The True Cost of Cheap Fashion Is Not Pretty


Haul videos have mostly gone by the wayside, thank goodness. But fashion bloggers are still associated with a certain amount of over-indulgence in the form of clothing and shoes—a fact that has bothered me since day one of my own blog five years ago.

People love a bargain. No one wants to feel they've spent too much on an item of clothing, especially when wearing clothing is your business. But the desire to save a buck has gone too far. Especially in the United States, we've become comfortable with the idea that a t-shirt should cost $5. That's not enough to actually pay for what goes into making a shirt, and a new documentary released today called The True Cost makes that fact painfully clear by exposing the damage done to human beings and their environments when the fashion is not properly valued.


The True Cost was first screened at at the Cannes Film Festival, and again last night at the IFC Center in New York, complete with a red carpet walked by Livia Firth, the film's executive producer, and her famous husband Colin. Public showings begin today, and it will open later in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and will also be available on iTunes and Netflix.


CNN writes:

The movie is filled with disturbing facts. Here's a few:

— 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves in the last 15 years, partly as a result of going into debt to buy genetically modified cotton seeds.

— There are 80 billion pieces of clothing purchased worldwide each year, up 400% from two decades ago.

— Americans throw out 82 pounds of textiles annually.

— Only 10% of the clothes people donate to thrift stores get sold — the rest end up in landfills orflood markets in developing countries.


Any one of those facts should be enough to make anyone swear of fast fashion. The True Cost director Andrew Morgan says he “never never thought twice about a piece of clothing I wore” until he saw a photo of children his own kids' age searching for family through the rubble of the Rena Plaza disaster in Bangladesh.

A weakness of the film, writes Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times, is that the film seems to equate fast fashion with high-end designer fashion by flashing generic images of glamorous runway shows. I agree with Friedman that that's unfortunate—not all fashion is created equally (or in sweatshop conditions).

Regardless, I look forward to seeing the movie. Check this page to see if it's showing in your area.



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21 Responses

  1. Marlena

    We have to shop sensibly and buy only what we really want/need in our wardrobe and will wear, and stop the throw-away shopping culture. I am glad the haul Youtube trend passed although the sad fact is that it is not only fast fashion that is guilty, it is the clothing and accessories industry as a whole. We all know it is not only H&M and Primark that use cheap Far East labour, it is many higher end brands too, and they profit from huge profit margins. The whole industry needs to change, and I have seen some signs of that happening – the ethical clothing lines prove to be more and more popular. Brands are more aware of the consumers’ point of view and from this point onwards, we can start to to feel a bit more optimistic.

  2. Lauren Jade Martin

    I’m building a capsule wardrobe and have no intention on filling it with ‘fast fashion’ I need pieces that not only were not created in environments like this, but will actually last. A $5 tee will last for $5 worth of wear. Versus a well-made, more expensive shirt that can stand up to a lot of wear. Hope this film screens in Austin.
    – Lauren Jade –
    Simplify Life, Maximize Happiness

  3. Melissa

    It’s cheap wholesale places that generate these terrible quality clothes at the expense of people’s livelihoods in other countries. It’s really sad.

  4. Dymond Moore

    I recently purged my closet of stuff I never wear and I either sold, donated, or gave hand me downs to family. I honestly believe it’s a waste of fabric and money to just throw away! If you’re crafty, make some cute patterned patched on the holes in your favorite jeans so you don’t have to throw away either! That’s just an example of what we could do if we’re conscious about it.

  5. Christine

    I actually read a book on this very topic. If anyones interested in learning more about it, I highly recommend “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”. It literally touches on everything you posted about. I used to work in a corporate office of a major discount retailer, so it was really interesting to see this kind of thing first hand.


  6. Melody Sours

    Wow! I would never think that such small percentages of thrift donations get sold. In the future, I’ll give to friends and family.
    I’ll also do more research on where I shop. I’m definitely guilty of buying that $5 white tee.


  7. Rebeca Muñoz López

    It is really terrible as the indiscriminate use of cheap clothing this raging with people from other parts of the world agree that it should become aware more people to moderate their purchases and promote campaigns to help bring this information more people.

  8. Happy Medley

    It’s so true! The cost of junky trendy clothes have gone way down and the rest of the world is paying for it. But that’s why we don’t want to pay $30 for a t-shirt and then take care of it and wear it for years to come. We want to buy one for $5 and wear it for few weeks and then get another one because the poor quality of item will be very noticeable.

    You can’t blame it all on consumers because the retailers know that and keep making junk instead good quality clothes that cost more.

    Happy Medley

  9. Amber

    I have a degree in fashion,so I know just exactly how hard it can be to make clothing and I’ve worked for some of the big fashion houses and it made me sick to my stomach just how shallow we have become when it comes to what we wear. Listening to young girls brag about only wearing something once because they can’t be seen wearing the same thing twice and then throwing it out because it got a little dirty was enough to make me want to scream! I only ever buy from second hand shops and use an app called Depop to swap and sell my clothes xxx

  10. Noemi

    Naomi Klein denounced this many years ago, writing that Gap (if I’m not wrong) and probably many other brands obliged women to pee in a plastic bag under their chairs so they don’t have to waste precious minutes to go the bathroom.
    It’s not only fashion, we all know how Apple treats Chinese workers.
    And the truth is that expensive brands exploit the poor people of some countries, too. Designers clothes and accessories are made most of all in China, India, Pakistan, Egypt… Just look at the labels. Don’t you know about the controversy caused in Italy by a video about how Moncler produces its expensive duvet jackets?

    • Marlena

      Exactly. Even if I stop shopping at Zara, Topshop and the like, and completely switch to the brands stocked on Net-a-Porter website, this is not going to make any difference as these labels also use factories in Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt. Yes, the quality will be better, but the reality of these poor factory workers is the same. Heck, even working in London in the fashion/textile industry, I saw workers doing 12 hour shifts, in a basement, no windows, no employment contract, and with constant pressure to produce more and more garments per hour. It was all done legally, by a reputable high end company. Sad but very much true.

  11. Lauren

    ive never been a fan of haul videos or mass cheap shopping. It is hard to avoid though when you find stores like gap are even at it and they’re not exactly cheap. Plus the lure of Primark when your particularly skint is difficult. This trend in human exploitation by big business is appauling though, we need to remember and try and do little things we can to counteract it

  12. Fashionlife92

    This is a really great article, I was watching a video on youtube the (Nike sweat shop) the workers were making clothing’s getting low pay / living poorly. It was sick and sad, all day & every day they had to work + explaining in details in the movie the materials were bad quality. Basically paying for the name / celebrities that get endorse. Children were getting sick from the factories, a guy made a document he was trying to meet the head quarters of nike to try to change the working conditions. The owner didn’t want to be bother, its a lot of nasty brands out there we support.

  13. Anastasia Nicole

    I went to school for merchandising. The minute I learned what went into making the clothes we buy and how the items are priced, I swore off fast fashion. Knowing the real cost of goods is one of the main reasons why, as a blogger, I focus on quality over quantity and have ZERO problems wearing the same things over and over in my outfit posts.

  14. Alex

    One of my tag lines is “I don’t haul, I curate” because I always disliked the haul video culture. I don’t shop a lot, but a lot of that is second hand. And my blog is actually based on wearing my items often and showing them in different outfit combinations, hoping to sort of teach by example. You can be fly even if you are wearing things over and over and over. And you don’t need 365 pairs of shoes. Or 25 different jackets.

    Alex – Funky Jungle

  15. Briana Lamb

    I will fully admit that this is an area I struggle with greatly; not from the sense of being someone who shops all the time for the latest trends, but due to my impoverished financial state (according to American standards). So I’m always drawn to the cheaper clothing simply for the pricetag. But as many, I am also torn due to knowing what goes on behind-the-scenes. (Not only that, but wishing to go back to a time where we all wore less clothing, but had pieces that were custom-made for us.) Alas, in this era of having a complete lack of tailors, seamstresses, everyday people who know how to sew (and well), the cost has been driven up for clothing. (Not to mention the costs of fabrics! Oh my word! The prices have been driven up and I, dare say, quality of fabric has gone down. So it feels as though one has to pay twice as much to get a well-made custom garment than in times past.)

    I wouldn’t mind seeing a blog post of cost analysis of what would go into making a t-shirt, jeans, slacks, dress, etc. to give people a better idea of what exactly things SHOULD cost if the laborers were given a true living wage. I know I don’t have a good knowledge of how much it truly costs to have such things made. My view is quite skewed in prices, being a costumer/cosplayer as commission prices are usually done to make a profit.

    Alas, I fear we won’t be seeing a change any time soon with the continuing rise of instant gratification and everyday folks wanting the ‘latest thing.’

    ~ Briana

  16. Kolleen Feria

    The hidden costs of the fashion industry are alarming enough. I recently just posted an entry also as a response to this problem here:

    The fact that bloggers from other countries have felt the urgency to respond to this as well is great, but we need to continue are efforts to actually do something about it. With our different audiences, we can advocate for a more sustainable fashion industry!

  17. Jesse

    I went to the premiere in New York City of this film about two weeks ago and was shocked – and I work in the conscious fashion industry. It is easy for us to talk about how terrible this industry can get, but is it much harder to see all of the effects of fast fashion on local communities and environments around the world. The film offers an opportunity to look at the problems and provides hope, but makes it clear that something radical has to change. I started a business a few years ago that is trying to combat that and prove demand for well-made conscious fashion, beauty and home products called This past month we launched a sister site called, which is becoming the central hub of conscious culture, taking what is happening on all levels and uniting this culture under one umbrella. It has been an exciting journey and is working with True Cost to spread the word about the truth of the current industry and how we can make better choices. Check it out at

  18. Nuclear Glitter

    This is amazing. I’m happy that people are working on such projects, and I’m waiting for this movie. Recently, Bosnian fashion bloggers participated in the project that promotes socially responsible clothing and Made in Bosnia and Herzegovina products, simply because we really have to care what we wear. Same goes for fur, leather … Buy only socially responsible clothing and manmade materials.