If you’re a visual learner and want to be in the know on the sustainable fashion world, this list of documentaries should be your first place to turn.
Turn your eyes towards sustainability on movie night
Many of us want to reduce our impact and footprint on the planet, and it often starts with having a good look at our consumption habits, notably what’s in our wardrobes. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world and it impacts tens of millions of people around the globe.
So what can we do? Where do we start? How do we know what’s good and what’s bad?
Documentaries and short films or series are a great way to learn more about the fashion industry and familiarise ourselves with the most common issues and burgeoning solutions. There are also many sustainable fashion books and ethical podcasts out there to supplement your learning.
Here are some of our favourite documentaries on ethical fashion, fast fashion, and sustainability as a whole. These documentaries are a great place to start: enlightening, shocking, and inspiring all at once.
Sustainable fashion documentaries
I’m yet to watch this film without shedding a tear. The True Cost brings to light some shocking facts about the fashion industry that beg the question: who really pays the price for our clothes? This documentary looks at everything from environmental impact, to labour rights abuses in recently industrialised countries, to how genetically modified cotton is related to cancer incidence and suicide. It illustrates how the Western world’s demand for cheap, disposable fashion is destroying lives and the planet. When this film came out in 2015, it caused shock waves around the world, and people are still talking about it—it’s a game changer for fashion.
The mass consumption of water that occurs during the production of clothing is often ignored. But approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water are consumed every year in the garment industry, which would be enough to meet the needs of 5 million people. And about 20% of our world’s wastewater is a direct result of fabric dyeing and treatment, with this untreated wastewater being pumped back into our water systems, contaminating them with toxins and heavy metals.
Narrated by clean water supporter Jason Priestley, RIVERBLUE is a groundbreaking documentary that examines the destruction of our rivers by the fashion industry, its effect on humanity, and the solutions that inspire hope for a more sustainable future.
It’s undeniable: fashion has a huge impact on society. It employs tens of millions of people globally, most of them women (80% in Bangladesh), aged 18-35. In factories across some of the world’s poorest countries, unfair and unsafe conditions are still common.
The Machinists show how the personal stories of three female garment workers and the boss of a fledgling trade union in Dhaka, Bangladesh intersect to portray the human cost of western high street fashion.
Is it acceptable to kill animals for fashion? This is the question this 2022 feature-length documentary asks the fashion industry, and all of us who get dressed each day. Exploring the use of fur, leather, and wool, SLAY looks at some of the environmental and human impacts the industries behind these animal-derived materials cause. It also hones in on the exploitation of animals themselves, something often excluded from conversations of sustainability and ethics in fashion.
Do you know what happens when you throw your clothes away? Well, it’s likely your cast-offs go on a journey east, across the oceans, to India’s industrial interior. From the Kutch District of western India to the northern city of Panipat, garment recyclers turn the huge bales of clothes that come from unfamiliar people and places into yarn. Unravel shows us how the garments are transformed and how these workers construct a picture of the West, using both their imagination and the rumours that travel with the cast-offs.
Presented by climate justice activist Mikaela Loach, the 2021 three-part documentary series ReDress The Future explores the ideas and innovators subverting the status quo that underlies an unsustainable fashion industry. Focusing on tangible solutions, this series seeks to challenge the fashion industry as we know it and give viewers a glimpse at a more circular fashion future they never even knew was possible.
UDITA follows a turbulent five years in the lives of the women at the grass roots of the garment worker’s struggle. From 2010, when organising in the workplace would lead to beatings, sacking, and arrests; through the tragedies of Tazreen and Rana Plaza, to 2015, when the long fight began to pay dividends. See this vital period through the eyes of the unions’ female members, workers, and leaders.
Fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara are churning out cheap, new clothes every few days, fuelling us to shop more than ever before. In this short documentary, Hasan Minhaj explores how our desire to look “fresh to death” is actually killing the planet.
We’re buying and wearing more clothes than ever, so in this documentary, Alex James, Blur bassist turned cheesemaker, presents a critical look at our disposable approach to clothing and its huge human and environmental cost.
When Leo DiCaprio speaks, we listen. And so he made this film; both a political statement and a desperate call to arms. As a United Nations Messenger of Peace, the Academy Award-winning actor travels to five continents and the Arctic to witness climate change firsthand. He speaks with the Pope, activists in India, scientists in Greenland, and former US president Barrack Obama. And he urges us to think about how we’re impacting our climate. DiCaprio was determined and focused on releasing this film before the US election at the time, and it sends a powerful message to all of us that the future of our planet is a collective human responsibility.
How might your life be better with less? This documentary explores the life of a minimalist, looking at what we think makes us happy, in comparison to what actually does. How? By talking to the experts, of course. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus take you into the personal lives of those who already live with less, and look at how they find meaning in life. Get ready to be inspired to make your life lighter.
Plastic Paradise is American journalist and filmmaker Angela Sun’s journey to uncover the phenomenon of the Great Pacific garbage patch. Through encounters with scientists, researchers, and volunteers, she shows us that the problem—our reliance on, and consumption of, plastic—is more insidious than we think.
Swiss documentary More Than Honey charts the alarming rate of deaths of bee colonies around the world—from Europe, to Australia, to China. It examines the possible reasons for the deaths—a combination of parasites, viruses, pesticides, and stress.
Food, Inc. focuses on American industrial food production. The filmmakers explore how supermarkets and multinational companies control food systems, with the aim of growing everything “faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper”. The impact of this on our health and the environment will be sure to shock you.
From the co-creator of Cowspiracy comes Seaspiracy, a follow up that illuminates alarming—and not widely known—truths about the widespread environmental destruction to our oceans caused by human behaviour. TW for graphic content.
Earthlings takes an unflinching look at our treatment of animals used for food, fashion, science, and entertainment. The film is narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, with haunting music by Moby. Powerful, graphic, and provocative, it’s guaranteed to change the way you view your consumer choices and even humanity itself. TW for graphic content.