'Fashion's Dirty Secrets' Is a Film That Will Change Your Shopping Habits

Citarum river showing purple froth and bubbles from industrial waste

Ed Wray / Getty Images

Here's a little experiment. Arrange the following six industries in order from worst to least polluting: coal/oil, tourism, beef, transportation, fracking, and fashion. Which are the worst offenders? It turns out that coal and oil take first place, followed by fashion.

This discovery comes as a shock to most people, who do not make a connection between their clean clothes and a dirty industry. And yet, it's something that we should all know more about, which is why British TV presenter and journalist Stacey Dooley made a short film about it.

Fashion's Dirty Secrets aired on BBC Three in October 2018, but it only just arrived in Canada, which enabled me to view it this week. (It is available for Canadian viewers here.) I approached the 45-minute film with curiosity, wondering if it would be condensed version of The True Cost film or an expanded version of the Story of Stuff's problem with plastic microfibres, but it turned out to be neither.

Fashion Uses and Ruins Water

The film focuses on water – specifically, how much water is required to grow cotton, which is the world's favorite fabric and also the most resource-intensive. Dooley travels to Kazakhstan to the site of the former Aral Sea, a vast body of water that has almost dried up entirely over the last four decades, due to irrigation of cotton crops. Where there used to be fish, there are now camels, as well as dust storms carrying toxic pesticide residue. People who relied on the sea for food, tourism, and a tempering effect on the weather have seen their quality of life and health deteriorate. As Dooley said, "We all know what plastic does to the earth... We're fed that every day and rightly so, but did I know that cotton was capable of this? Of course I didn't. I had no idea."

Dooley then travels to Indonesia, where she boats down the Citarum River, a principal waterway that is now used as a sewer for 400+ textile factories. Pipes gush black, purple, and foamy liquids. The river looks like it's boiling, a sign of little oxygen, and dead animals float past. It's obvious the stench is overwhelming.

Nearby, children play in the water. Mothers wash clothes and bathe. Apparently there are 28 million Indonesians who rely on this river and eat food grown with its water. When Dooley's group gathers a water sample, they discover it's full of heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, and mercury. It's horrifying to imagine living so close to such a toxic source, and yet it's inescapable for most of these people.

Quick Turnover Is Consequential

Lucy Siegle, another British journalist who has investigated the environmental impact of clothing, blames fast fashion:

"Their business model basically treats clothing as if it's a fast-moving consumer good. We used to have autumn, winter, spring, summer collections. We now have 52-plus collections a year, some brands up to 2 or 3 collections a week. If you don't buy it now, you won't get it next time because they don't restock."

When Dooley approaches high street brands like ASOS, Primark, H&M;, Zara, and Topshop with questions, they refuse to speak to her. Even when she attends the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which is meant to be a place for brands, influencers, and designers to discuss sustainability, no one will talk, except a Levi's representative.

The film wraps up with her meeting four Instagram influencers, whose shopping hauls have garnered them millions of followers. Dooley questions them about the effects of their actions, and whether their platforms could be better used to inform people of the consequences of our fashion choices. The girls seem stunned. Apparently one did a wardrobe purge a few weeks later.

Final Thoughts

I came away from the film thoroughly depressed and horrified by the heartbreaking scenes in Kazakhstan and Indonesia. I have no doubt they will play through my mind the next time I'm tempted to buy a superfluous new piece of clothing and immediately quell that urge.

I'm also left mulling over how interesting it was to see a documentary that didn't focus on plastic microfibres. As massive as that problem is, we cannot forget that even natural fibers, as clean and green as they seem, come at a high cost, too.

It appears that the only solution lies in buying far less and viewing the pieces we do buy as a long-term investment.