Shifting the way we relate to our clothes – away from a culture of disposability and towards one of care and circularity – will require an emotional shift in each one of us. Sustainable fashion documentaries and films can inspire this shift because they are powerful windows into different realities. They share rich visual insights into lives and experiences that many of us are not exposed to day-to-day.
This allows us to empathize with the lives of people from around the world, understand the workings of natural ecosystems, and learn about how our relationship to clothing fits into the wider fashion system.
Not only do they help in spreading awareness about the harsh truth of the fashion industry, but they also have the potential to inspire hopeful solutions for a more just and sustainable industry.
So, whether you are looking for an educational and immersive watch for a rainy day, or you are just curious to learn more about the workings of the fashion industry, we have compiled a list of 12 documentaries and short films for you to add to your watch list.
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The True Cost (2015)
Many sustainable fashion advocates will cite watching The True Cost as one of the pivotal moments that inspired their journey into slow fashion. It is one of those documentaries that, once watched, will change your outlook on the fashion industry for good.
In this eye-opening sustainable fashion documentary, filmmaker Andrew Morgan exposes the global networks of clothing production and transports the viewer to different locations to explore the social and environmental effects of cheap fashion – from interviews with underpaid, undervalued garment workers to the pollution, waste, and environmental degradation that leads to public health crises.
It is a challenging commentary on fast fashion, consumerism, media, and global capitalism.
Watch this if: You want to learn about the true workings of the fast fashion industry and find out about the people and the natural ecosystems that shoulder the burden of artificially cheap fast fashion.
River Blue (2017)
Color is one of the most compelling, evocative, and attractive elements of fashion. But, the story of what it takes to create the rainbow of hues that we are used to seeing when we walk into a store is not nearly as picturesque.
This award-winning slow fashion documentary follows international river conservationist, Mark Angelo, and is narrated by clean water supporter Jason Priestley. The film takes the viewer on a shocking journey, from the world’s most pristine to polluted rivers.
It details the stark reality of the impacts of water pollution on natural ecosystems, the harm caused to garment workers who are in close contact with synthetic dyes, and the ways marginalized communities living near garment factories are affected by this contamination. All this in the name of the next best color.
Watch this if: You are curious to learn more about how the fashion industry is responsible for the pollution and contamination of bodies of water – that sustain people and communities – across the world.
Cotton Road (2014)
Almost every one of us owns a garment with cotton content. But, how many of us know the truth about the journey of that cotton before it ends up in our favorite t-shirt or pair of pants?
Cotton Road follows the commodity of cotton from South Carolina farms to Chinese factories to illuminate the complexities of this global supply chain. It shares the journey of how cotton travels across countries and continents, the stories of workers in a conventional cotton supply chain, and provides a commentary on the exploitative nature of globalized labor in the fast fashion industry where the primary priority is maximizing profits at all costs.
Watch this if: You are interested in learning about the story behind the cotton in the clothes you wear.
ReDress The Future (2021)
In this three-part docu-series produced by WaterBear (a free streaming platform dedicated to the future of our planet), climate activist Mikaela Loach explores what it will take to hold the fashion industry to account and all the innovative, inclusive, practical solutions that will play a part in this.
This short series acts as an entry point for anyone curious to learn more about the world of sustainable fashion. While it does highlight many of the major concerns in the fashion industry, the series is intentionally solutions-focussed and aims to share the work of designers putting sustainable fashion into tangible practice, such as Phoebe English, Christopher Raeburn, and Orsola De Castro.
Watch this if: You want to be inspired and hear from fashion practitioners, designers, and innovators who are challenging the industry’s status quo and creating solutions that contribute to a more sustainable and ethical future for fashion.
This short film sheds light on the journey of fashion waste and helps us understand that the immense waste of the fashion industry doesn’t just disappear when we discard it – it always ends up somewhere else and becomes someone else’s burden. In this case, the clothes journey through Northern India where they eventually end up in the tiny town of Panipat – the place where they are recycled back into yarn.
Knowing little about the origins of the clothes or why they arrive in such vast quantities, the Indian women who recycle this waste reflect on these clothes and construct stories of their journeys based on their understanding of the Global North.
This film paints a powerful picture of the politics of waste and the power dynamics that underpin the management of fashion waste while sharing the stories and thoughts of the people who are tasked with creating solutions for someone else’s discarded clothing.
Watch this if: You’d like to learn more about fashion’s waste crisis, textile recycling, and the journey of discarded clothing from the Global North across Northern India.
MADE IN AFRICA (2020)
This 30-minute short film is narrated by Sarah Diouf, founder of the Senegalese brand, Tongoro, and offers a lens into foundations of this 100% made in Africa brand that draws on generational culture and craftspeople. Diouf believes that the ethical fashion industry across the continent is a catalyst for social and economic change.
“We come from rich cultures where pride is the essence and we’ve learned, over time, the importance of versatility and adaptation in a world that has kept treating us as if we are less than. The world that unfairly portrayed us for so long is the one that is now trying to understand what makes us so unique,” says Diouf in the opening scenes of the film.
Indeed, the film will take you on a journey of this uniqueness. This slow fashion documentary, with richly immersive imagery, offers inspiration for the future of African fashion and many lessons that the rest of the fashion world should learn from.
Watch this if: You’re interested to learn about the essence of African fashion and what it takes to build a fashion brand that is made in Africa.
Fashionscapes produced by Andrew Morgan (director of The True Cost) and Eco-Age founder and creative director Livia Firth, is a five-part docu-series that takes an investigative look at fashion’s global supply chains and puts forward sustainable solutions.
This series will take you on a trip around the world from wool production in Tasmania, to the role of Mayan women artisans in Guatemala, and the diamond supply chain in Botswana. The two other episodes unpack the urgent need for living wages and garment worker rights, and what it will take to create a truly circular economy.
It features in-depth commentary and analysis from activists and changemakers advocating for a more just and sustainable fashion future. This short series is an important reminder that there is no such thing as cheap fashion – someone always pays the price.
Watch this if: You’re interested in learning about fashion supply chains around the world and engaging with sustainable solutions to some of fashion’s most harmful impacts.
Made in Bangladesh (2020)
In this film by Rubaiyat Hossain, the viewer follows the journey of 23-year-old Shimu who works in a textile factory in Dhaka, earning very little and the fashion industry’s exploitative labor practices first hand. After crossing paths with a labor union advocate who teaches Shimu about worker rights, she embarks on a journey to unionize the women she works with but is met with resistance at every turn.
It is not a documentary, but it is closely based on real-life events and provides a powerful social commentary on the impacts of exploitative labor practices, the global trade structures that uphold them, and the importance of collective organizing and worker unions. This film tells the story of exploitation, but also empowerment, and the complexity of human life.
Watch this if: You want to gain insights into the lived experiences of garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh and the value of unionization in achieving garment worker rights.
The Clothes We Wear (2020)
The Clothes We Wear is a short sustainable fashion documentary filmed in Germany that peels away the allure of bargain-hunting and fast fashion to show how overconsumption affects planetary systems. This documentary illuminates how the clothes we buy are linked to negative environmental and social impacts that we are often not aware of, in countries far away.
And, now that big fashion has figured out that sustainability sells, the film also debunks the rampant greenwashing of many well-known brands. If you want a refresher on why overproduction and overconsumption will never be sustainable, The Clothes We Wear is the film for you.
Watch this if: You are feeling disillusioned by the overconsumption of fast fashion and want to learn more about debunking greenwashing.
Remake’s ‘Made In’ Series (2016-2020)
This six-part docu-series, produced by Remake, is for people who are asking the question: Who made my clothes?
It will take you on a journey to six countries across the world as the stories and personal histories of garment workers from each country are spotlighted to draw attention to the rampant labor exploitation in the fashion industry.
This series is a stark reminder of why fast fashion is a feminist issue, and how many hands our clothing passes through before it ends up in our closets. With each episode, Remake emphasizes that the story of fashion is the story of the women who make our clothes.
Watch this if: You’d like a behind-the-scenes look at who makes our clothing in different countries around the world.
Udita (Rise Up) (2015)
Udita (Rise Up) is an observational sustainable fashion documentary covering five years in the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers from 2010 when collective organizing in the factory led to harsh punishments, through the Tazreen and infamous Rana Plaza disasters, and the years after the tragedies as the fight for unionization and garment worker rights continues.
It is a biography of resistance and an ode to the resilient Bangladeshi women who are at the forefront of the struggle to fight for the lives that they, and their families, deserve.
Watch this if: You would like to learn more about the struggle for unionization in Bangladesh and the infamous Tazreen and Rana Plaza disasters that led to the creation of Fashion Revolution as we know it today.
Catwalk to Creation (2019)
This two-part docu-series produced by award-winning duo, Charney Magri and Ramzi Moutran, follows the journey of two sustainably made garments – in reverse. One garment is composed of natural, renewable fibers, and the other is a next-gen solution free from ancient and endangered forests.
By following the supply chain of each garment, the series focuses on the environmental elements of fibers and fabrics used to make the two garments. While unpacking the impacts of these fibers and fabrics, the series also shares the work and perspectives of boundary-pushing designers who are creating innovative solutions for a more sustainable fashion future.
Watch this if: You’re curious about how a sustainable garment is made, the fabric and fiber considerations that are undertaken, and designers who are forging innovative solutions when it comes to sustainable materials.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.