cost of ethical clothing

Is ethical clothing expensive?

Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive.  And I do get that.  When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.

Is ethical clothing expensive though?  When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive.  This $120 dress (approximately £89 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’ (but apparently not THE most ethical of options), is pretty similar to this £12.90 dress from a company with a low ethical rating.  Why would you spend £76 more on a dress that’s pretty similar?  It’s hard to make the maths add up.

ethical clothing too expensive

When you sit and think about that £12.90 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £12.90, and still make a profit.  If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money.  By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.

Rather than saying that ethical clothing is expensive, I would argue that the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive.

You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?

Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically.  In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016, the average price of a home was £205,000 according to the same report.  The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.

It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.

What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you get sites like – where every single item of clothing, including shoes, are just £5.

Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically.  I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but the New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes.  They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear.  This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.

The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions.  This meant ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.

We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing.  If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper.  You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap.  Yet going back to the £89 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2018, if not more.

cost of ethical clothing

It’s also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending.  I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing.  Fast forward to 2015, and it was reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before.  The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.

More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded.  Cheaper prices mean consumers value their clothes less.

So what’s the answer?  I’m not entirely sure.  We can’t suddenly turn the clock back 40 years.  And by suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries economies.  In 2014 the ready-made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages.

I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing.  Buying less; not buying into trends, and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward.   I’ve written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.

As consumers, we also have to act more responsibly.  Youtube haul videos with vloggers boasting to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.

Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.

Perhaps we have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying far fewer items of clothing is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.


  1. I remember in the mid 70’s by boyfriend ,now husband bought me a beautiful brown velour dress ,it was made by Wallis and it cost £40 ,that was more than a weeks wages for him,i treasured that dress and every time i wore it i felt like the bees knees and i washed it very carefully to make it last,it gave me many years of service.Perhaps clothing should be more expensive and less disposable and maybe we would pass it on to someone else or revamp it or make it into something else,there’s much need for up cycle workshops ,it’s about time we could all thread a needle and put it to use again,and it would surely get folks off of their phones for a wee while.

  2. I agree, our perception of what is expensive has become distorted; we’ve become so used to cheap clothing we forget that isn’t what they should cost. The same can be said for cheap meat. The problem is, however, that some people simple do not have that choice.

    When there is a family to clothe on a basic wage (that doesn’t cover the costs of basic necessities) it’s very unfair to put the responsibility on those consumers to “make better choices” and tell them to “just buy less but buy better”. There are lots of reason why that is impossible for some people to do.

    Of course, when we have the choice – I know I do – then we have a responsibility to make better choices, buy ethically made items, and to buy less and buy better. But I always want to acknowledge that, for a lot of people, this simply isn’t a choice that can be made.

  3. This is exactly what I was talking to my parents about last week, after I showed them the True Cost movie. I absolutely agree with what Sophie has said that for some people on a really low income buying better just isn’t an option. But I think there are a big swathe of us on a fairly tight budget that could still change the way we think about the need for new clothes, not accept the lowest prices as an option, and simply wait until we can afford more ethical. It’s a bit different for older children, as there is very little out there that’s ethical, but even then it’s worth talking it through, to counter the haul mentality. Thanks.

  4. I’m in my early 50’s and during my lifetime I’ve seen shopping become ‘the’ favourite pastime for many people. I’ve also studied economics and the basic principle of supply and demands relates to this problem. I agree that we need to think more about what we buy and if we really need that item of clothing, or any other purchase. It’s amazing how much we have in our homes without shopping for more ‘stuff’. How essential is that item that we think is essential? And how liberating it is to say, actually I don’t really need that today, I’ll do something other than go shopping again!

  5. I completely agree. I’ve made dresses and it’s not cheap and when you consider that someone’s time has to be paid for, higher price points for ethically made clothing makes complete sense. Like you said, it’s not that ethical clothing IS expensive, it’s that fast fashion has warped our perceptions to believe that clothing should be dirt cheap. As a student, I do struggle with the costs of ethical clothing, so I try to wait for sales from ethical brands, buy second hand, or buy from high street stores whose clothing I know will last me years (not ideal but it’s the best of a bad situation sometimes – though this does happen very rarely now).
    As Sophie said, our perceptions of a lot of things have been messed with. I’m sure the majority of people would want to buy ethically made clothing but it’s just not affordable on minimum wage, especially if you have a family. Unfortunately, I think fast fashion is always going to exist on the high street until the minimum wage is increased.

  6. I totally agree with Angela Potter 100%. I am 64 and think we should make do and mend …..and teach our children how to cook more in schools. I agree that to make your own clothes is expensive but we need to manufacture more clothing in the UK especially in Lancashire & Yorkshire.

  7. Love this- I always get so frustrated when I see vloggers sharing their shopping hauls- really wish they stood for more sustainability and showed that it’s ok to wear things twice and repair clothing.

  8. Pingback: Five Places to Shop for Secondhand Clothes Online | Moral Fibres - UK Eco Green Blog

  9. The solution is surely to buy less but buy what you love and will wear till it wears out. I am still wearing (and loving) a jumper that I bought over 20 years ago. I’m on a very low income, but I manage by buying most of my clothes second hand and then I can afford to buy maybe one or two items new from an ethical clothing company each year.


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