'The True Cost' of fashion

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A screening of the documentary "The True Cost" was held at American University on Oct. 27. The film explores the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry, urging viewers to think about where their clothes come from, the conditions under which they are created, and the lives impacted by each purchase made.

The event, which was hosted by the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club in conjunction with the University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking, Office of Sustainability and Zero Waste Club, took place in the Malsi Doyle and Michael Forman Theater at the School of Communication.

Sierra Club’s Daniella Castiel, one of the organizers of the screening, said that as consumers, one of the first steps in making a difference is seeking out as much information as possible on how our clothes are made, including by reading about the topic online or watching documentaries on it.

“When you know what actually happens, the next time you walk into a store and pick up a pair of jeans, you think twice about it,” Castiel said. “When you think twice about something, you are being considerate, you are being conscientious about making that decision, you are looking for a better source, a better place to buy from.”

In her opening remarks introducing the film, Castiel spoke about how the fashion industry is currently the planet’s second largest polluter of freshwater resources. Castiel also brought up ethical implications of the fast fashion phenomenon, with consumers constantly chasing new trends and expecting cheaper items, leading to inhumane working conditions for many around the world.

“Have you ever thought about the power and influence we all have the moment we purchase a piece of clothing?” Castiel said. “Did you know that 80 percent of garment workers are female teenagers and young adults, women and girls between the ages of 18 and 25, the ages of many of us, in this room?”

Directed by Andrew Morgan, the documentary follows the making of clothes in today’s globalized world, looking at the cotton fields in Texas, the busy factories in Bangladesh and India where production is often outsourced to, and the fashion runways and shopping malls buzzing with customers. It includes voices from the fashion industry like designer Stella McCartney.

The film discusses the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed more than a 1,000 people. It showcases the struggles factory owners often face with retailers pressuring them to lower prices of products, forcing them to ignore the safety measures of the spaces in which their workers are in to keep up with consumer demand for cheaper clothing.

The film also talks about leather factories in Kanpur, the leather export capital of India. There, every day, more than 50 million liters of toxic wastewater is produced, contaminating the only source of drinking water in the area with chemicals used to treat leather, causing serious health issues for the residents. Major retailers from outside India are able to source cheap products while avoiding all accountability for the rising cost to the planet and human health, according to the filmmakers.

The film closes with Morgan questioning how long people will continue to turn a blind eye to the lives of those behind our clothing, and whether or not we are at a turning point on the path to making real change.  

“In the midst of all the challenges facing us today, all the problems that feel bigger than us and beyond our control, maybe we could start here, with clothing,” Morgan says at the end of the film.

Castiel hopes students become more thoughtful consumers and examine their wardrobe and see the people behind the fashion labels after having seen the film, she told Planet Forward.

“Consumers need to be more curious,” Castiel said. “When they put on a T-shirt, they need to think, ‘Whose hand has touched this T-shirt? Who suffered to make this T-shirt?’”

AU students Jessica Balerna and Celange Beck, co-presidents of the AU Zero Waste Club, said that they thought that while the film was a great place to start the conversation about the negative consequences of fast fashion, they would have liked to see more perspectives shown in the film, like the role of local and national governments when it comes to accountability, and more in-depth analysis and suggestions on how to create a more sustainable world. They said that their club has been working on starting a thrift store on campus for over a year and are currently waiting for approval from the university for their project.

Balerna, a senior in the environmental science program in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the documentary ties in well with the idea behind the thrift store project, which is to try and encourage people to reuse items and be thoughtful buyers.

“Instead of buying new and throwing it away, and buying new and throwing it away, you can buy used for less and sort of recycle it,” Balerna said. “So when you get bored with what you have, instead of throwing it away, it goes to back to the thrift store for someone else to get excited about.”

Beck, currently studying business administration at the Kogod School of Business, said that if and when the thrift store project is approved, the entire AU community will benefit from it.

“The thrift store is another way to improve the community on campus,” Beck said. “It’s about caring about the people and the planet simultaneously and having students involved in what we are doing at the store.”

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