In the last few weeks, two individuals from totally different parts of my life recommended watching True Cost, a documentary about the global apparel and footwear industry—they were right on the money.
Released at the end of 2015, it’s a damning story of the industry on which Sole4Souls is built. Take just one statistic from the film: “The world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago.” That translates to about 82 pounds for every American, 85% of which ends up in the landfill…a whopping 11 million tons of waste each year. I just read a report this morning (a subscription site so I cannot link to it) that the problem is much worse in China with 26 million tons of waste and 99% of it ending up in landfills.
This rapid growth in the fashion business is what has fueled the growth and impact of Soles4Souls over the last 10 year. Even as we are consumers of these products, we are working hard to turn this tsunami of discarded shoes and clothes into short term relief and long term economic opportunity. Yet this movie showed the scope and scale of the impact on the places where much of our apparel is produced (Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Africa, Central America, the US) in a way that I didn’t fully comprehend. Low wages, dangerous working conditions, toxic chemicals, environmental degradation. I will never again be able to ignore the impact of much of what I put on my back and my feet.
I’m not just a bleeding heart here, I believe deeply that business and markets are our best chance to solve big problems like poverty. In many places, these workers are damned happy to have a job and believe that their sacrifice now will benefit their children and grandchildren. We work with so many companies who spend incredible energy and money to minimize the negative outcomes for the people who make so much of what we wear and the planet where we live. They, too, are juggling demands for new products, lower prices, higher profits all while trying hard to be good human beings. It’s awfully easy to sit in the armchair and criticize, but that’s glib and unfair.
Which is why I was so disappointed that there was almost no corporate “side” to the story. Ultimately, it comes off one-sided and less nuanced than the real world is. Sure, there are plenty of people in companies who look at these people as merely “inputs” and don’t have to incorporate the environmental damage as a cost, allowing a relentless pursuit of low price at any cost. But there are just as many like Patagonia, where I got to visit last week, who have entire teams dedicated to making sure their products are as responsible as possible from manufacturing to recycling and reusable. It can be, and is, being done at scale.
It’s just not that easy. A factory in Bangladesh is a long way from the corporate HQ in the US. And you and I are always looking for the best deal, the lowest price and something novel. We are implicated and responsible because we buy the stuff. And now that I know that, I have to look at myself in the mirror, literally, and ask what the impacts of my purchases are. Because when I wear that pair of running shorts, I’m truly connected by a thread to a woman on a factory line in Vietnam. My choice matters. And so does yours.