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.

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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.

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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.