A New Future For Fashion

04/24/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Two years ago when I set out to make a film about the impact of the global fashion industry on people and the planet, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember sitting on an airplane with my team, head racing and heart pounding, as we flew to Bangladesh. It would be my first time shooting a film in multiple countries, working hard to fly below the radar in parts of the world where outside filmmakers are not welcome. Truth be told, I was more than nervous--I was terrified.

The idea of the film was clear in my mind. I wanted to tell a story that illustrated the wide scope and scale of fashion's impact on our world, but I also wanted to zoom in and highlight the personal effects on the individual lives involved in it. Sitting on the plane that day, reading back through the research, I found that the facts alone were striking.

Fashion today is the most labor-dependent industry on earth, employing an estimated one out of every six people alive. Thanks to the mass outsourcing of labor to developing countries, the price for the clothing we buy has markedly dropped. These cheap prices have led to a huge increase in the amount of clothing we purchase. At 80 billion pieces of new clothing each year--with the average American buying a new piece every week--we are now consuming 400 percent more clothing than we did just two decades ago, making fashion today an almost $3 trillion annual industry. But we rarely witness and even more rarely discuss the after-effects of this consumption, including the fact that fashion is also now the number two most polluting industry on earth, second only to oil.

Armed with nothing more than curiosity and an early understanding of the initial facts, I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. As we landed in Dhaka that day I had no idea how much the process of making this film would completely change my life.

The moments and months that followed gave me an odd, almost out-of-body experience. Because of an ambitious production schedule, our team traveled almost constantly among several different parts of the world, filming in more than 25 cities in 13 countries by the time we wrapped. Some weeks I found myself standing on the brightest fashion runways with famous designers, and only days later walking through the darkest slums where workers worked tirelessly to make these very products. The contrast was devastating.

Going in I expected to encounter the unjust effects of a world with growing disparity between haves and have-nots. I was prepared to see the harsh effects of environmental destruction as felt by some of the world's poorest people. I saw all that in more gruesome detail than I could have ever imagined. But as I traveled, it was not the heartbreak of injustice that surprised me the most: it was hope.

I met brave individuals who have chosen to take a stand and fight back against careless production and endless consumption. People all over the world united in the belief that we can and must transform fashion into something that serves to empower rather than exploit the people who make it. Something that helps instead of hurts so many of the hearts and hands that touch the clothes we wear.

There is LaRhea, a cotton farmer in Texas, who after losing her husband to cancer is leading the fight for less chemically dependent agriculture. She is building a network of organic farms all over the world, and has taken her case all the way to the Supreme Court. There is Safia, who founded a clothing company in Japan dedicated to making beautiful clothes while making a positive impact on people and the planet. She now employs more than seven thousand people, and in country after country I witnessed the dignity that this work is providing to people who need it the most. There is Shima, a twenty-three-year-old mother and garment worker in Bangladesh who became the first president of a union in her factory. Despite being beaten unconscious by factory owners, she continues to lead the struggle to ensure that the voices of her fellow workers are heard.

There is the undercover doctor in India, caring for sick children poisoned by the after-effects of chemicals used to grow cotton. There are the garment workers in Cambodia, who endure police brutality while continuing to demand a living wage. There is the activist in Hong-Kong, devoting her life to teaching designers to make new clothing from old clothing rather than consider it waste.

Through their stories, the film became a picture not only of the destructive ways this industry operates but also the opportunity to reinvent it. With such a deep impact on so many aspects of our world, fashion today signifies more than a set of pressing problems: it is rich with the possibility for good.

It was Margaret Mead who first wrote those now-famous words, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." As we finish up final work on the film this week, I am utterly convinced of the truth in those words. A small but growing group of people all over the world are standing up, speaking out, and fighting for a new future for fashion. These people need our help. They need us to open our eyes and our hearts. They need us to use our voices and our dollars to cast votes for the kind of world we want to create together.

We can move beyond a narrative of exploitation that defines so much of the industry and create an entirely new story of clothing. We can provide work to people who need it without stripping them of their dignity. We can support economic growth without overindulging in disposable goods we all-too-quickly use up and throw out. And we can choose to produce and wear clothing in a way that takes less from the earth that must sustain us all.

Today I am proud to share the trailer for our upcoming film, The True Cost. I'm proud of the hope-filled possibilities for rethinking the fashion industry that the film reveals. And perhaps I am most proud to have been entrusted with these stories from people all over the world, united in the belief that the time for true change is now.

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