I Watched 24 Hours of Documentaries So You Don’t Have To

Roughly 24 hours of content consumption later, I have the ultimate sustainable fashion watchlist for you, whoever you are.

*Trigger Warning: Many of these films portray or discuss disturbing topics such as sexual violence, death, animal cruelty, and suicide. I will mark each one I think may be triggering with an asterisk, but all of them touch on upsetting subjects, and viewer discretion is advised for all.

For the Slow Fashion Beginner

You know fast fashion is an issue, but you don’t know where to begin educating yourself. Here is my recommended primer, workers’ rights film, environmental impact film, and a consumer-centered film. Start here. 

1. The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion with Hasan Minhaj (2019) link Free

This is your briefing on the state of modern fashion. In less than half an hour Hasan Minhaj gives the basics of what everyone needs to know about the fashion industry. This video doesn’t go deep into any sustainable fashion issues, but it touches on enough of each topic to make you think. 

2. *Udita (Arise) (2015) link Free

Similar to Clothes to Die For (see the watchlist for “Someone With No Time” below to see my review of it), this film looks like the Rana Plaza factory collapse, but also another similar but less infamous fire tragedy as well. The filmmaker’s description of the film is “Life, death, oppression and resistance - 5 Years with the women of Bangladesh's sweatshops and their fight for a better life.”  These are the women who make your clothes, this is their story. 

3. RiverBlue (2016) link Vimeo Rental $3.99

This film focuses on the pollution of the fashion industry, mainly water pollution from denim. From how jeans are sewn to how they are distressed, you’ll learn all about the ugly side of the most popular article of clothing. This quote from the film sums it up perfectly: “Bangladeshi factory pollution rarely gets the same attention as workplace conditions, and local environmentalists say global buyers have done far too little.” 

4. Alex James: Slowing Down Fast Fashion (2016) trailer Free with Amazon Prime

Lastly, a film that goes into fibers and the consumer responsibility. Alex James, I’m told, is a famous British musician, who I am apparently too young to know about. Why is he here talking about sustainable fashion? I’m still not entirely sure, but he is charming and a great host for the topic. I found the information about wool found in this film particularly interesting. 

Extra Credit: Minimalism (2015) trailer Free with Netflix, to learn even more about how the most sustainable thing to do is just buy less. There is another minimalism documentary on Netflix that came out just this year called The Minimalists: Less is Now, though I have not seen this one yet!  

For the Slow Fashion Expert

You know everything about sustainable fashion, labor conditions, sweatshops etc. But you still want to know more. You’re skeptical that there is anything else left to watch.

1. *1000 Feet Under (2016) link Free

So you know about the farmer suicide epidemic in India, but you just know it’s an issue. Here Varun Bansal goes deep into the why by interviewing families who have been directly affected by suicides related to the cotton industry.

2. Made in L.A. (2007) link $2.99

By now you’ve been in the know about sustainable fashion for long enough that you know “Made in the USA” doesn’t equal sustainable and ethical production. But have you heard from the workers themselves? Made in L.A. takes a look at the garment industry in L.A., what it’s like, and what garment workers are trying to do about it. The women in this movie are some of the bravest you’ll ever see. 

3. *From Sex Work to Seamstress: The High Cost of Cheap Clothes (2014) link Free

In 12 minutes Vice News explores an angle of the fashion industry that I have almost never heard talked about. This video is short enough that summarizing it or analyzing it here would ruin the effect of it, I recommend you just go watch it.

4. *Luxury: Behind the Mirror of High-End Fashion (2019) link Free

This documentary goes into parts of the fur making process I had never considered and what I learned is as upsetting as it is necessary to know. This is a must-see for anyone interested in the fur trade or luxury and designer fashion. 

5. The Next Black (2014) link Free

This is where sustainable fashion is going. Growing textiles in a lab, repairing and upcycling worn garments, and printing clothing. The direction the fashion industry will head is uncertain, but one thing is certain; that the way it operates now is completely unsustainable. As the film says, “Ready for it or not, the concept of clothing is going to change...whether it moves in the direction of technology, biology, sustainability, or all of the above, or something completely different, nobody can know.”

For the Film Connoisseur 

You trust Letterboxd with your life (follow me on Letterboxd at eileenobrien to read more in-depth reviews of these films and other ones).

1. Machines (2016) trailer Free with Amazon Prime

I never thought I would see an arthouse-style film about garment workers, but here it is. This is a beautiful example of showing rather than telling; you’ll watch the horrifying reality of being a textile worker in incredibly long lingering shots, with some interviews with the workers throughout. In fact, the cinematographer, Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. If Udita (reviewed in the “Sustainable Fashion Beginner” list”) is the ballad of female garment workers, this is the one on male garment workers. 

2. *Made in Bangladesh (2019) trailer Free with Amazon Prime

This beautifully made film nearly fooled me into thinking it was a documentary. In the first several scenes I asked myself questions like “Wow! I wonder how they were allowed to film that.” and “Geez why didn’t anyone stop that.” This is to say the accuracy this movie seems to portray is incredible. It is especially worth watching for the cultural context and authentic perspective alone. This unique look is to be expected since it is written and directed by female Bangladeshi filmmaker, Rubaiyat Hossain.

3. Made in L.A. (2007) link $2.99

Check out #2 from the “Slow Fashion Expert” list for my full review. 

4. The True Cost (2015) link Free

You’ve probably already seen it, but if you haven’t, now is the time. Though some may think the filmmaking itself is not spectacular, this is one of the only films that threads the needle between sustainability, pollution, garment worker’s rights, and consumer habits. 

5. RiverBlue (2016) link Vimeo Rental $3.99

Check out #3 from the “Slow Fashion Beginner” list for my full review.

For Someone With No Time

You’re someone with lots of places to be and things to do, you don’t want to waste your downtime looking for something to watch, so here is your sustainable fashion crash course in 2 hours or less. 

1. Unravel (2012) link Free (Runtime: 13 minutes)

Here is the impact of us buying, using, and disposing of garments as quickly as we do and thinking that textile recycling and clothing donations will fix the problem for us. 

2. Made in Mexico by Re/Make (2019) link Free (Runtime: 14 minutes)

This short film by Re/Make is a perfect little window into working conditions. The Re/Make employees talk to multiple garment workers so you get to hear first-hand accounts and get information directly from the most qualified people to give it. 

3. The Clothes We Wear (2020) link Free (Runtime: 28 minutes)

If TV-style documentaries aren’t your thing this might not be for you, but if you are into innovative sleuthing to factcheck factories and catch them lying to brands then it is a must-watch. This doc gives us a concise look into factory brand relations that we otherwise wouldn’t see. 

4. *Clothes to Die For (2015) link Free (Runtime: 58 minutes)

The Rana Plaza factory collapse was a tragedy of incomprehensible proportions. Often, we hear about the tragic death toll but the story stops there. Clothes to Die For goes much further. In this documentary, you hear from garment workers who themselves were trapped inside the building for hours or longer after the factory collapsed. Beware, there are some disturbing images throughout the film. 

Eileen’s Top 4 For Everyone

  1. Machines (2016) trailer Free with Amazon Prime
  2. Udita (Arise) (2015) link Free
  3. Made in L.A. (2007) link YouTube Rental $2.99
  4. RiverBlue (2016) link Vimeo Rental $3.99

Master List of Sustainable & Ethical Fashion Documentaries

Full Length

  1. Made in L.A. (2007) link YouTube Rental $2.99
  2. The True Cost (2015) link Free or Free with Amazon Prime
  3. Alex James: Slowing Down Fast Fashion (2016) trailer Free with Amazon Prime
  4. Made in Bangladesh (2019) trailer Free with Amazon Prime
  5. Udita (Arise) (2015) link Free
  6. Minimalism (2015) trailer Free with Netflix
  7. China Blue (2005) low-quality link Free higher quality but abbreviated link Free
  8. RiverBlue (2016) link Vimeo Rental $3.99
  9. Machines (2016) trailer Free with Amazon Prime

TV/Short Documentaries

  1. The Next Black (2014) link Free
  2. Luxury: Behind the Mirror of High-End Fashion (2019) link Free
  3. The Machinists (2013) link Free
  4. The Clothes We Wear (2020) link Free
  5. Clothes to Die For (2015) link Free
  6. 1000 Feet Under (2016) link Free
  7. Traceable (2014) trailer Free with Amazon Prime
  8. The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion with Hasan Minhaj (2019) link Free
  9. The Full Story of the Rana Plaza Factory Disaster (2013) link Free

Short Films

  1. Unravel (2012) link Free
  2. Made in Mexico (2019) link Free
  3. From Sex Work to Seamstress: The High Cost of Cheap Clothes (2014) link Free

TV Shows

  1. Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion (2015) trailer Free with Amazon Prime
  2. Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (2019) trailer Free with Netflix

Ones I couldn’t watch because they were unavailable etc., but really want to see

  1. Bitter Seeds (2011) link Unavailable in my region
  2. Thread by Michelle Vey trailer 
  3. Frontline Fashion trailer and info

Documentary Lists I Consulted:

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    "We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we'll also have a lot more joy in living."

    Thich Nhat Hanh