The True Cost

This is a long one, friends. But please read it or bookmark it to read it later if you can’t right now. It’s important.

Over the weekend I watched The True Cost movie after many of you recommended it. The recommendations came after a post I did with Walmart last week that dredged up a lot of thoughts and feelings on fast fashion. I always knew that fast fashion was a problem but had no idea in how many ways, and how much of a problem it is. Maybe I didn’t want to learn more and turned a blind eye because I was scared of what I would find out. Shame on me for that! But now, I can never unsee what I saw. It has weighed heavy on my mind for days.

Today I’m going to recap the main takeaways I got from the movie, encourage you to watch it as well, share what my plan is going forward, and list the sustainable and ethical brands that I already love. This is a learning curve for me and probably for most of us so forgive me if I don’t have it all figured out yet. My eyes have just been opened and it’s going to take some time to navigate the world of fashion now that I know the things I know.

I’m going to make mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes. I’ll buy something and not know who made it. You’ll buy something and not know who made it. But we can be more educated together and we can all do better.

My hope is that you’ll take this information, make at least one change in the way you shop, and then educate one more person. That action might seem small, but the ripple effect will add up to a real change.

Takeaways from The True Cost

The environmental impact of the fashion industry is staggering. I come from a background in food and wellness, so I’ve read a lot about the environmental impact of the food industry. I had no idea that fashion surpasses it and is the second highest polluting industry globally (according to The True Cost). This occurs in all types of ways and starts with us.

We are consuming more than ever. If you’ve ever seen a video of Macy’s opening it’s doors on Black Friday, you know this is true. But hearing the numbers was shocking. The world consumes about 400% more clothing than we did two decades ago. According to the film, it’s 80 billion pieces of clothing per year.  Not only are we buying more, but we’re throwing it away as we see clothing more and more as disposable.

“As new clothing comes into our lives, we also discard it at a shocking pace. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year.” (source)

There are also huge issues in the cotton industry. “Cotton represents nearly half of the total fiber used to make clothing today. More than 90% of that cotton is now genetically modified, using vast amounts of water as well as chemicals. Cotton production is now responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use.” (source)

The documentary dives deeper into both of those topics as well as how the toxins used to process and dye leather are harming the people in the villages where these processes occur.

The problem involves far more brands than I thought. A quick Google search reveals that brands I’ve loved and worn (and posted about) for years are part of the problem. This includes Gap, Nike, Urban Outfitters, Old Navy, and more obvious ones like H&M, Forever21, and Zara. What’s interesting to me now is that I’ve worn, worked with, or promoted all of these brands in the past and not one person has said anything to me. But the second I worked with Walmart, it struck a nerve. What I see from this situation is that we all need to educate ourselves on how deep the problem lies. It’s not just one company. It’s not just a handful of companies. It’s many fashion brands that we love and shop at on a daily basis.

Many people can’t afford to not shop fast fashion. One of the most common requests I get here on Lemon Stripes is to post more affordable clothing. After even just a small amount of research over the last two days, I can see that it is really really hard to shop ethically when you don’t have a lot of money. This Fast Company article about how to shop ethically on a budget is a good resource with some smart ideas that include memberships like Rent the Runway and online consignment stores like ThredUP. But for mainstream fashion, it’s not easy. One of their tips is to buy more classic, durable clothing. But well-made, quality clothing often has a higher price tag that just isn’t financially possible for many Americans. I see that as a major problem.

Human capital is not worth the penny saved. 97% of our clothing is made overseas. Of course that 97% isn’t all bad, but we “consistently see the exploitation of cheap labor and the violation of workers’, women’s, and human rights in many developing countries across the world.” You’ve read sentences like that time and again but what does that mean exactly? The story that tugged on my heartstrings the most was the story of a factory worker in Bangladesh named Shima and her daughter, Nadia.

Shima works in a clothing factory and started a union with her coworkers to ask for better, more livable working conditions.  She presented the union’s requests to management and as a response, they locked all of the female workers in a room and beat them up. Shima has a small daughter named Nadia who she often had to bring to the factory because she can’t afford childcare. The factory is full of chemicals that are harmful to children, so she ended up having to send Nadia to her parents’ home, far from the city so that they can raise her with a better life. She sees her daughter only a few times a year.

The other story that I somehow either blocked out of my head or never read about (is that possible?) was that of Rana Plaza, a garment factory that collapsed in 2013 that killed over 1,000 workers and injured 2,500 more. The workers had told management about cracks in the building the day before, but they ordered workers to come back the next day. The building collapsed that morning. That is one story out of hundreds where garment workers are spending their days in unsafe working conditions.

Next Steps

Sadly, as an American, it is virtually impossible to shop 100% ethically unless you dedicate a lot of time and money to it. Things aren’t going to turn around overnight. I can’t make that big of a change in a day, and you probably can’t either. Unless you can, then more power to you! But if we all start to make small changes and we become more aware of what we’re buying and how it’s made, I really believe that we can shift the needle. This is what I plan to do in the short term as I learn more for the future. I commit to doing better in these ways:

How many wears? Clothing is more disposable than ever, and on The True Cost’s website, they have 5 tips for shopping smarter. The first tip is to ask yourself if you’ll wear something 30 times. I think it’s okay to take baby steps and bring that number lower, but the idea behind it is to be more intentional and ask yourself if you’ll wear something over and over. And that’s where I’m going to start. It’s an easy change for anyone to make, no matter where you’re shopping. If you need a dress for a special event (think prom, wedding, etc) consider renting or borrowing it, and if you buy it, donate it or give it to a friend to wear afterward.

Smart donations: One thing that I learned more about from the movie is that a huge percentage of the clothing we donate to places thrift shops like Goodwill get packaged up and sent to developing countries. There is such a surplus of clothing from the states that much of it ends up in landfills. I had heard about this a while ago so I stopped donating my used and unworn clothing there. Instead, I donate to local charities that I know will take and use the product. I like to work with organizations that help women and moms who really need them. I’m going to do a whole post on places where you can donate clothes after I do more research.

I’ve also sent a lot of product into ThredUp, a great online consignment store.

Using the good on you app: I downloaded the good on you app to discover more ethical brands and see where the brands I love measure up. I actually used the photo above for this post because I looked up every brand I’m wearing and they’re all in the “it’s a start” or “good” category. My shirt is lululemon (rating), my shorts are Levi’s (rating),  and my sweater is Sail to Sable (not on the app but I know the founder and she told me that although her clothing is made overseas, she and her designer visit the factories and hold them to the highest standards).

It’s not going to be perfect. I’m going to try really hard to shop smarter going forward. I will not be perfect. I will make mistakes. I will continue to learn and grow. I’ll keep sharing “shop my closet” outfits to encourage you to re-wear pieces you already own. I will do my best. I ask you to try and do the same. But forgive yourself if you’re not perfect because it’s not going to be easy. I’ve seen friends and other bloggers try to commit to shopping only sustainably and they often ultimately fail not because they’re not trying but because the industry itself has made it so difficult for us as consumers to navigate it all.

Ethical Brands I Love

Luckily, there are a lot of brands out there doing things right! There is hope and there are people working to change the fashion world. This list of brands that I personally love is based on what I found on the internet in two days, but let me know if I missed anything or if any of these companies are, in fact, not ethical fashion brands. And if you have a favorite brand, share it below!

Cuyana: I was so happy to see that one of my all-time favorite brands was on many lists for ethical fashion. I feel like I never shut up about Cuyana but I love their product so much and their “fewer better things” message.

The coolest thing that they do, in my opinion, is their lean closet initiative where they have partnered with ThredUp Every time you place an online order at Cuyana, you’ll get a free Cuyana x thredUP shipping label. When you send in gently used clothes that you no longer use, you will earn Cuyana credit from the pieces they accept plus another 15% credit as a bonus. When you spend that credit, Cuyana donates 5% of it to H.E.A.R.T. I should note that on good on you, it’s rated not good enough because of a lack of information. If you know more about their practices, please let me know so I can post it here.

Rothy’s: I have three pairs of Rothy’s and love them a lot. They’re super comfortable and machine washable, but even better, they’re ethically-made from recycled materials (water bottles). The brand uses low-waste cutting techniques to minimize textile waste. You can read more about their process here. It is a very cool read. I also saw on their sustainability page that they’ve reused 29,342,356 bottles. I can hardly even fathom that number. Big thumbs up, Rothy’s!

Dudley Stephens: Did you know that my favorite fleece brand started by a close friend of mine and her sister makes their fleece from recycled water bottles too? I get asked all the time why their product is so expensive and a big part of that is because all of their clothing is made ethically and locally in Brooklyn and that is something that they won’t budge on. The sisters are dedicated to sustainability and keeping factory jobs right here in the US.

Persifor: One of my best girlfriends started Persifor six years ago and not only makes her clothes in the US, but donates extra fabric to a local organization for refugees learning how to sew.

Rent the Runway: Renting is recycling. Instead of buying a dress to wear once for an occasion, rent it! That’s a lot more sustainable. The company is very dedicated to sustainability, using responsible dry cleaning, only faux fur, and environmentally-friendly packaging. Go RTR!

Everlane: I read a bunch of articles about how Everlane is a dedicated ethical fashion brand but the good on you rating was not great. But I found this article explaining why. I think this rabbit hole I went down shows that you don’t really ever have a solid answer and as consumers, it’s harder than you think to find the truth. If you know more about Everlane, please share your knowledge. I love their product and hope that it measures up. That said, they have an incredibly transparent page on their website highlighting their factories around the world.

Allbirds: The brand isn’t on the app yet but I found it on multiple lists about sustainable brands. Their laces are made from recycled water bottles, their packaging is made from 90% recycled cardboard, and the wool on their sneakers is made from sheep that live a good life. You can read more about their sustainability commitments here. They are also going carbon neutral this year. I wear my Allbirds almost every day and I can safely say that they are the most comfortable sneakers I’ve ever owned.

Summersalt: Summersalt bathing suits are super flattering and their one-pieces were all I felt comfortable in post-partum. I was so excited to see them on this Fast Company guide to buying ethically on a budget. My favorite suit is this one. They are also size-inclusive and having worked with them in the past, I can say that everyone I’ve spoken to at the company has been so kind and supportive.

M.Gemi: You know by now that I’m ride or die for M.Gemi. The brand isn’t on the good on you app but I read in multiple places that their shoes are made in small, family-owned workshops in Italy. They sell their product directly to the consumer which cuts on cost and makes the price to quality ratio unbeatable.

lululemon: We are a big lululemon family. Anel is an ambassador for the brand and pretty much exclusively wears their clothing for work. When I was searching for them in the good on you app, I was praying that they are an ethical brand and, alas, they are doing a good job.

Reformation: I only have one dress from Reformation, but I love their clothing. Now I have a good excuse to shop there. Based on everything I saw, they have by far the most transparent page about their factories on their website. Their good on you rating is good too.

Patagonia: Out of all the brands listed here, Patagonia had the highest rating on the app. I’ve been a long-time brand fan so knew some of what they were doing, but they go above in beyond in more ways that I can list here. Their company mission is this: We’re in business to save our home planet. That’s a pretty powerful mission for a clothing company! Read this page on their site about environmental impact and this one about their supply chain.

Your turn

Will you commit to watching The True Cost if you haven’t already? Because I know that if you see it, you will think differently about the fashion industry. There is no way that you can’t. If you have seen it, or don’t have time to catch it soon, I’m going to ask you to commit to making at least one change going forward. Whether it’s renting outfits for events, donating your used items in a smarter way, or shopping at stores like the ones I listed above, let’s do something.

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