Have you ever noticed a trend and made fun of it, along with the people who participated in it? That’s me. It happened whenever I came across the word—“eco-friendly” (or environment-friendly)—especially if it were paired with clothing. I laughed at it like how I laughed at signs that say “gluten-free water.”
One day, as I was helping my mom with her career change, I went through all of her skills and realized she was very good at sewing. A light bulb went off in my head that she could sew bralettes! Bralettes are on the rising trend and I could foresee my mom enjoying the creative process of sewing them (despite her double Ds). But how could I differentiate her bras from other brands? Essentially, how can I bring in more value and uniqueness into the bralette brand? Out of nowhere, the word “eco-friendly bralette” popped into my head and I immediately typed it into Google to further understand it, or see if it existed at all.
In case you were curious, the bralette business never sprouted, but it did lead me down a path of discovering different types of fabrics that were less toxic for the environment and showed me the importance of knowing where and how your clothing was manufactured. Essentially, every click led me to the movement I know now as “Fair Trade.”
As a student majoring in Nutrition, I was always concerned with organic food, but it never felt meaningful enough to me to only change the agricultural system. But with the Fair Trade movement, I felt a deep connection to the goals and visions. In simple terms, it aims to benefit the environment and its people. Fair Trade certifies products that are ethically made by producers and sustainable for the planet. The list goes on forever with products like furniture, clothing, food, jewelry, and so on. What this tries to achieve is elimination of poverty and the development of human empowerment. Instead of waiting for international donations, these individuals are seizing the future with their own hands. Yes, the price may be higher than conventional products, but where your money goes to is a safe work environment for the laborers, educational classes that teach women how to operate a side business, and most importantly, a growing community that cares for their self-esteem and future. It aimed for all sectors of one’s life, not just one particular area.
Sounds incredible, but where do we start to inform people?
And that’s where the documentary “The True Cost” comes into play. Informing, to me, has always been a better alternative to forcing someone into a certain point of view. And that’s what the director Andrew Morgan does in this film. It particularly focuses on clothing and the ramifications it has on our world. Throughout the film, he interviews the CEO of People Tree that sells fair trade clothing; Indian field workers; economists; and individuals with rich stories of inequality, tragedy, and humble hope.
All of us can agree that our clothing communicates to people who we are, but have we ever acknowledged where the clothing came from?
Many people, like me, cut off the shirt tag upon returning home because it irritates them. This tag commonly lists the percent material composition and the country origin of where it was last sewn or manufactured. I never cared for the information; I only cared if it were stylish, comfortable to wear, and affordable—the lower the price, the better my pocket and life were. But in the span of things, my life was not better. The documentary points out the fact that major fashion companies have us hanging our happiness on next season’s coat hangers with their flashy commercials and catchy slogans. I’m certain most of us finally understand the influence of advertisement and marking on us. Even though they are ways to kick-start businesses and to get their messages out there, there comes a certain point when it’s more detrimental than it is informative. We buy clothes we don’t wear to cover up our voids we need to fill by ourselves. Youtube stars perpetuate this trend by buying bags of clothes only to talk about how cheap the deals were and how cute it looks, but no one talks about the effort and origin of a dress or pair of pants. I know it sounds altogether too cheesy, but as this community grows more conscious about food, its taste, and especially how it is made, we can do the same for clothing. Even though it does not go into our bodies, it is on laden on top of our bodies and how we’ve become to identify ourselves with.
Knowing the origin of something is no longer a trend; it is a valuable opportunity. When Morgan interviewed the garment factory owners, it became obvious that besides the owners who inflicted punishment on workers who opposed them, there were others who felt compassion for the tragic conditions for these employees. It’s hard to admit, but we as the consumers are to blame. Just because it’s a difficult truth, it doesn’t make it difficult to fix. In economics, we learn the market is manipulated by demands and supplies. By shifting our demand from cheap, unethical clothing to quality, sustainable clothing, we can start to witness a positive shift in the fashion industry and environment as well.
All of my life, I never saw the connection between clothing and the environment. I thought donating my clothing to Salvation Army meant making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate than I am, but what “True Cost” elucidated to me was—most of my clothing almost never makes it to donation centers. Instead, it ends up in shipments to third world countries—either sold for cheap or caste aside to accumulate in the landfill. There are negative ramifications that entail toxic dyes polluting the rivers and civilians nearby developing the symptoms of toxicity.
Knowing this, Morgan went into the villages of India and interviewed each family. There were no tears shed but only the rocking embrace of mother and son because his father had commit suicide. Committing suicide is frequent in this town of Bangladesh. The family’s day took a turn when their father, a cotton grower, was told that his land of cotton belongs to the pesticide company he buys pesticides and seeds from because his debt has not been repaid. What debt? Where did it come from? The answer is much more nuanced and complex than expected. The pesticide companies offer him these cottonseeds with toxins to fight against pests, but the insidious part of this is now the company has an upper hand and ownership on his land. Yet, there is never a promise that these seeds will permanently get rid of pests so many families come to these companies multiple times for more pesticides to spray their field. As seasons pass, these families rely more and more on these companies, resulting in more debt than yielded profit. And to connect this to the practical world, most of our clothing is made out of cotton so what happens when we buy a cheap t-shirt made out of GMO cotton? The money is distributed amongst the retailer, company, middleman, and lastly, the cotton grower. What is left for the cotton grower? One, his salary is below the minimum wage, let alone a living wage; two, the pesticide he uses is polluting his town and linked to the increasing occurrence of children mental retardation; three, his only source of income has now become his source of debt. All of these circumstances are altogether too unfair in the sense that no one has to go through this and it can be avoided if we, as the consumers, had higher standards for those who make our beautiful flowing dress and sturdy jeans.
With complex problems come complex answers. I don’t want to pretend to know the answers or condemn anyone for his or her way of living. What I can do is “walk my talk” and hope I can tap into people’s humanity to value what they own and only purchase what they need and is ethically produced or sourced. Because if you think about it, if we were in those garment workers’ shoes, how would we feel? Similar to what I said earlier, social responsibility is not a trend—it’s a way of getting in touch with who we already are.
Watch “True Cost” to know the origin of the garment you lay on your skin. It’s not a pretty story like other food documentaries where they slow motion the chef cooking to sugarcoat the whole experience. This is a raw documentary where people—just like us, our friends, our families—who sew our clothing and are forgotten. I want us to remember them and know who they are. We must fight for them, in our own ways, so their lives are equal to our own lives. Equal means Fair, and it starts with the Fair Trade movement.