I consider myself an intermediate environmentalist. I recycle and compost, donate to Goodwill, avoid plastic water bottles, and I respect California drought conditions with short showers. But I still shop a lot and sometimes I buy cheap clothes. Forever 21, H&M and Uniqlo have become my go to retailers for a $5 camisole or t-shirt. 

Frankly, I haven't felt bad about my consumption because:

  1. I assumed that working conditions have improved for laborers since the 90s (at the time there was a big shaming when Nike and Gap were exposed for sweatshop labor)
  2. The only silver lining of Americans losing factory jobs is that maybe people without Netflix in developing countries need them more.

Last night, my perspective changed. I watched the film The True Cost as part of Fashion Revolution Week at the Alliance Française de San Francisco. A panel of sustainable fashion gurus shared their thoughts before and after.

The True Cost was a heartbreaking yet hopeful documentary exposing the impact of NOT ONLY a marketplace in which one can now buy a $5 dollar t-shirt, BUT ALSO a market in which demand for clothing has quadrupled in the last 20 years. It's a race to the bottom and labor conditions improvements cannot keep pace with our increased demand.

Here's what else I learned:

  • Only 10% of the 82 pounds of textile waste *I* produce each year and donate get reused. The rest become landfill, and most are not biodegradable.
  • Cotton is half of the total fiber used to make clothing and accounts for 18% of world pesticide and 25% of insecticide use.
  • The textile industry is ~90% women, some of whom must separate from their children so that their children can thrive outside a factory life.
  • 1100 people were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, because factory owner ignored warnings about the building to continue to drive profits. (The statistic is nowhere near as powerful as the footage of small children crying as their mothers were 100 feet away buried alive in rubble.)

In many ways this film reminded me of Food Inc or Supersize Me, but for fast fashion instead of fast food. If you can imagine that the trend that those films set and the impact they've had on fast food chains like McDonald's and consumer demand projected onto the retail world, then THERE IS A LIGHT at the end of the tunnel.

Within the next five to ten years, with the right influencers touting the benefits of sustainable fashion, we will begin to trend away from our fast fashion consumerism. Companies with perceived integrity will have an opportunity to grab the reins and will profit from this movement. 

Here's what I'm going to do differently starting today:

  • As a consultant, I will pay attention to and highlight trends in sustainability for my clients.
  • As a consumer, I'm going to download a Higgs report and avoid retailers with low ratings.
  • As a consumer, I'll buy higher quality items, less frequently (a privilege and not a decision!).