Why Is Ethical Fashion Expensive?

Why Is Ethical Fashion Expensive?

Consumers often decry ethical and sustainable fashion's high cost, describing it as "exclusive" or "elite."

And it's true: There is something deeply messed up about our globalised fashion industry.

Fast fashion has taught us to expect that a t-shirt should cost less than $10, that we can buy a cheap, copy-cat of a celebrity look within the week, and that new collections should constantly be dropping — McKinsey has observed as many as 52 "micro-seasons" in a single year. 

So, when an ethical and sustainable brand produces a shirt that costs $30, $50, or even $80, it's easy to write them off as a label that only cares about affluent customers. 

But with just a few notable exceptions, it's not greed driving the high cost of ethical fashion.

It's actually the opposite. 

The mounting toll on the environment, exploitative wage systems, and a need to preserve age-old crafts—the reasons for making the switch to sustainable fashion are multiple and compelling.

However, the price can serve as a deterrent for many looking to change to a more ethical wardrobe.

The price tag on a sustainably produced garment with fair wages for labour can often be much bigger compared to an off-the-rack, mass-produced design, causing the perception that sustainable fashion caters only to an exclusive clientele.

However, in ensuring that every garment produced has minimal impact on the environment, several factors come into play that ultimately affect the pricing of a product.

Ahead, industry insiders take us through the factors that influence how a sustainable garment is priced.

When living sustainably, it's important to understand the true cost of the items we buy. Upon first glance at a price tag, it's easy to be confused or dismayed by the sometimes dramatic price difference between fast fashion and sustainably made clothing. 

Unfortunately, while sustainably made items are becoming more popular, they aren't the standard in manufacturing.

In a highly capitalistic society, most businesses zero in on profit margins and take steps to ensure they can quickly produce cost-competitive items to drive sales.

Unfortunately, what isn't reflected in that price tag is the environmental impact on the people in the supply chain—from farmers to sewers and factory workers.

Cutting corners to cut costs can include utilising child labour and paying factory workers pennies.

In fact, the fashion industry funnels more money towards modern slavery than any other industry outside of tech. 

The rapid production of clothing is also one of the primary contributors to global pollution.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of the world's carbon emissions, which is more than the emissions from all international flights combined! Fast fashion also produces 20 per cent of global wastewater, mostly caused by toxic textile dyes. This dye leaches into ecosystems, and micro-fibres from unsustainable fabrics (like polyester) pollute our waterways even further. 

Cutting corners allows businesses to make a lot of items quickly and sell more at a lower price point.

The alternative—having a sustainable supply chain—means producing less and selling at a higher price point.

So much harm is behind the price tag of unethically made items. We have to ask ourselves: If a company exploits people and the planet to ensure low prices and a quick turnaround, is the clothing cheaper?

While the dollar amount might be, the lasting environmental and social impacts are not. 

The Relation Between Pricing And Sustainable Fashion

"Sustainability is a value system of something you believe in," says Ruchika Sachdeva, founder and creative director of Bodice. The notion is seconded by Ayesha Barenblat, the mind behind the non-profit organisation and fashion watchdog, Remake.

"A sustainably made and priced garment reflects a brand's dedication to reducing their impact on the environment and the makers as well," she says.

If sustainable fashion is considered expensive, it is only against the context of fast fashion that has conditioned a generation of shoppers to expect throwaway prices, she believes.

"A garment maker once told us, 'The price reflects the exploitation'.

Fast fashion's rock-bottom prices have kept a generation of young women, mostly based in South Asia, trapped in a cycle of poverty," she adds.

However, the problem doesn't lie in isolation. Look closer, and you'll find that the issue extends to both ends of the spectrum, believes the San Francisco-based activist.

"It's important to note that higher-priced fashion does not necessarily correlate with better wages.

We have been in factories with luxury and high street brands working side by side and paying garment makers the same low wages.

Many high-priced luxury brands engage artisans in South Asia and pay rock-bottom prices, despite operating with higher margins," she explains.

Reasons Why Sustainable Fashion Is More Expensive

Better Quality Comes At A Price

Fast fashion's low prices are reflective of what you're getting—something trendy that costs a few cents to produce and often fall apart after a few washes.

The opposite is expected from slow fashion, a movement to reduce the amount we produce and consume and make garments that withstand the test of time.

Slow fashion brand's focus on producing timeless, well-thought-out pieces that have been fairly made instead of churning out thousands of trend-led, poor quality styles every week.

Slow, sustainable brands focus on the garment's quality and the quality of experience of its workers, staff, team, and its treatment of environmental causes. 

In contrast to fast fashion brands that have continually demonstrated a lack of care for the people making their clothes, slow fashion brands align their operations with a more moral value set — which includes promoting worker wellbeing and fair pay, protecting the environment and ultimately, driving the industry to do better.

However, it's not easy for everyday consumers to break down the cost of a 250 dollar dress in their heads — and perhaps we need more brands to make it easier for everyday shoppers to process.

American clothing retailer Everlane revolutionised the idea of radical price transparency.

They list the cost of everything from fabrics and sourcing down to retail mark-ups and logistics on product pages.

This type of price transparency has a dual purpose and effect: it sheds light on the lesser-known but immensely important processes behind making our clothes and holds brands accountable to their promises to (hopefully) avoid greenwashing. 

Beyond better price transparency, fashion's vast and complicated supply chain is also difficult for the average consumer to understand.

Often, the higher cost of ethics (e.g. better pay, working conditions) or sustainability (e.g. eco-friendly fabrics or processes) is sometimes lost in translation.

In future, it may be worthwhile for brands to create more content that breaks down and explores these issues—both online and offline—so they can grow their customer base and better retain their existing.

Raw Material Costs

Sustainable fashion requires high-quality raw materials that usually cost more. In addition, the manufacturing of exclusive ecological products demands fabrics made of natural, organic or recycled materials.

Clothing is made from countless different materials.

Some of them are good for the Earth and for you, others not so much. Most are made from coal and petroleum byproducts, nylon, acrylic and polyester.

These are common as they're amongst the cheapest fabrics available for making clothes.  

Cotton is another common thread in clothing manufacturing. It seems pretty natural, but it's actually not good for the environment.

It sucks up a lot of water, is heavily sprayed with pesticide, and often comes from GMO seeds unless it's organic.

However, since it, like the fabrics mentioned above, is mass-produced, it's cheaper than other more Earth-friendly fibres like hemp.

Turning hemp into fabric is a time-consuming process that requires more labour. The same could be said for linen and eco-friendly bamboo (as opposed to the bamboo fabric that uses chemicals to soften it quickly.).

Since these textiles take longer to make and can't be bought in mass quantities like artificially made fabrics, they're more expensive.

Most sustainable fabrics are specially made to order. This reduces the amount of waste in mass-producing fabric, but it also raises the price.

But there is hope! Think of sustainable fashion like organic food. In the beginning, it was really expensive, but the more people bought into it, the more the prices went down.

The main drawback of environmentally friendly fibres is their high cost. They are still in low demand, have limited availability, and costly production processes.

Timeless design

Sustainable fashion brands encourage consumers to buy less but higher quality.

While fast fashion retail giants want you to spend more and more as often as possible, responsible labels reject excessive consumerism.

They design classic and timeless clothes that last beyond the season.

Unfortunately, as you wear the same clothes many times over, higher prices are necessary to cover expenses between each purchase that should happen less often.

Recycling Is Expensive

Many sustainable apparel brands use recycled fabrics for their new collections.

They convert textile waste and used garments into new clothes to minimise their environmental impact and divert them from landfills.

Reusing, recycling, and repurposing old clothes creates value and is the more responsible approach to fashion instead of promoting the throwaway culture.

But recycling costs resources and money.

It's More Expensive To Make Less

Historically, fast fashion companies can keep prices low by ordering and producing in immense quantities.

Even if there isn't the demand to match it, this plays into economies of scale and enables them to offer thousands of new styles every week at the price of a meal while still making a profit.

While sustainable clothing should be more accessible to everyone, overproduction is not the answer.

It is inherently unsustainable and counterproductive to the purpose of ethical production.

Instead, many slow fashion brands take the route of small-batch or made-to-measure production.

However, unless they own their own manufacturing unit, it's hard to keep prices low.

Vertical integration—when a brand owns its own supply chain—isn't a new concept since many large fast fashion companies own their brand and production facilities to further control costs.

However, there aren't many ethical brands with manufacturing units that have greater control over the lifecycle of their products from start to finish.

Christine, the co-founder of Hong Kong-based ethical fashion company Tove & Libra, shares that brands must pay more to produce less. 

"With large quantities, the point of an assembly line is to maximise efficiency through repetition, thus minimising cost.

So if a brand wants to produce less than 100 pieces per style, they can't benefit from this assembly line. Instead, they have to work in small sample rooms where they cut, finish and pack every product individually.

This also means they are priced differently "to accommodate the extra effort", she explains.

As a result, customers are willing to support ethical brands because we simply can't compare the products across different price points.

"While you can feel the health perks of eating organic food or cleaner skincare, it's harder for people to see immediate benefits of eco-friendly fashion."

No Greenwash

Fast fashion brands often make misleading claims about the environmental impact of their business activities.

Instead, they try to appear more sustainable to appeal to conscious consumers and increase their profits.

Ethical brands also promote their sustainable fashion initiatives but without misleading buyers.

They are more expensive but provide proof, extensive information, and certification standards to ensure trust, transparency, and authenticity.

Sustainability Pays Fair

Ethical brands, who treat their workforces in a fair and dignified way, pay living wages.

This costs more money. In contrast, fast fashion has long been associated with sweatshops in Cambodia or Bangladesh, where workers are paid less than minimum wage. But you won't just find them in the developing world.

In Los Angeles, you'll find the HQ of many sustainable brands like Patagonia and Reformation.

However, you'll also find fast-fashion labels like Fashion Nova. In reality, LA is filled with factories that pay workers off the books and way less than the legal amount for the US.

More recently, Fashion Nova came under fire for paying as little as $2.77 an hour to their seamstresses. 

What's more, fair labour rights extend beyond appropriate wages; they should encompass all the basic rights that you'd expect from your job too.

For example, reasonable working hours, weekends off, paid overtime, vacation and paid sick leave, health coverage, the ability to unionise and of course, working in safe conditions.

But, as expected, providing all this and a safe workplace comes at a higher cost too. 

Thanks to globalisation, companies often choose to manufacture clothing in countries where wages are the lowest.

So it's just logical: if you had a company and wanted to make a profit, would you make your clothing in the UK, where the minimum wage is around $15, or in Bangladesh, where it's under $2?

The key here is twofold: one, to understand what a living wage is – and two, to ensure it's enforced. 

A living wage has different definitions, but it's generally considered to be enough income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs.

'Needs' are usually defined to include food, housing, and other essentials such as clothing.

Still, due to the flexible nature of the term "needs", there is no single universally accepted measure of a living wage.

That being said, there's little doubt that a living wage in, say, rural India is far, far lower than it would be in, say, New York City.

So again, it's no wonder brands choose to make clothing in countries where the cost of living is low.

If a brand ensures its customers that its workers are paid a 'fair' or a 'living wage, this should mean that these workers live well with sufficient food, clean water, clothing, access to education, and should even have enough left over for savings.

But, of course, ensuring these wages are met means a company is likely paying a bit more than its non-ethical competitors.

And the consumer will likely end up paying the difference.

We've already seen the devastating effects of third-party suppliers and factories cutting corners to hike up profits.

The devastating Rana Plaza disaster collapse—a tragedy that gave birth to the Fashion Revolution movement—is one of them. It costs more for factories to implement those regulations.

From fire safety measures to regular equipment checks in place, smaller brands have to bear the brunt of these expenses, making their cost per unit for manufacturing higher.

It's a bit of a vicious cycle; we're hesitant to buy sustainable products because of higher prices, but the prices of sustainable designs are higher because there's lower demand. 

Artisanal Crafts Take More Time And Human Skill

Apart from workers in factories and workshops, many sustainable brands engage with artisans, workshops and vocational training centres.

This promotes artisan craft and keeps the skill alive while also bolstering the communities whose livelihood depends on the craft.

As these international brands bring artisan work into a contemporary light, their craft is more accessible to different parts of the world.

Along with the vocational training facilities, men and women from rural communities have the chance to learn and earn too!

This choice to train and then hire workers is a conscious and costly way brands empower local communities. 

Mahima Gujral, the founder of India-based label Sui, shares how she's built her brand on collaboration and craftsmanship.

The company owns its workshop, and are in regular contact with their team of suppliers and artisans.

"We're able to hire the right people who align well with our ethos, to manage our production".

What's more, the art of block printing, herbal dyeing, weaving and embroidery are ancient processes that are inherently sustainable since they don't use electricity or emit carbon.

However, these handmade processes are time-consuming, laborious, and signature to artisan craft, which is hard to replicate.

Despite this, brands—from fast fashion to luxury—continue to rip off artisan designs without proper credit.

The appropriate patterns and imagery, religious and cultural, without any care for the significance of their origins.

Some high-end labels have been accused of using sweatshop labour in India for their embroidery, claiming it's handmade by people in white coats in ateliers in Paris and raising their prices accordingly. The lesson?

A higher price tag does not always reflect a fairly paid workforce, especially if the brand shares no proper information about its supply chain. 

Ethical Supply Chains

There is a dreadful price difference between fast fashion and sustainably made clothing for good reasons. One of them is to reduce the impact on farmers and garment factory workers in supply chains.

Many fast fashion brands use sweatshop-like working conditions to produce their clothes. Cases of child labour and modern slavery still happen today.

Ethically made items cost more but guarantee a decent living wage, fair and safe working conditions for employees in the fashion industry.

Unfortunately, companies selling extremely cheap clothes exploit people and the planet to do so.

Even if fast fashion is very cheap, the environmental and social costs are humongous.

Many sustainable clothes are incredibly expensive, but ultimately, sustainable fashion can become more affordable as the demand rises.

Changing our perspective on what's 'expensive.'

Without the advent of ready-made fashion, clothes shopping was once a yearly occasion.

It was specifically allotted to those who could afford tailor-made clothes.

Fashion was truly a status marker in the decades leading up to the industrial revolution.

Well-tailored clothing was the identity of the wealthy. And while making one's clothes was cheaper, buying mass-produced clothes became more convenient.

Thus, fashion was also the most cost-effective way to participate in society. 

Today, fast fashion and social media have made us believe it's normal to shop for 52 micro-seasons a year. Social media has a massive role when it comes to overconsumption and influencer culture.

First, it fuels the stigma of re-wearing clothes once they've been shared online. Since Instagrammers want the latest fashion as often as possible, they look to fast fashion to satiate their online needs.

What's worse, these ultra-fast fashion brands have brainwashed us to think it's okay to wear something once and then throw it away because it didn't cost enough to be valued.

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