The True Cost of Our Behavior

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

*I know this is too long a blog post, but please please please read it as it’s SO IMPORTANT. The introduction is long, but I think it makes sense as it gives you the context you might be in right now. Or, if you absolutely don’t want to read this, it’s OK too, but then please just watch the movie The True Cost. That’s your take-home message for today. Write it down, make a mental note, just watch it.*

About a year ago, I was an avid shopper. I feel slightly embarrassed writing this, because shopping as a hobby is usually perceived as something superficial people do. Now, I wouldn’t exactly call it a hobby but let’s say I left shops with bags full of clothes and accessories at least once a month. I would also window shop out of boredom, curiosity, desire, or sometimes combination of the above. Most of the time I would know exactly what was on display in H&M, Zara, Vero Moda and the like. It went so far that I could instantly say where a random girl on the street had bought each of her items. Whenever I would spot something I liked, I would buy it without blinking an eye, because hey, of course I can afford a sweater that costs €15 or a top that’s less than €10.

Then sometime around the end of 2014 I took a quick look at the contents of my closet. I realized most of it was less than two years old. And not only most of it was relatively new – it was relatively bad as well. After wearing it approximately for a year, or less, it would have to move to the ‘wear-at-home’ pile because it wasn’t as nice and representative as before. It’s probably normal today for the majority of things we buy at retail chains, but I do remember better. I remember garments you would wear for years. Actually, I remember H&M garments from years ago that were much, much better quality.

So I decided a) not to buy clothes for six months, just so I could get rid of this habit that was doing harm to both my closet and my wallet – and save money in the process as well, b) to buy quality clothes once my shopping ban expires. Yes, it would mean having less stuff, as a quality shirt probably can’t be found for the same price as in H&M; but in a long run, that would mean having good stuff and not having to shop every once in a while. Also, in a long run, that might mean saving money too. Honestly, I don’t feel the slightest wish to go through my closet and calculate all the money I’ve spent on clothes ever since I moved abroad. I have a feeling figures would give me a heartache.

I talked about my shopping ban in detail (here and here, if you care to take a look) and I think I could say it was quite successful. I really don’t feel the need to shop compulsively anymore. I rarely even walk into a store if I’m not looking for anything specific. And yes, I do want to buy only things I really need. Maybe this is why I was a very good audience for the documentary I watched recently. Maybe not; maybe everyone is an audience good enough. I would more than anything want you to watch it and see for yourself.

The movie I am talking about is The True Cost, and it’s actually the topic of this post even though you couldn’t really tell as I talked in depth about my own shopping experience from before having watched it.

The True Cost is so powerful and I was so moved by it that I knew right away I wanted to – no, I needed to – write about it and ask every one of you reading this to watch it. Because it’s probably the most important movie you could watch this year. I also knew I couldn’t possibly write about it asap, because it needed to sink in.

The True Cost is a movie about clothing. You have probably heard of sweatshops and terrible working and living conditions of workers somewhere, well, far away. I know I had. But somehow I never really wanted to make a connection between me and them. Why would I? I’m not a bad person, I’m not making anyone suffer and they’re so distant I could just pretend they don’t exist and don’t have anything to do with me.

The fact is, they do. The fact is, most of the contents of my closet was made by people living in poverty, not being granted the most basic human rights. The fact is, they are making our clothes whose price has been decreasing for decades so it can make us feel wealthy because we can own a lot. (It’s so awful to admit, by the way, but this resonated with me so well. Up to this year, I LOVED owning much and yes, it did make me feel more worthy.)

Did you know that
  • there are roughly 40 million garment workers in the world today?
  • many of them do not share the same rights or protections we in the West do?
  • they are some of the lowest paid workers in the world?
  • a five-floor garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed two years ago, killing more than 1,000 people?
  • the average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year, because with so many cheap clothes people begin to see them as disposable?
  • the leather tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain?
  • the waste generated through leather production pollutes natural water sources leading to increased disease for surrounding areas?
  • cotton production is responsible for 18% or worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use?
  • these chemicals are passed into the bloodstream of the people wearing these clothes – that’s me and you?
  • the global fashion industry is worth $2.5 trillion? I cannot even imagine how much money that is, but I can tell it’s a lot. They’re selling us $3 tank tops we cannot get enough of, but the true cost is much higher. 

Do you still think it has nothing to do with you?

I don’t want to be a part of this. Do you?

So, you might ask: this all sounds fair enough, but, umm, you’ve got to wear something, right? That’s true. Luckily, there are fair trade brands that don’t use pesticides in the production of their materials, or that make their clothes in America/Europe, or that guarantee human rights to their workers. And then there’s second hand clothing as well, as the most sustainable option there is.

But these fair trade brands are expensive, aren’t they? Well, some of them are. But put it into perspective. By buying a $5 skirt, you’re feeding the company that poses hazards to the environment, health and life of the people that made that very skirt and last but not least, yourself. Your wallet won’t feel these things, but you will know them. I know them now, and I just cannot go on and pretend I'd never seen the movie. 

I honestly think living fair-trade 100% is very difficult, if not impossible. And I’m not saying I will never ever buy a thing in H&M or Zara again – who knows, I might just need a pencil skirt all of a sudden if, say, I get an office job tomorrow, and not enough money to invest in a fair-trade one at that point. But what I can do is limit myself. Be conscious about the things I’ve seen and heard, be responsible to the world and myself. Not satisfy my ‘wants’ just because I can. Think about the price tag. Think about the true cost.

You can watch the movie online, and I really, really urge you to do it. Maybe you won’t react the way I did, and I guess that’s fine too as long as you can justify your choice. But you need to watch it. And visit their website as well. You’ll find some advice on how to shop smarter. Great starting points!

If you watched the movie already, I'd love to hear your comments on the topic. If you haven't, have I persuaded you? You're welcome to express any opinions on the matter.

P.S. A big concern of mine is the following: can a person actually love fashion and avoid fast fashion chains? This I really don't know for sure. I feel I need to learn a lot about each and every designer / brand and their production in order to find out. I don't want to be some sort of a fair-trade hippie, but as I saw this past summer at Berlin Fashion Week, it's possible to be both stylish and eco-friendly. So here's a challenge: being stylish and responsible without breaking the bank. I'm ready! 

Love, Tihana

Source for fashion industry and garment workers data: The True Cost website

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