The True Cost: Film Still

Shopping after watching The True Cost

There is sheer idiocy to the fact that somehow, I need people to show me through a documentary what I already knew for it to truly make a difference in my life. It tells you something of the relative comfort with which I can surround myself if I so wish (and so, in essense, this is a story of my privilege). If I so choose, I could live my life and not care about anything else that goes on in the world, if I don’t actively want to care. I think this is in due part to the way we have organised our society, but it is also about personal responsibility. (There is something about this strange limbo that has had me very upset in the past months, but perhaps this is a subject for a different time).

Anyway, I have been trying to more actively inform myself about certain issues in the past months. At one point, I stumbled upon the documentary The True Cost on Netflix (which, again, tells you something re: ‘entertainment bubble’, or whatever). Since watching it, I have not been able to think about shopping in the same way. Or, really, I have not been able to walk across a city centre in the same manner.

The True CostWhat The True Cost does is portray the manner in which our current consumption of clothes (fast fashion) is a drain on the environment as well as on human rights. Fashion pollutes both through the environmental unfriendly production of most cotton as well as the fast turnaround in the fashion industry, which means we end up with lots of landfills with discarded clothes. Human rights are of course involved in the production of clothing, with factory workers in dangerous and unhealthy conditions working for ridiculously low salaries.

As I said, in essence, I knew. But The True Cost manages to bring the point home in a manner that brought me from a vague awareness while stepping into the H&M to a true rethinking of how I wanted to approach clothes and how to do so.

I think the strength of The True Cost is in addressing the different aspects that are troubling about the fashion industry. It is not just about one of these issues but it brings together the harvesting of cotton, the chemical processes involved in the production of leather, the conditions of factory workers, and our consumer society in which advertisements for new fashion statements are everywhere and it is easy to buy new clothes because they are cheap, our throw-away lifestyle and the effect that that waste has on other communities across the world.

There were things I did not know, or hadn’t fully realised, such as: the fact that the fashion industry is the second-most polluting industry in the world, apart from the oil industry (I had to stop and let that sink in for a while); that the production of ‘natural’ materials such as cotton and leather involve so much chemicals; that donating clothes has such an impact on communities across the world, which are left with piles and piles of clothes wreaking havoc on local production and the landscape.

Most of all, I think The True Cost manages to give a human face to what is wrong with the system, and through it’s montages of Black Friday sales and other such-like events it manages to illustrate the absurdity of the manner in which we are now accustomed to consume clothes.

– – –

There is a reflex that I have noticed in myself when it comes to documentaries or readings of this kind. They devastate me for a while. And I am utterly upset. And then life continues as it was. And I continue my daily life as I always did. More aware, perhaps, in the back of my mind, of all of this stuff, and yet not taking action because it is hard and everywhere you turn there is the danger of people thinking you are being too pessimistic or just generally whining about stuff you need not care about or which you need not make your personal burden. Not to mention the fact that finding ethical clothing is difficult and takes a lot more effort then simply going to the shopping centre and seeing what is on sale.

I found myself doing the same after watching The True Cost. After two pregnancies I had rather a shortage of clothes because I had hardly bought anything new after I became pregnant the first time around, always thinking that I was not sure what my figure and weight would be like and so not bothering. My jeans were threadbare and so was my underwear. After having Emmi and being lucky enough to lose weight fast (which made the maternity clothes look rather weird on me), I had to have a few options to wear when I returned to work. And so I went to a chain store and bought a few outfits.

The True Cost: Film Still

Movie still from The True Cost

And then I remembered The True Cost and how I had wanted to do things differently after watching it – failing miserably even 3 weeks in.

Since then I have been trying to be more conscious of what I buy and how I buy. I admit, it has been a struggle. The outfits I bought in the summer were for summer and so I am scarce on fall and winter clothes. I am trying to turn to ethical and eco fashion but finding brands that suit me and determining how they will look on me (since I have to buy online to have access to them most of the time) has proven hard work. These clothes are also more expensive, and since there is a lot to replace after 3 years I cannot say that this has been an outright success.

But, here’s the thing. I am committed to the idea that small things matter. If this is one of the few ways in which I can contribute to change then I need to believe that my choices in consumption matter. And so this is what I am trying to do. I can’t do it all, I can’t buy full-on new ethical clothes for the whole family, so for now I am concentrating on my own wardrobe. Also, there will be times when I can’t and I am trying not to feel guilty about buying socks at my regular retailer (although I do).

I cannot say that I have drawn up a set of rules for myself, but they are loosely there at the back of my mind:

  • I have to tell myself this again and again: You need not be perfect, nor does your wardrobe need to be. I am aiming for a fair amount/percentage of conscious clothes first of all;
  • I do not do rigourous culling of clothes anymore. Things I do not like at the moment I packed away for later reference, and for those I know I won’t ever wear again I am still looking for a proper way of donating;
  • My first impulse was to get rid of all clothes in my closet, having seen the way in which they were made. But this is not productive (I think). So, rather, I am trying to get as much use out of them as possible, which means that they will not have been a waste;
  • If I have to buy new things, I am trying to work by the “30 wear rule“. Will I wear it 30 times? Can I combine the item in different manners, making it suitable for different settings? Do I really really like it? I have to admit that I have not yet tried this for regular retailer clothes, since I have not stepped inside these stores out of self-protection, but I think this would work nicely for those clothes as well.
  • I need to look into repurposing clothes or buying second-hand. But I admit that this would take up more time and I am finding it difficult to fit that into my life right now;
  • I am continuously trying to challenge the messages you receive through advertising and by simply walking through the city centre for myself. It is tiring, I admit. But it has also helped me to feel less compulsed to buy stuff, to do a double-take on whether I need something (both for clothes and for other items), and to set up a mechanism that makes me more aware that the way I have consumed in the past (and I am not  a fashionista at all) is not normal.

– – –

All of this not to say that you shouldn’t buy clothes in the way you want to. Or that you are wrong, wrong, wrong for wearing a dress bought at the Primark (because that is not necessarily the case). But I said I wanted this to be a place where I write about my own small efforts in a world that seems too big to change. And I have decided that my best approach to this is by highlighting what I have learned and how I am trying to progress from there. And to show how puzzled I am in my efforts. How imperfect they are. Because I have found that aiming for perfection is rather paralising. As is trying to address all the wrongs in the world. So I am picking my battles. And right now, the way I approach clothes is one of those battles.

14 thoughts on “Shopping after watching The True Cost

  1. dastevensishagain says:

    This movie sounds very, very good. I never would have guessed that the clothing industry was the second biggest polluter. I’m very lucky to live in area with an abundance of second-hand shops. Aside from undergarments, all my clothes come from thrift stores. And I save many of our worn out clothes for other purposes (I’ve made everything from patchwork blankets to dog beds, and some just goes to being rags as I refuse to buy paper towels). But my underwear and socks are not ethically made; I know this, and it does leave me feeling guilty. I try to remember that every single thing I do in life involves choice, and my aim is to constantly up the number of good choices I make. But I’m so very imperfect, and my life is full of bad choices. Some of which I’m sure I don’t even realize because of my privilege. I thank you so much for writing this post, Iris. I often shy away from talking about things like this, because 1) I know I’m horribly imperfect, 2) I know there’s so much I don’t know, and 3) I worry that people think I’m somehow judging them for their choices when that is so very much *not* the case. You wrote about all of this so very thoughtfully, so very honestly. Thank you for the inspiring me to try ever harder.

    • Iris says:

      I love this:

      “I try to remember that every single thing I do in life involves choice, and my aim is to constantly up the number of good choices I make.” And I think that that is such a good way to look at these sorts of problems! I might try to copy your approach.

      As for shying away from writing about these things, I completely understand. And actually, I feel the same. I am happy to see that you thought I addressed these things well, because these are things I constantly feel uncertain about myself. I felt that way while drafting this post, actually. And I’m still not sure if this does not feel if I’m lecturing, which I don’t want to do. Or what the contribution of it is anyway. So I’m glad to hear it did not bother you.

    • Iris says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendation! I have added the book to my Scribd library because it seems like the kind of book that’d really tie into this theme and therefore to my current interest!

  2. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Clothing is one of the areas where I definitely haven’t been doing enough to be an ethical person — like you say, it’s really damn hard to live ethically in every aspect of your life, particularly when so much of the world is set up to conceal the unethical things that go into making the stuff we consume. I need to do better — your guidelines are super good for that.

    • Iris says:

      Jenny, this is what I struggle with so much: “particularly when so much of the world is set up to conceal the unethical things that go into making the stuff we consume.” It is as if we’re automatically desentisized for much of this stuff. We don’t see it, it is far away, so we need not care. Same goes for war victims, droughts, etcetera, of course. Something I have been thinking about a lot lately.

  3. curlygeek04 says:

    This is really interesting and it sounds like a great documentary — I agree this is an important issue. I’m curious if there are brands that you or the documentary suggest? I’ve been using Stitch Fix for the last year and I’ve been thinking recently about whether that helps me to be more thoughtful about what I purchase or maybe less… on the one hand these aren’t impulse buys, I get a few days to think over each one and I feel I’m buying much better clothes. On the other hand, something that comes to your house automatically makes you want to purchase it. On the comment about donating, I find there are many nonprofits that want my donated clothes — Purple Heart, Lupus, Goodwill, etc. I know donating piles of clothes isn’t the answer to over-consuming, but you sound like you are struggling to find a good place to donate?

    • Iris says:

      I think finding a way to contemplate what you buy actually also contributes to this idea of shopping ethically? I am by no means an expert, just thinking out loud here. The website of the documentary has a list of some brands that work towards eco-friendly and fair trade fashion: Whether these work for you depends on your budget and where you live, I guess. Most of these brands are not readily available in the Netherlands, but I have found that googling ethical fashion or fair fashion has helped tremendously in looking at what might be options for me, personally. The same might work for you? Also, there are lots of boards with suggestions on Pinterest, if you are so inclined.

  4. Violet says:

    Your rules sound very doable. I hope they help you to be comfortable with the clothes you buy and wear.

    In Australia, ethical clothing is a niche market and the clothes are generally very expensive. I’ve looked at various online stores, but I can’t see myself wearing the clothes they sell. Then there’s the problem of size and finding something that actually fits properly. I find clothes shopping so tedious that I avoid it as much as possible, but when I absolutely need to replace something I go for classic, good quality, higher priced items that will last a long time. I don’t own many clothes and tend to mix and match white tops and black bottoms when I’m out and about. I think it’s called a ‘signature look’. 🙂 It kind of solves the problem of needing a lot of clothes, and cuts down on the ‘what will I wear’ conundrum. In my leisure time, I just wear my old favourite jeans and t-shirts until they fall apart.

    I’m interested in the psychology of fashion and why some people are heavily invested in being ‘fashionable’. Fashion marketing is just so relentless, and it saddens me to see how young girls dress these days. *sigh*

    It can get a bit overwhelming, this thinking about how we can lighten our footprint on the world. I think that being aware and mindful is a good place to start, and then we can just take little steps to change how and what we consume. My big bugbear is packaging. I don’t see why there have to be so many unnecessary layers of cardboard and plastic around things we buy. I bought a new external hard drive the other day and ended up with a pile of cardboard and plastic, most of which was totally redundant.

    • Iris says:

      You ould also call it a “Capsule Wardrobe” 😉 (Actually, I think those ideas have been really good in its intention to rethink how many clothes we actually need and how buying durable and easily mixable stuff can reduce the need for new clothes all the time, but it has also, of course, become a marketing fad by now).

      For me, I think the pregnancy thing really helped to see that I don’t need all that many options. Buying a whole load of maternity clothes is a bit of a waste so seeing how I “survived” with a small kit and how easy it actually was made me more aware of this for my regular wardrobe as well. As I said, I’ve never been a huge fashionista and I dislike shopping for clothes and am so often unable to find anything that I think suits me, so perhaps that makes that this is not such a huge adjustment for me. Except for not being able to buy in physical stores all that easily anymore, that is a huge drawback.

      And yes, packaging is so ridiculous. They wrap anything in plastic now, particularly foods. There have been some initiatives here with stores that sell food unpackaged and you bring your own cartons, bottles, etc, but of course living where I do these are not really options for me (they’re based in the larger cities). But I guess in these small ways there are challenges to rethinking how we consume and package.

  5. Stefanie says:

    This sounds like a good film. I will be adding it to my netflix queue. Clothing is hard to be strictly ethical with i find too. I am vegan so I don’t buy anything with leather or wool or other animal skin/fur, not even silk. That leaves synthetics made from petroleum products and cotton. I am not a clotheshorse and I hate shopping for clothes so I don’t have a huge closet full of stuff. When I do buy clothes though it is usually from someplace like Target — cheap. I’m pretty easy on my clothes so they usually last for a number of years but I do feel bad about not being willing to pay a premium for ethically sourced clothes. Plus it is hard to not be able to walk into a store and try things on. It shouldn’t be so hard, but it is and that is frustrating.

    • Iris says:

      I can imagine that shopping as a strict vegan is bound to be hard in all aspects of life, and I admire you for keeping that up. This documentary also dedicates a part to the fabrication of leather which was horrible to watch, so you are doing your part there, not just on animal rights but also on other aspects. I can’t remember where I read this but shopping durable is not just about ethically in the sense of production of cotton and clothes but also about not going along in the whole fashion-fads and getting the most out of the clothes you own or buy. I think that is worthwhile to mention.

      • Stefanie says:

        Shopping vegan does present challenges that’s for sure and sometimes I have to compromise — there are no vegan cycling shoes that I have been able to find. Good point, durability is important too. I suppose more than anything it is the throwaway nature of fashion, buying a skirt that is all the rage one year and tossing it out the next to buy the new thing. Breaking that cycle would be a great first step.

  6. Bina says:

    Oh I’ve seen this film in the docu section on Netflix, I need to give it a go! I think we’ve all been mostly blinded for so long and caring about many an issue comes and goes. It’s so annoying because we know these issues are all interconnected and dependent on each other, but still I feel we choose our fight and try to do a bit on other fronts. Still, I feel stupid for just refusing the plastic bags and trying to minimize waste, but then ignoring the hard questions about clothing. Took me years to learn about the problem with donating clothes to “global” charities. I’m so grateful though to people who choose to focus on ethical and sustainable clothing, they help create places we can shop when the budget allows for it.

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