The True Cost


I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. I firmly believe that you can start over or set goals for yourself whenever. But as it happens, within the first few days of the new year, I resolved to make a change in the way I live and, more specifically, in what I consume. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the clothes I wear and the people who make them. A friend recommended that I watch a documentary on Netflix entitled The True Cost, and it opened my eyes to the effects of fast fashion on garment workers and the environment.

Until recently, I, like most people, had never thought about the hands that make my clothes. In fact, it never even crossed my mind that my clothes were made by actual people. They just existed on the shelves of my favorite stores, waiting for me to buy them. And it is exactly the type of system that ignores the humanity of its employees that allows for one of the most grievous social and environmental injustices of our time: fast fashion.

Essentially, fast fashion is a term that describes the way in which clothes are produced and sold cheaply  in order to move trends from the runway to the shelves of your favorite stores quickly. Conceptually, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. However, in order for clothing companies to produce clothes and sell them cheaply, they must outsource their production to sweatshops in developing countries where labor is cheap. Because of the nature of the supply chain, the CEOs of these clothing companies have the power to deliver all sorts of ultimatums to the factory managers of these sweatshops. They have the power to say, “Produce these garments for this amount of money, or we’ll take our business elsewhere.” And because these factories need business, they accept these demands. However, the only way to produce their goods as cheaply as the clothing companies desire, the workers in these sweatshops are denied adequate wages and many corners are cut in terms of safety regulations.

Basically, these companies base their profit on the desperation of the garment workers. And while some people argue that the workers essentially pick their poison, it is worthwhile to note that it’s easy to look at the plight of the garment worker and say, “They didn’t have to work in a sweatshop.” But the fact of the matter is that these workers lack almost all agency over their own lives. Social mobility is almost impossible, and job options are fairly limited. It is nearly impossible to look at the life of a Bangladeshi factory worker, for example, from a western worldview and truly understand their options. The CEOs of the major clothing companies justify the exploitation of these workers by saying that a job in a sweatshop is better than any other option available to the workers. But if that is true, then something is wrong. We’ve created an inadequate system, and it needs to be scrapped. Garment workers are paid less than $2 a day. When they form unions to demand better working conditions and higher wages (in Bangladesh, they demand only $160 per month), they are attacked and beaten by factory managers. Safety regulations are often overlooked in order to save money, which leads to disasters such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, where over 1,100 workers died and many more were wounded.

I want to put this in perspective. These people are not different from us because they live in developing countries and are driven by desperation into working jobs where they are treated inhumanely and are subject to dangerous conditions. And when I read about the conditions in which these people exist, I can’t help but place myself in their shoes. What if I lived on only $2 a day? What if it were my mother who died when her workplace collapsed because  her bosses decided not to prioritize her safety for the sake of making money? What if I had to leave my child with family or friends and only see him or her once or twice a year just so he or she could be educated? What if, on a daily basis, I were denied my basic human rights and a reasonable wage on which to live? If it were me, would I sit around and do nothing about this drastic injustice? The way I see it, if I wouldn’t be stricken by apathy if it were me, then I shouldn’t be stricken by apathy if it’s someone else.

And from a religious perspective, I believe in a God who is for justice, who cares for widows and orphans and the downtrodden, and who teaches love for the nations.  I read a Bible that tells me to not grow weary in doing good. This is what I say I believe. These are the principles that I say guide my day-to-day life, and I do not see a way where I can claim to follow a compassionate and loving God but contribute to the heartless oppression of so many people.

The reason this system is allowed to persist is because big brands perpetuate the idea through their marketing promotions that the more you have, the happier you’ll be. Today, American women own more than double the number of clothes they did even thirty years ago. The paradox of the system is that these fast fashion companies tell you that by buying their products, you’ll be happier, richer even, but the only people who are actually getting richer are the CEOs and high-up people of the big brands.

Not only does fast fashion exploit the workers of the garment factories, but it exploits the environment as well. The use of GMO cotton and widespread use of pesticides damages the environment faster than it can repair itself, causes disease and deformity to the people in the farming villages, and serves as yet another tool for large corporations to exercise unchecked power over farmers.

The benefit of our free market economic system is that, theoretically, the consumers have control. If we’re not satisfied with a product, we can stop buying it. If a company has questionable ethics, we can boycott it. We don’t have to allow fast fashion to exist. To say that we can end fast fashion by simply refusing to buy from big brands may be an idealized notion. But we have to try; we have to care; and we have to educate. And rest assured that if the fast fashion industry dies, these garment workers will not be left without jobs.

For all of these reasons, I’ve decided to make a major change in where I buy my clothes, and instead of supporting unethical clothing companies, support those that are fair trade. Honestly, I don’t know whether it’s even possible, given the current system, to completely swear off buying products from the big brand companies, but I’m going to try. I’m going to buy less and buy smarter, and I encourage you all to do the same. And yes, it will be a little tougher on my wallet and it will mean sacrificing some of my favorite stores, but a $10 shirt is not worth another person’s life.

Leave a comment and let me know some of your favorite fair trade companies.

– Lauren

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7 thoughts on “The True Cost

  1. Yes yes yes. This post is so well-written and obviously passionate about social justice. As for my favourite ethical brands, here’s a few I’ve got on my list: Everlane, Bridge and Burn, People Tree, and Ace & Jig.

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