I will never shop at Forever 21 again.
At least, that’s my initial reaction after watching The True Cost, a documentary directed by Andrew Morgan that was released May of last year.
At the moment, the heated sentiment applies to any fast fashion retailers I can think of – Zara, H&M, Topshop – all retailers that I’ve supported and followed for as long as I’ve had a fashion conscience and a coin purse.
This change in heart is a big deal, as pre-True Cost, I’d always felt (blindly) thankful to live in a world where fast fashion ruled. It meant that back in high school, I could take one trip to the mall with a few rumpled 20’s in my pocket and reemerge with a slew of outfits I was confident were worthy of the pages of my favorite fashion magazines. I would sing the praises of my favorite affordable retailers to my friends: This shirt is totally cute and it was only $10! This place is so budget-friendly and cost-conscious! A win for everyone!
Or so I thought.
As I watched Morgan’s 90-minute documentary that addresses the ugly truth behind fast fashion – truth I had never cared enough to pay attention to – that “gratitude” I had felt for these retailers faded away, and in its place crept in guilt and contempt.
I’ll admit this is not the first time in my life that a skillfully produced documentary has convinced me I need to drastically alter my life habits. More often than not, I promptly forget about the issue in question.
However, it’s apparent that this matter – one that concerns our shopping habits threatening the very lives of workers in developing countries – is far too dire to sweep under the rug.
As the distressing documentary tells it, the story of fast fashion – how our $10 crop tops make their way from conception to our closets – is one of two sickeningly contrasting worlds.
Think back to your last shopping trip. What was the setting? Maybe it was a casual romp through the mall with your friends. Maybe you were looking to find the perfect graduation dress, or a cute new swimsuit. Regardless of your reason for shopping, you most likely weren’t thinking about where the seemingly endless selection of clothes before you came from, or how any of it was made. I know I definitely don’t – or, didn’t.
Herein lies the problem.
Our frivolous, high-voltage world of glittering dressing rooms and bottomless bins of trendy clothing are a world away from the bleak conditions of the sweatshops that workers endure to make these garments.
And yet, these two worlds are directly correlated – in fact, they can only exist in tandem with each other. The demand for fast fashion in developed countries coupled with the demand for jobs in underdeveloped countries allows fast fashion retailers to take business elsewhere if it isn’t performed at a low enough cost, leaving little room for fair payment or safe working conditions for garment workers.
“You know, we’re actually profiting from their need to work – using them as slaves.” Livia Firth, creative director of Eco Age and activist for ethical fashion practices, said in an interview with CNN. “I’m not saying we don’t need to give them work, but they have to be treated with the same respect that we treat our children, our friends. They’re not different from us.”
It’s hard to believe that our individual, seemingly insignificant purchases could be contributing to a much larger global problem – one that is costing people their lives, at that. But it’s time to wake up and realize that our shopping choices have a ripple effect that extends beyond the doors of the dressing room.
“People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing; they only buy it and wear it,” Shima Akhter, a Bangladeshi garment worker said as she broke into tears during an interview for True Cost. “A lot of garment workers die. I don’t want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood.”
As women in generation Y and Z, we’re on the cusp of inheriting the world as we know it, and starry-eyed with the idea of leaving the planet better than we found it. We purport to strive for a greener planet and social equality, yet continue to buy into fast fashion, a system that has been corrupted on a global scale.
Fast fashion, as it currently operates, allows the privileged to buy more clothing at the expense of the less fortunate. It sounds like a concept straight out of The Hunger Games, and yet, it’s the reality we as consumers help to perpetuate. But we have the power to stop doing that right now.
“The customer has to know that they’re in charge,” said Stella McCartney, a prominent face of eco-friendly fashion, in an interview for True Cost. “That is really important. You don’t have to buy into it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy into it.”
Do we really want to be the generation that is okay with terrible working and living conditions for thousands if it means we can get more affordable clothing on our side of the globe?
I don’t, and I don’t want to stand for it.
For me, from here on out, the only $4 shirts I’ll be browsing will be those on the racks of my local Goodwill. I will scour Etsy for affordable vintage and handmade alternatives to pieces that I would have otherwise bought from a bargain-centric fast fashion store. I’ll make sure the retailers I purchase clothing from are implementing ethical labor practices. Hopefully, as more consumers wake up to realize the damage their fast fashion shopping sprees are causing across the world, they will adjust their shopping preferences accordingly.
Only then will retailers realize where consumers’ priorities lie, and realign their business practices to change the landscape of fast fashion for the better. Hopefully then, our casual trips to the mall will affect prosper throughout the world for all people, not just for we privileged few and our own wallets and wardrobes.