The True Cost of Fast Fashion

Even the clothing industry has accelerated. Here's why that's a bad idea.

Posted Jan 10, 2016

Andrew Morgan, used with permission
Source: Andrew Morgan, used with permission

Andrew Morgan set out to tell a simple story. He wanted to talk about our clothing, what exactly we wear, what it says about us and its impact on our world. At first glance, you might think his film THE TRUE COST is about anorexia as he shows paper-thin models getting ready for photo shoots and fashion jobs. But very quickly the viewer realizes the film tells a much broader tale about how just a few brand names have dictated how fast the clothing industry runs today.

Before watching the film, I had never heard of the term fast fashion. And yet it is an industry that touches every part of our lives the world over. 

In the last decade, the clothing industry has changed dramatically. As late as the 1960s, 95% of our clothing was made in the US. Today 97% is outsourced to developing countries, made by human hands at a fraction of the price it used to be. The price of clothing has dropped significantly, while the cost of producing the clothes has increased. Who pays for the price suppression? The people who make the clothing. The sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, for instance, make just $3 per day in unsafe working conditions. It is appalling.

Why has the clothing industry gotten so fast? And what is fast fashion after all? What used to be an industry based on cycles like Nature itself – with the introduction of winter/fall and spring/summer collections, the fashion industry now produces new styles on a weekly basis. Large brands have identified our insatiable desire for stuff.  In a recent Skype interview, Andrew told me, “We live in a consumer-driven, very fast-paced world. The rate of acceleration is startling. Change at that pace means a lot of things and people fall through the cracks.”

Clothing – made from cheaper and cheaper materials – gets tossed aside or virtually thrown out at such ridiculously low prices that it is impossible for other companies to compete at higher, more realistic prices. The result is a run toward the cheapest labor possible to ensure costs remain in check and profits remain high.

But at what cost? Andrew says his film is meant to address the disconnection that globalization has created in our world today. “I read an article about Rana Plaza (the deadliest garment factory accident in history). I asked myself how is it possible that I am not aware of the origin of my clothes? THE TRUE COST started out as a film that impacts human beings and the environment. It kept expanding as I started to see the interdependencies. It is about understanding the intersection between the psychology, economics and lack of regulation in the fashion industry. There is a profound set of questions about the state of human beings in 2016. What does it mean to live in a world of outsourcing the production of our things?”

Out of sight, out of mind – that is the issue with fast fashion. We don’t see the laborers – often separated from their families as they work endless hours for extremely low wages in buildings that crack, collapse and kill, such as the Rana Plaza tragedy that claimed over 1,000 lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And if we hear about it, we quickly experience compassion fatigue. How could we possibly make a difference in those people’s lives? They are so very far away.

But the film raises other issues as well. Most harrowing perhaps is the environmental impact of our greed for something new in our closet every week. The lack of environmental regulation in India, for instance, is allowing poisons to be dumped into the Ganges River. The impact of pesticides on the cotton fields of Northern Texas is another example.

Here are some statistics to put things into perspective: We purchase 80 billion pieces of clothing each year. That is 400% more than the amount we bought just two decades ago. The average American discards 82 pounds of textile waste annually, which translates to 11 million tons of textile waste from the US alone. Most of this waste is non-biodegradable, sitting in landfills for 200 years or more while releasing harmful gases. Where does the disposed clothing go? You guessed it. Oftentimes it lands up back in the developing nations who produced the clothing in the first place.

This topic may seem overwhelming. And it is. But what I learned from Andrew’s film and my conversation with him afterwards is that we can make a difference. It is not about boycotting products made in Bangladesh or other developing nations in which working conditions are less than ideal. It is about shaping our behavior and the story we tell ourselves in a different way. It is about redirecting our consciousness to a different level. Pretty soon, as we begin to examine our choices more closely, we start to shift our perspective. Little things such as using cloth shopping bags instead of accumulating plastic ones in the back of our pantry or utilizing rechargeable batteries instead of buying new ones every time start to impact our world in positive ways.

When we go shopping, we can ask ourselves, “Do I really need this item? Do I love it? Will I take care of it for a really long time? Is it of high quality and will it last? Can I repurpose it if needed?” Sustainable shopping can go a long way in combatting the issues Andrew addresses in his film. Consumers do not have to buy products created under unconscionable conditions. If there is less demand, things will have to change toward a more positive end.

The US economy is based on expansion. But it’s like a balloon. At one point, it will pop because endless expansion is physically not possible (even the Universe will stop expanding one day). The truth is we have grown up in a role as consumers, which is actually very disempowering for the individuals. According to Andrew, it has made it easy to have an apathetic life. Born into so much privilege, we have an enormous amount of influence on how the world is shaped. Tragically, we do not have the sense of responsibility that goes with that influence.

We need to start asking ourselves a simple question, one that informs everything about us. “What are the choices I am making?” As The Power of Slow suggests, your life is a compilation of the choices you make. If you have been living in a story that you are bystander, watching history unfold, it is time to reclaim the field for yourself. For the good of your life. For the good of your children’s.

“I want to inspire people to hope-filled action,” Andrew says. “The greatest lie of all is that you can’t contribute. You can’t separate things. This is not just about clothes. It’s about greed and power and fear. Who is telling the story, to what end and to what end is that story being embraced? How was it ever deemed okay that the prosperity of a few can be built on the suffering of so many others?”

It is a very good question indeed. Andrew wishes to invite us all into a bigger story. A better one in which fashion is not fast, but decelerated to a sustainable pace in which everyone gets what they need.

It is time to stand up to the lies we have been told, that somehow happiness can be purchased - often at a discounted price. Happiness can’t be bought, despite the messages we see every day claiming otherwise. In a recent TedX talk, Harvard professor Robert Waldinger, the head of the longest study on happiness in history, states the secret to happiness, regardless of socioeconomic status, has been found to be connection with other people. Love, not stuff, is the answer.

Love starts with the choices we make for ourselves and – ultimately – for the world we wish to live in. What step can you take today to move toward a better world?

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