The true cost of fashion

The True Cost

I recently went to watch The True Cost. It’s a documentary about the fashion industry, and tells the tale about fast fashion, which is essentially the increased production and consumption of fashion. Instead of new clothes coming out seasonally, new clothes come out weekly. And people buy more of it, and wear it for less time. (Raise your hand if you have brought something on an impulse and taken it home to realise you will never put it on?). This is enabled in a large part because clothes are getting cheaper – why buy one top when you can buy two or three for the same price? And who cares if the quality is also cheaper, because you’ll only wear it a few times before getting something new!

TrueCost_FilmStill_06Watching the movie I kept thinking of Mr Price, which epitomises this model. I once saw a mom in Mr Price buying about 3 items of clothing for her daughter and it all came to under R100. She was so taken aback she asked the cashier to double check. Because, yes, it is crazy that things can cost so little!

Interestingly the movie showed a lot of high street brands like H&M, Gapp, Levi and Zara, so our lower Rand value means our idea of cheap is a little different to theirs. This also means that our cheap (Mr Price, Ackermans, Jet and Pep) is a whole new level.

TrueCost_FilmStill_01But back to the movie – as the name implies, there are other hidden costs to manufacturing so many goods so cheaply. And these costs are to the environment and human lives. It is a bit of the old cliche: big, evil corporations go to impoverished third world countries, set up sweat shops, pay workers as little as $2 a day with no job security or benefits, make then work in unsafe conditions (Bangladesh lost well over 1000 workers in one year because the buildings some TrueCost_FilmStill_20factories were housed in were in were in such bad condition they collapsed on the people inside!), and disregard any environmental damage done to the area (in the leather producing district in India, this meant pouring toxins directly into rivers which are many people’s only source of water – the effects of which have been increases in cancers, mental retardation, and other disorders, and because the people affected are so poor they cannot treat these problemsTrueCost_FilmStill_19), all so the fashion houses can earn huge profits. And if anyone complains, the corporations can move their factory virtually overnight to one of many other desperate countries, meaning all of the power sits with them, and yes, they exploit this to keep increasing their profits.

Arghh!!!!!! Do you ever feel like the world has gone insane and no one cares? …Deep breath in, and out…

SO – besides ranting and getting upset, what can you and I do about this? Well, I really recommend you start by watching The True Cost movie. After which you’ll probably have loads of ideas on what you can do, including boycotting certain stores. But actually there is a lot more you can do. Here are some ideas which aren’t mine, but which are in keeping with the slow fashion philosophy:

  • Try to avoid poly cottons, spandex, nylons, acrylics, and other materials which are plastics, because they are made from petrol which is not a sustainable solution. One exception to this is clothing made from recycled PET plastic. Yes, plastic bottles can make clothes! Last week I found a shirt in Woolworths made from recycled materials – just check clothing labels when you are browsing, and you might make some surprising discoveries.
  • Rather opt for natural fibres such as hemp, jute, linen, silk, cotton or bamboo linen (note that not all bamboo fabrics are kind to the environment because of how they are manufactured – here’s a great blog post explaining why).
  • If you can, really try to only buy organic cotton. Why? Non organic farming methods use large volumes of harsh pesticides, and pesticides are poisons which ultimately end up in rivers and streams, and inevitably you and other people will come into contact with them. (To find out more about the environmental impact of non organic cotton, read this.)
  • Second hand and vintage clothing is also a good way to find items that were produced the ‘old’ way, without plastics and pesticides. Plus wearing old clothing extends their life hugely, making for the slowest form of slow fashion.
  • Look out for ethically manufactured clothing. The Fair Trade label is a good one for this, as it guarantees that the people working in the supply chain for the item were paid a fair wage for their work, and that their working conditions meet basic health and safety standards. Plus the Fair Trade label also means good environmental protection practices have been adhered to along the supply chain, from farms to factories.
  • If you can find locally manufactured clothing, that is also good news, as your purchase will contribute to local employment in South Africa. Some initiatives are also working hard to uplift impoverished communities, meaning they are not only creating employment but are doing so for the most vulnerable section of the population – which will hopefully uplift them and their children out of poverty.
  • Try not to buy clothes on an impulse. Rather shop carefully with the aim that, as an adult, you are buying this item to wear and love for the rest of your life. Quality items that will not date and which suits your style and will work well mixing and matching with the other items in your wardrobe are the aim. And if you think this sounds a bit boring (especially for more impulsive and free spirited people) try and keep in mind that it will help you save money in the long run, and also help you to build up a really amazing wardrobe only full of items you really want to wear!
  • Put together a functional, minimalist wardrobe, which means having fewer clothes but getting greater mileage out of them. I’m trying this and loving it, as it has also simplified life for me, and helped me to solidify my personal style. This blog is full of great resources to create your own stylish, minimalist wardrobe:
  • Take good care of your clothes, so you can wear them for longer. Learn how to mend holes, or find someone who can do repairs for you.
  • When you are tired of old clothes, pass them on to someone, or throw a clothes swop party with your friends. Clothes that are not in a condition to be worn can be re-purposed into something else, or at the very least used a rags for cleaning around the house.
  • Take the 20 day sustainable fashion challenge on the slow fashion blog – this is a great way to get you to start thinking about your relationship to fashion, as well as practical ideas on how to embrace slow fashion. (I’m on day 6 and loving it! The challenges are very easy to do and will easily fit in to a busy schedule.)

Can you recommend any local brands that you support for their sustainable ethos?




  1. Thanks for the great advice! I’m working on incorporating slow fashion into my life, and I’ve also been on the lookout for such brands. This isn’t local, but I do think that Etsy is a great place to find small, sustainability-conscious businesses!


    • Yes, definitely, Etsy has some beautiful items and I believe the sustainable value of some of the products can far outweigh the courier implications of delivery – just always check to see what the item is made from, etc. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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