This last week, my students watched True Cost (2015), a documentary about the environmental impacts and human casualties of the fashion industry. According to the film, fashion is the number two most polluting industry in the world (oil is number one) and more lethal than some of us know. This is due to the incredible rate of people in the Global North consuming cheap clothes. I used to buy clothes weekly in graduate school, accumulating 100s of pieces, some that I never wore.
I never really thought about where my clothes came from (well, I would buy most of them second-hand, but they still had a former origin). I did not think about the pesticides flooding millions of acres of cotton and seeping into the ground and causing brain tumors and early deaths to farmers, and I did not think about the (mostly) women who made my clothes in other countries in poor working conditions, their own countries being polluted by factory run-off in their sacred rivers and the soil from where they fed their families.
The drug for my insecurities and boredom was being supplied by human blood. One out of six persons, mostly women, works in the global fashion industry. On April 24, 2013, an 8-story commercial building called Rana Plaza just outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five different garment factories, collapsed due to deteriorating structure. Because of the pressure on the managers to keep production costs low to keep the business of the foreign companies, no money went into the building; over 1,000 people died in the collapse. This is not the only incident of garment workers dying because of building collapse or fire. Many owners of the fashion companies linked to the Rana Plaza building are billionaires, but the women who actually make the clothes make less than $3 a day and often cannot take care of their children and must risk their lives. . . for what?
Furthermore, the clothes that I and others in the Global North purchase so indulgently and unthinkingly are then dumped back into these third-world countries through “charity” or in a landfill where the synthetic, non-biodegradable fabrics will sit and off-gas for hundreds of years. Another cost is that the largest wave of suicides involves cotton farmers in India: 250,000 in the last 15 years. Vandana Shiva, who is featured in the film, explains that the farmers, who must douse their own fields with industrial chemicals, are often not paid well and have debts for which their land is threatened to be taken away. Shiva says when a woman is told about her husband, she is often told he was found lying in his field, having just consumed a bottle of pesticide. The Ganges River is sacred to Hindus in India and people around the world, but it is one of the lifelines of Gaia that is being trashed and choked because of greed and ignorance.
As I was showing my students this documentary, I wondered why this is not the subject of classrooms typically? Why are environmental activism and the effects of globalization not introduced in junior high and high school, the real truths of suffering and ignorance in our world? What information was I learning that could be more important? My own education growing up, I realize, was far too cheerful and not realistic enough. How horribly we are distracted and disempowered, thinking we are so rich because we can buy all the clothes and cheap items from Wal-Mart, Target, and H&M – not questioning how they can be so cheap, and who is paying the cost. Consumers of fast-fashion also suffer because many of them/us can’t secure essential things we need like a house or health care or education. Teens are given loans without much counseling about how much they are taking out, and they are subject to manipulative advertising that packages a false life.
We celebrate and reward the extreme wealth of the Global North by showcasing it on reality television, when really we should be watching in horror and disgust at the destruction it is causing to our only planetary home and the lives of humans upon it. Humans worship and honor the life-giving Gaia, but we don’t see her, stampeding her underfoot. Most of us walk on concrete, and the sacred earth is beneath it somewhere our feet don’t contact. So, we pump waste into her bowels as well. This sickness we have could so easily be healed if we could unplug from the propaganda that we are hooked up to and slow down the incessantly spinning hamster wheel that is our ambitions, careers, and strategies for economic comfort.
Working 8-9 hours a day, can Americans be awake enough to awaken to what is going on? Our medicine, our salvation, is there in relationship with the earth and each other. All I really know what to do is buy ethically-produced clothing, and a lot less in general, and keep having conversations. I want to do more though. I want to breathe the cold air and look up at the moon and know I’m not making this world worse. Ignorance is not bliss, not when you are struck with the horror that comes with knowing. More and more the evangelistic Christian trope (found in Christian music videos) of the multitudes having the hammer in our hands as Jesus is nailed to the cross makes sense. Indeed, I did this. Now how can I back off and let life grow again?
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.