eating organic and avoiding genetically modified food. We care more now than ever about what we put into our bodies, but what about on them? The skin is the largest organ in the body and the clothes we wear are potentially carriers of these chemicals.

One cotton farmer in Texas who was interviewed in the film is pushing to change this. Part of her motivation: Her husband died at the age of 50 from brain tumors the doctors believe were caused by exposure to the chemicals used on their crops. She is now devoted to advancing the organic cotton movement.

And this touches on an interesting framing issue that is slightly off topic but crosses multiple industries and takes me back to one of my graduate classes on language. An apple that grows naturally from a tree shouldn’t have a special label or an asterisk. It should just be an apple. Labels and product names should highlight things that are changed or modified in some way. But major companies on the one side don’t want to call attention to the actions they are taking to modify products. And on the other side, major companies benefit from a cultivated organic lifestyle that attracts customers who are seemingly willing to throw down more money. I haven’t read up much on the effects of genetically modified products, but I firmly believe language has a powerful impact on consumers.

So what’s the solution? There’s not an easy one. But Julia outlined some steps you can take as an individual (copied from her handout at the screening):

  1. Learn more. Find ethical fashion blogs, shopping guides and other resources at
  2. Shop less. The fast fashion industry is driven by the constant consumption of disposable clothing. Buy less, buy only what you love and buy it to last.
  3. Shop smart. Many clothing brands are working to make their supply chains more ethical and transparent while treating workers and the environment with respect. Here are a few to check out: People Tree, Zady, Fair Indigo, Mata Traders, PACT, Liz Alig (Indianapolis-based!).

I would add two more: Get political and get social. There are so many political elements to this issue that I don’t have the space (or energy…) to get into. If you are passionate about this cause, make sure your elected officials know it. And talk to your family and friends about it as well as your social networks. Raising the general awareness of even one other person is positive movement.

I can’t promise that I’ll only shop from fair trade companies moving forward and I’m not even sure how realistic that is at this point. But I know I owe it to those in the clothing industry who are suffering the true cost to be a more educated consumer and make more informed, responsible decisions whenever possible.


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