Why Is Ethical Clothing Expensive Compared to Fast Fashion?

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Have you ever wondered why is ethical clothing expensive? I would argue that we’re asking the wrong question. Shouldn’t we be asking why is fast fashion so cheap?

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?

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) is made by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’ (but apparently not THE most ethical of options). It is pretty similar to this £12.90 dress from Uniqlo – 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 then the thread and any zips or buttons. And the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount. That’s before even accounting for the cost of your own time. And that’s before you’ve accounted for the cost of the space to make the clothes.

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. I would say we need to ask why fast fashion, instead, is so cheap.

Prices Go Up, Don’t They?

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.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph reports that over the same period 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. When it comes to fast fashion, compared to ethical clothing, this is actually no longer the case.

Why Has Clothing Decreased In Price?

What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen. In fact, they’ve fallen to the point we’re at now where you get sites like everything5pounds.com. Here 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. Particularly 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.

Driving Down The Value of Clothing

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. Is ethical clothing expensive then? I’m inclined to say no.

cost of ethical clothing

The Impact on Household Spending

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. However, census data from the US shows that in the 1950s 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. This is despite Americans buying more clothes than ever before.  Indeed, the same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. 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, meaning they buy more and more clothes. When clothing is viewed as disposable, consumers see ethical clothing as being prohibitively expensive.

What’s the Answer to Ethical Clothing Seeming Expensive?

So what’s the answer to ethical clothing seeming prohibitively expensive?

The answer is, I think, in several parts:

Changing Our Relationship With Clothing

I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing.  Buying far fewer items of clothing is key. Learning to love the items of clothing we do have, and looking after them by washing them well, and repairing them when they need it is a huge part of the ethical clothing equation than almost anyone, regardless of the size of their disposable income, can be a part of.

Another is not buying into trends. Instead, buy ethical clothing that you want to wear time and again.  I’ve written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell, when you factor in the cost per wear of an item that won’t date in a few months’ time, you do start to change your views on ethical clothing being better value rather than expensive.

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

Influencers Acting More Responsibly

People with influence also have to act more responsibly.  Youtube haul videos with vloggers with huge followings boasting to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuates the cheap disposable clothing myth. Meanwhile, celebrities that are used to greenwash unsustainable brands are part of this problem too.

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 good value when it comes to ethical clothing.

Supporting Ethical Fashion Isn’t Just About What We Buy

It’s also really important to remember that supporting ethical fashion doesn’t just have to mean buying ethical fashion. There are lots of ways to support ethical fashion without spending money – from supporting garment workers’ rights to calling out greenwashing from big brands.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

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