Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ethical Fashion Part 2: Learning More with The True Cost Documentary

Who pays the price for our cheap clothing?
Watch the trailer for The True Cost, an eye-opening documentary on Fast Fashion
Watch the entire film in the post below:

Somewhere in the early 1990s, I noticed that clothes were getting cheaper.  It wasn't just the usual items found in affordable, somewhat utilitarian lines at JC Penney, Sears, and Payless Shoes ... it was everywhere.  You could still shop the expensive designers, but right alongside them were inexpensive versions of high fashion styles.  And they were cute!

What is the true cost?
It was great, right?  It was a fantastic democratization of fashion that allowed everyone to look like they walked out of the pages of Vogue, without needing a supermodel salary in order to do so.  It wasn't just affordable knock offs, either.  Alternate, cheaper designer lines were showing up in regular stores.  I still remember thinking I was getting away with something when I could buy versions of Isaac Mizrahi at Target.  

I was.  We all were.  And we're still doing it.

I'll admit, in my younger years I didn't really question how cheap clothing was possible.  I was just happy that I didn't have to scrimp and save too much in order to buy a new outfit.  Sure, I was horrified and outraged when the occasional news story broke about terrible conditions in sweat shops.  (How could Kathy Lee have done such a thing?  And shame on Nike!) I vowed to avoid the companies responsible, and I went right on happily buying whatever I wanted without really questioning where or how things were made.  

As a child of the 70s, I just assumed most clothes were made in the USA by happy, well-paid workers.  I can still sing the old "Look for the union label" song from those early 1980s Ladies Garment Workers Unions commercials:

Yes, I remember this.  

As the years progressed, I noticed that prices were continuing to get lower, rather than higher.  Forget looking for a union label, because there were few to be found.  There were a lot more Made in China (or India or Bangladesh or Vietnam) labels in everything I bought -- from clothing to electronics -- but I didn't really think about it.  Globalization was in, and clothes were cheaper, and that was that.   Eventually, they even came up with a name for it: Fast Fashion.  It sounds so 21st Century, doesn't it?  Style in a flash.  Easy access.  Right here, right now, always something new and always affordable.
Pretty clothes often have a not-so-pretty story

In the last decade, however, the dizzying, quickly-changing collections at Forever 21, H&M, TopShop and Zara have hit me with some unsettling, inconvenient questions:

While I love being able to acquire really great clothing without going into debt, how on earth is it possible to buy a hand-sequined mini dress for only $10?  Or stiletto heels for $15?  Surely the materials alone are worth much more, and it would certainly take me hours to hand sew thousands of sequins or try to put together a high heeled shoe.  Recently, when Shoe Dazzle and JustFab had summer clearance sales, I saw shoes available for $5.00.   Who is making these things, anyway?  Slaves?

The answer to that question is: well, not exactly but kind of...

For an eye-opening (and horrifying) look at the true cost of our fast fashion, I recommend one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time.  Released in 2015, The True Cost takes us into the machinations of fashion production -- and all of its accompanying horrors.  Filmed in countries all over the world, this film pulls back the curtain on the largely unseen part of fashion.  From egregious worker exploitation to dangerous environmental impact, the way many (most!) clothes are made will make you rethink whether or not you always want to stay "on trend."

You can watch the trailer at the top of this post, and see the entire film below.  I have a warning, however.  Once you learn about the heartbreaking underbelly of fashion, it will change the way you view your own approach to buying clothes.

Watch The True Cost in its entirety.
Available here from Netflix
Available here from Amazon

It's easy to be overwhelmed by this information, and when I first learned of these things I was unsure how I could have any positive impact.  That's when I discovered the hashtags #ethicalfashion, #slowfashion and #sustainablefashion.  There are many people working towards building a better fashion industry -- from companies and brands dedicated to ethical business practices to style bloggers intent on raising awareness and changing attitudes.  (Can you see me raising my hand?)  

There are many things we can all do as fashion lovers to be more ethical in our shopping habits. Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series, as I discuss some of the things I now try to do as a stylish, but ethically-minded shopper.  

For a great overview of the Slow Fashion movement, you can literally read the book:

Safia Minney offers hope in the potential of fair trade, sustainability, organic products as well as vintage and thrift-store shopping.  I was inspired by the ideas offered in this book, summed up by the term "restorative economics."

I also recommend Wear No Evil: How to Change the World with Your Wardrobe.

Greta Eagan offers practical advice for all of us as we navigate fashion and ethics.  (No, we don't have to stop wearing cute clothes.)

I also encourage everyone to start searching for #ethicalfashion brands on Instagram and Twitter.  I've found some amazing companies that way.  One of my favorites is Karina Dresses, which I reviewed here. ( Click here for 15% your first Karina purchase!)

Loving my latest Karina dress!
The liberating part about learning all of this for me has been a final dismissal of pretty much everything fashion "experts" tell me to do.  It's great to no longer see clothes as the props to play by other people's style rules.  It's empowering to pick heel heights and hem lengths that I know look great on me, rather than trying to wear something from every season's must have list.

Do I still like to play along with trends?  Of course.  But I'm having fun adding those things to a closet that really, truly represents me.  And to be honest, it's more fun to refuse to feed an out-of-control industry as I choose my own trends.

Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Want to leave a comment or recommend an ethical fashion brand?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Head over to the Chic Contraire Community Forum to start a conversation!