Become an active citizen through your wardrobe.
From the food you put in your mouth to the clothes you put on your body, how often is it that you pause to consider where the things which nourish and sustain you came from?
I’m asking because if you’re anything like I was, you’ve probably never even given it a moment’s thought!
Enter: fast fashion documentaries.
Once I started becoming more aware and engaged with questions about sustainability, I suspected that diving into the hidden world of the fast fashion industry would be a difficult watch. Little did I know that these films would be just as surprising and heartbreaking as watching vegan documentaries.
With the exponential increase in the fashion industry’s speed of production methods, the volume of clothing being manufactured is greater than ever before.
And whether it’s vulnerable female garment workers in developing countries, the long-term health of our one and only planet, or the billions of voiceless animals being slaughtered, the fast fashion industry has a hidden cost.
You may not think about it when the end result is an item presented beautifully in your favourite clothes shop, but ethical fashion documentaries show you the true impact of your consumerist ways and turning a blind eye.
For first-hand accounts and never-before-seen industry insights, these documentaries will stay with you long after you’ve watched them, and maybe even persuade you to change your shopping habits in the process.
Where To Watch Fast Fashion Documentaries
You can watch these documentaries with the following streaming services:
YouTube – simple, no fuss, free!
UK TV Play – it’s legit and you can easily sign up for a free account. You’ll have to sit through a couple of adverts at the start, but otherwise, happy days!
Water Bear – they’re a trusted website producing engaging and necessary content. Again, you’ll just need to sign up for a free account. There are loads of great documentary films on offer, so I was super impressed. Definitely one worth supporting!
Amazon Prime – easy enough if you have an Amazon Prime subscription, but I did have to pay £3.49 to rent the documentary I wanted to watch.
Vimeo – this is a popular streaming service and not difficult to access. However, be aware that there is a £3.00 rental fee.
So overall, it cost me £6.49 to watch these fast fashion documentaries. For 10 hours’ worth of content and a comprehensive all-around education on the subject, I didn’t think this was bad at all.
I’ve tried to ensure that the documentaries in this list are not only the best on offer and cover the full spectrum of issues within the fashion industry, but are also (mostly!) free and widely accessible. Although, please bear in mind that I can only speak for the UK when I say this!
There’s nothing I hate more than hunting for documentaries and not being able to access any of them without spending the earth! So I hope this is helpful for you too.
Hard-Hitting Ethical Fashion Documentaries You Need to Watch
I’ve split this list of sustainable fashion documentaries into four main topics: People, Planet, Animals and Future. This is because they all have slightly different focuses and angles.
For a well-rounded approach to your understanding of the industry, my best advice would be to try to watch at least one film from each section. This will give you a solid foundation when it comes to understanding the multi-faceted issues surrounding the clothing industry.
Demand quality, not just in the products you buy, but in the life of the person who made it.
Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution
These were some of my favourite documentary films on this list because they transport you into a completely foreign world (in every sense of the word). Personal stories of Bangladeshi garment workers give you a first-hand, behind-the-scenes insight into who made your clothes.
And not only do you start to suddenly appreciate how lucky you are and stop to check your privilege, but it also makes you realise how ridiculous your buying habits are and the direct impact they have on others less fortunate than you.
The True Cost (2015)
There is no limit to the struggle of Bangladeshi workers… I believe these clothes are produced with our blood. I don’t want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood.
Duration: 1hr 32mins
Availability: Rent for £3.49 on Amazon Prime
Directed by Andrew Morgan, I was intrigued to view The True Cost (it seemed the be the one film that everyone lauds as the fast fashion documentary to watch!).
And I’m pleased to say that despite the price tag, it didn’t disappoint. I’d recommend it as essential viewing on this list.
More than any other film, it gives you an overall view of fast fashion’s impact on our planet (for example, the development of genetically modified cotton and the devastating effect of pesticide use), as well on as the people who make our clothes.
Hard-hitting and unflinching, we move swiftly between different countries – from the poorest slum communities to the opulence of high fashion runways. And this juxtaposition is a powerful way of addressing the vast inequalities in the fashion industry.
I found it particularly poignant watching a montage of video footage where Black Friday shoppers are sprinting into shops and physically fighting each other for the best deals, overlaid against factory workers in the garment industry.
This is a film which asks difficult questions about outsourcing labour to the world’s poorest countries and forces us to take notice.
The message at the end is clear: we need to make a change. And for all the world’s problems that feel too big and overwhelming, we should start here, with the clothes we wear.
The Machinists (2010)
My desire is that what’s happening now will never be repeated. The people who are buying clothes abroad stop and think about how much they buy it for and how much is the real cost for us here.
Duration: 51 mins
A film by The Rainbow Collective, Richard York’s documentary The Machinists follows the lives of three young women in Bangladeshi textile factories.
This is a fascinating glimpse into the real-life daily experiences of garment workers in one of the largest and poorest textile-producing cities in the world, Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka.
To understand the injustices of this system, we see first-hand the realities of child labour, unfair pay and wages docked for no rhyme or reason. It’s heartbreaking to watch when these women have no other option but to leave their children with family members in rural villages, as they don’t have the time or income to adequately support them.
There is a thread of activism woven throughout the film, with one female worker having started a union to educate other women workers on their rights.
It’s not a deliberately sensationalist film, but it’s truly eye-opening. I certainly felt changed after watching it.
I stare at so many faces, but there’s no one like my girls.
Duration: 1hr 15 mins
Disclaimer: This is another film by The Rainbow Collective. It does feature some footage that was used in The Machinists, so be prepared for 20 minutes or so of deja vu!
That said, Udita is worth a watch in its own right. With parts filmed 5 years after The Machinists in 2015, it was crucially released in the wake of the factory collapse, which tragically killed over 1,000 workers.
Later in the film, we follow a mother who lost two daughters to Rana Plaza and now must take sole custody of her orphaned grandchildren. Visiting the debris of the site, she demands answers and compensation on behalf of all the victims.
A film about education and fighting for systematic change, we finish with a worker’s union march to demand a raise in the living wage. And despite a huge amount of injustice and sadness throughout the film, it does feel like in the end, there is hope.
Western women are so respected. God’s given them a very good life. I often wonder what it would be like to have a life like that.
Duration: 14 mins
This is a very short documentary film, but it will be sure to jolt you out of your usual first-world perspective!
Unravel looks at the journey of our discarded clothes. As explained at the start of the film, over 100,000 tons of cast-off garments go to Panipat every year to be recycled!
It is a shocking and visceral visualisation of our waste problem, with mountains of different coloured, shaped and sized garments finding their way here at the end of their lifespan. This is the truth behind disposable fashion, with clothes that have barely even been worn.
We see the world through the eyes of the women working in this recycling facility, and the simultaneous disbelief, idolisation and alienation they have towards Western society. Not only are we poles apart in physical distance, but in terms of cultural attitudes too.
It may be brief, but it’s a film that will make you question your received value system and normalised shopping habits going forwards.
The fast fashion business model is finite, because the natural resources it uses will get scarcer and scarcer.
When Stacey Dooley asks shoppers on a UK high street where fashion sits amongst other major polluters, it is regularly assumed to be the lowest on the list. This highlights the shocking lack of education amongst the general population – fashion is in fact second only to the oil industry.
Fast fashion is responsible for 10% of all global carbon emissions annually, and if current growth continues, emissions will grow by 50% by 2020. It is also responsible for 20% of industrial wastewater worldwide.
The next three documentary films in this list focus on the environmental devastation caused by the fast fashion industry.
Stacey Dooley Presents: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets (2018)
Fashion’s impact is huge. It’s on a par with oil and chemicals.
Duration: 59 mins
Availability: UK TV Play
This investigative documentary follows Stacey Dooley, who is on a mission to find out more about the environmental impact of our fashion choices.
I love that she uses innovative ways to get the message across. For example, in one memorable scene, she sets up huge water containers in a high-traffic shopping area. She then proceeds to stop passersby and ask them how much water they think it takes to produce the clothes they’re casually buying. Of course, the answer is a lot more than anyone thinks.
From a first-hand visit to Kazakhstan and the now-desert Aral Sea, to a boat trip on Dhaka’s waterways that exposes the fashion industry’s unregulated and toxic wastewater problem, Dooley takes us on an eye-opening journey.
In a similar fashion to Cowspiracy, there is a reluctance from big industry players to talk openly and transparently about the sustainability issue. Even when contacting government officials for comment, she receives a dismissive and unconvincing response.
All may not be lost though. An engaging chat with YouTube influencers and how they can help to promote a sustainable future is a positive step in combating the issue of online fast fashion hauls. It’s clear that once people know the extent of the problem, there is a willingness to change.
But there needs to be a greater sense of urgency, Dooley warns, as we are running out of time.
The Clothes We Wear (2020)
One day the rivers might be red, the other blue or purple.
Duration: 29 mins
Focusing on the environmental cost of fast fashion brands, this German documentary is another film which manages to get its point across in powerful ways. For example, there is one point in the film where shoppers are asked if they’d like some free clothing. The only catch? They have to pour a small vial of poison into a fish tank.
Of course, no one actually agrees to do it. But that’s the point – it’s a hard-hitting analogy for what happens every time we purchase a new piece of clothing.
During the film, we follow a typical German family as they learn more about the unsavoury aspects of their wardrobe. We also see the impact of wastewater pipes running into Bangladeshi rivers. This not only pollutes the landscape but also causes major health hazards to the local population.
Worryingly, food exportation from these areas of the world means that toxic substances have even now been found in fresh produce across the European market.
With a message to embrace slow fashion and shop more ethically, this succinct film encourages you to bypass cheap clothes the next time you’re out shopping.
River Blue (2016)
Next to oil, fashion in its broadest sense, fast fashion, to leather to denim, is the next biggest industrial polluter of the world’s waterways.
Duration: 1hr 35mins
Availability: Rent for £3.00 on Vimeo
In this groundbreaking documentary, we follow international river conservationist Mark Angelo around the world.
This is the documentary to watch if you’re interested in how the global fashion industry is polluting our most precious resource: water.
When toxic chemicals like mercury, cadmium and lead aren’t disposed of responsibly, it destroys our rivers and has an adverse effect on human health, too.
Visiting some of the world’s most vital waterways that have been ravaged by waste pollution from the textile industry, this is also a film to inspire hope with a discussion of solutions to build a sustainable future.
As a designer I like to work with fabrics that don’t bleed. That’s why I avoid all animal skins.
It’s telling that until as recently as last year, there wasn’t any kind of meaningful discussion or documentary that focused on animals in the fashion industry.
When animals are treated the way they are in the meat and dairy industries, it’s no wonder that they also take last priority in discussions based around clothing.
As such, there’s only one documentary film in this section at the moment (I’ll add more if and when they become available).
Thankfully, it’s a comprehensive (if tear-jerking) watch, that will educate you much more fully on the use of animal products in this industry.
And I realised… I am an animal lover, wearing animals.
Duration: 1hr 25mins
Availability: Water Bear
From the producers of Cowspiracy and What The Health, SLAY follows the personal journey of investigative filmmaker Rebecca Cappelli, as she uncovers the way in which animals literally ‘disappear’ into items of clothing. and how this has been normalised in our society.
Whilst most companies now have a sustainability statement about their supply chain and environmental policy, there’s still very little information readily available concerning the use and treatment of animals.
I must admit that this was an area of veganism I felt much less educated about (in contrast to food, for instance), so this was an informative watch. The film is split into three main sections focusing on different materials:
We begin in the highly polluting leather tanneries of Northern India. If you assumed (like I did) that leather was simply a by-product of the meat industry, then you’d be wrong. This is an industry worth billions of dollars globally, so cows are bred and killed purely for this purpose.
Similarly, if you thought that leather was an entirely ‘natural’ material (as it is often marketed), you’ll be shocked at the harsh chemical processes it has to undergo to reach its final destination in the shops.
Moving from supposedly ‘luxury’ Italian leather tanneries (spoiler: they’re far from it!) to Chinese fur farms and the cruelty of ‘mulesing’ in the wool industry, there is also a necessary discussion of plant-based solutions to fashion’s problems moving forwards.
Featuring interviews with psychologists and vegan activists (including the wonderful Ed Winters), this is a must-watch documentary if you’re looking to shop more intentionally.
Becoming more mindful about clothing means looking at every fiber, at every seed and every dye and seeing how to make it better.
When you’ve thoroughly depressed yourself with the films in the previous three categories, I recommend that you finish on a hopeful note with these inspiring, solution-oriented documentaries.
Speaking with the world’s leading influencers, they explore some of the most innovative companies that are paving the way for change. For an alternative future vision to Western high-street fashion, take a look at those on the cutting edge of sustainable materials and technology in clothing.
The Next Black (2014)
This is a film about the people behind the scenes working to shape the next big step in clothing history.
Duration: 47 mins
From Studio XO’s futuristic ‘digital couture’ which merges the worlds of fashion and tech, to wearable ‘smart clothes’ being pioneered by sports brands Adidas for some of the world’s elite athletes, this is a fascinating film about the future possibilities of clothing.
I was particularly intrigued by the idea of ‘biocouture’, or in other words, experiments in how we can actually grow clothing. Yep, you heard that correctly! A consultancy exploring living organisms is doing just that – in essence, ‘brewing’ sustainable fabrics from vats of bacteria. Still in its infancy, and in all honesty slightly… well, creepy, this is nevertheless mindblowing stuff!
Along the way, we learn about exciting innovations in dying clothes with zero wastewater, as well as being encouraged to embrace slow fashion and rediscover the lost art of mending our clothes.
This is more than a nod to sustainable fashion, which is what we see from most fast fashion companies trying to brand themselves as ‘sustainable’. These are models which completely rethink and revolutionise the status quo.
ReDress The Future (2021)
The space race is on to find new materials that just aren’t so damaging to the planet.
Duration: 45 mins (across 3 short episodes)
Availability: Water Bear
ReDress The Future is presented by environmental activist Mikaela Loach in the form of three short episodes – ‘ReDressing the New’, ‘Redressing Waste’ and ‘Redressing the Model’.
The first episode focuses on how we can buy less, for example by swapping garments with friends or repairing our clothes. In it, we visit Greater Goods in London, a company that deconstructs damaged or discarded items and makes new things. Ultimately, you can do this with your own wardrobe, too!
In the next episode, renowned designer Phoebe English discusses how she reduces waste in the production process by using offcut and deadstock fabrics. And finally, in ‘Redressing the Model’, the focus is on the concept of circular fashion and the importance of ‘closing the loop’.
We see the inner workings of a leading rental facility in Scotland, and take a trip to the Isle of Wight for an insight into sustainable and tech-forward brand Rapanui.
Loach is hopeful at the end of the series – there are passionate and creative people working to do good in the fashion industry. And there are things we can do as individuals, too. You can be more mindful of your buying habits, as well as get involved with campaigning to make your voice heard.
Embrace Slow Fashion & Support Sustainable Brands
This list of ethical fashion documentaries should keep you busy for a while, so I’ll see you on the other side! I hope this gives you a comprehensive guide on where to start and highlights the parts which stood out to me as discussion-worthy.
We can all read doom and gloom statistics about the fast fashion industry or study articles on why you should stop buying cheap clothes. But in my own experience, nothing quite hits home like seeing the issue presented plainly on a screen in front of you.
In short, the environmental and human impact is best witnessed directly if you want to challenge your normalised belief structures and make fundamental changes to your life as a result.
I’d love to hear your thoughts after watching these films, so don’t forget to let me know what you think!