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Unravelling the Truth About Our Discarded Clothing

Unravelling the Truth About Our Discarded Clothing

Meghna Gupta’s film Unravel follows the journey that a portion of the clothing we throw away in the West takes to the East; onto a new life and purpose.

Our clothing arrives in Kutch in India then travels North to Panipat the ‘Global city of Shoddy’ where it is recycled into yarn that will be woven into cheap cloth, usually of low-quality that is sold across Asia and Africa. The cloth is also frequently bought by aid agencies for use as emergency relief blankets in disasters worldwide.

The film shows the reaction of the workers in this industry to the vast amount of clothing that comes from the West. It is enlightening to see their reactions, how our actions are perceived by those far removed from Western society.

We are so immersed in our patterns of consumption and waste that it is hard for us to take that step back and look in on ourselves.

This film gives us a glimpse of our reflection, through the women in the units in Kutch and Panipat our madness is revealed.

Through information they have gathered by watching television and what they see of the clothing that floods into their workplace the women have pieced together a view of the West, a lifestyle of which they perceive both enviously and sympathetically. They express their concerns for the ‘poor helpless’ Western women who have to wear embellished uncomfortable knickers, and laugh about what we must eat over here in order to get so fat. However, more striking is their assumption that we must have a water shortage in the West that prevents us from washing our clothes, giving cause for why they end up in their hands in such vast quantities. One woman comments,

“Water is just as expensive as clothes for these people. That’s why they wear their clothes a couple of times, then throw them away.”

These women are very generously assuming that we have a good reason to be throwing away our clothing at such a rate – after all who in their right mind would be so wasteful if they had any other option? Unfortunately we do not live up to the expectations of the workers in Panipat and Kutch, we have no such valid reasons.

It’s strange for us to see ourselves being described as ‘other’ as ‘foreign’, we are so used to being the cultural protagonists. The way Reshma and the other women speak with such certainty about how they believe western society functions (yet have based much of this on rumour or media portrayals), really strikes a chord with our current situation in Europe and America. We have a tendency to feel so certain that our knowledge or assumptions about other cultures are correct, thinking we understand them when we only have such a small window of information fed to us by the media or public figures. This film ought to remind us to stay curious and open minded about what we think we know about other societies and cultures and sceptical of what we are told by mass media. In a world that seems to be increasingly torn apart by mistrust and a lack of understanding towards others we need to check our privilege and ignorance and try to educate ourselves in the realities faced by others.

As much as this film is beautiful, charming, humorous and lighthearted it alludes to darker themes and highlights the vast disparity in lifestyle between the global West and East. Reshma appears to have a more cynical, yet enlightened view on Western consumption, she believes that we must have so much money in the West that we can dress ourselves in expensive clothes and then simply throw them away – she’s not wrong. We have a tendency in the West to complain about being poor, that we can’t afford this or that, but could it be the case that we just don’t invest our money as wisely as we should? In the case of clothing, many people will prefer to spend their money on buying quantity over quality, fast fashion chains squeeze their prices ever lower in an effort to make us feel rich – when in reality they are simply making us poorer on many levels.

Our habit of impulse buying cheap things to make us feel good in that moment is having negative effects on us, our wallets and the planet.

When we realise that the £4 purple-leopard-print body-con skirt really was a moment of madness we are keen to appease our conscience by donating the unwanted garment to a charity shop. Turning our mistake into a moral gift. 

However, the quality of our cheap fashion is so low and the quantities of it are so vast it renders it practically valueless in the Western second hand clothing market – hence why the majority of our donations are shipped overseas, ending up, if we’re lucky, in recycling plants such as this one. And this really is one of the best options for our second hand clothes, most get sold in large second hand markets in developing countries (an industry to which there are up and downsides) or turned into wiping rags, or just sent on direct to landfill. If you want to find out more about the pitfalls of the second hand clothing industry try reading this article from Not Just A Label.

Perhaps the best solution for now is to buy more wisely, invest in items that may cost more but also have more value to us – garments that we buy because they make us happy and feel good in the long term, not styles dictated by passing trends. Or we could listen to the wise words of Reshma’s husband and refrain from buying full stop because…

“…at the end of the day you’re only as beautiful as god made you. All people have natural beauty.”

And it’s not our clothes that show that beauty, but our attitude.

Watch the full Unravel documentary for free over at Aeon here. 

Written by Madeleine Williams

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