If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time oogling beautiful, sustainable clothing brands online or in-store, running your hands along their soft fabrics or adding various items to your cart, and styling imaginary outfits only to leave or log-off empty-handed with a sigh. At this point in my life, for as much as I would love to own an entirely ethically made and responsibly designed wardrobe, the change in my pocket just won’t cut it.
I would like to start this blog off by stating that I fully understand that for much of the population, shopping entirely ethically made or fairtrade goods is completely unattainable. Even the option to shop within the sustainable clothing price bracket is a huge privilege and can come only when basic needs are more than met. The discussion around the (primarily white) privilege of the sustainable clothing market is a large and ongoing one, and not something I will expand on today, but if you’re curious about learning more, it’s definitely worth looking into - I’ve listed some great articles for further reading at the end of this blog.
What I want to discuss today is what you are *actually* paying for when you shop ethically made clothing. It seems to me that this conversation is often glossed over or considered something that is commonly known, when in reality many people just can’t comprehend the price difference between responsible clothing and fast-fashion.
The concept of cheap clothing is so drilled into our heads that even for me, even as someone who LIVES & BREATHES this industry and is uber passionate about sustainable and responsibly made fashion, the cost of these garments can stop me in my tracks.
So, why the price jump? Can the differences between a cotton t-shirt from H&M and a cotton t-shirt from a responsible brand really be worth over $50? Surely these companies are just out to get our money, right?
First off, huge companies like H&M are volume-based businesses. Their business model relies on them selling millions of items a day, and if they didn’t there would be no way that their prices could be so low.
As with anything, the more of something you buy, the lower the price gets. This is especially true in production when ordering large volumes can save literally thousands of dollars per production run. Some brands have even been known to burn excess garments because it’s cheaper for them to produce millions and burn half of it than to produce less and sell less…..SHOCKING, but true.
It’s extremely hard for small and medium-size brands to front the money for large production runs, so their production ends up being more expensive at base than a large company would ever be required to pay. On the bright side, this means less leftover inventory that gets sent to landfill, so many responsible brands choose to produce less so that they don’t have to...ahem…"burn off” all that excess stock.
The irony here is that if/when the popularity of fast-fashion brands decline, they will be forced to raise their prices and will most likely have to change their business model to reflect a more slow-fashion model, or risk becoming obsolete.
The second and one of the largest differences is in the materials themselves. Responsible companies tend to use more natural materials than fast-fashion companies, who use mostly polyesters and nylons in their production. These synthetic materials are cheaper by nature as they don’t require man-power nor all that time to grow & harvest as natural raw materials do.
Not to mention, most responsible companies do their best to monitor their supply chain closely to make sure that the raw materials are collected sustainably, that the farmers who grew the raw material was paid fairly and not overworked, that the facilities where their materials are spun and woven into fabric are safe and clean for the workers, and that the chemicals used to dye and finish the fabrics are non-toxic and are not being disposed of into public waterways.
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine two scenarios:
One textile is created from cotton which is grown organically, using no pesticides. The farmer who grew and harvested the cotton and owns the land was paid fairly for his time and his crop, even though extreme droughts in the area meant that the harvest was smaller than expected. He goes back to tilling his land for next year with another account from the textile company. The factory where the fabric is spun is bright and airy with windows and large doors that open to let the breeze through on hot days. The women who clean and spin the cotton are paid fairly for their work and live comfortably in the neighbouring villages. At the end of their workday, they go home to see their families and rest. The cleaning agents and dyes used to colour the fabric are non-toxic and are safe for the workers. Even so, they are provided with proper safety gear when working with these chemicals. The wastewater from the dying process is treated and reused until there is no trace of the chemical left in the water source. The factory is extremely careful that none of the chemicals used in the cleaning or dyeing process end up in the local rivers or water supply.
The second textile is created from cotton which was grown using dangerous pesticides that killed the land and rendered it unusable for the next 5 years. The farmer who owns the land and harvests the cotton not only cannot use his land and has lost his livelihood, but due to a drought was unable to yield the large amount of cotton demanded by the textile manufacturer, and as such was not paid for his crop and is forced into a debt held by the textile company for yet another year.
The cotton that was harvested is sent to a facility in a different state to be cleaned and spun - the workers at this facility are forced to work for over 18 hours per day and are separated from their families. They are the daughters of the farmers who are indebted to the textile company, working to pay off their families debt until their land becomes usable again. Often they sleep on the factory floor next to their machines. The building itself meets no safety codes, there is no running water, nor are there windows. The workers are allowed to visit their homes and families once or twice a year, but otherwise, they spend their lives in and around the factory. The cotton at this factory is dyed using harsh chemicals that turn some of the youngest people working in the facility blind and render others barren. Those that work with the chemicals are offered no protective gear - they use their bare hands. When the cotton is washed, the water containing multitudes of these highly toxic chemicals is washed straight out to sea or into the nearest river which also happens to be the only source of water for the nearest village. As a result of this, many elderly or children of this village become sick even though they do not work directly in the factory.
The second scenario may seem too horrible to be true, but trust me; it’s not only true, it is the norm for most textiles created today.
And that’s just in creating the fabrics. What about the conditions that the garments themselves are sewn in?
Thanks to movies like The True Cost, which highlighted the terrifying building collapse at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh in 2013 where over 1100 people were killed, many consumers are becoming aware that these issues persist in the factories making their garments as well.
When it comes to the factories that produce the majority of fast-fashion, the same scenarios are valid. There are of course factories that operate under international rules for fair-trade - paying their workers living wages, offering childcare or training programs, and who make sure their buildings are up to spec with big windows and running water. But the majority of clothing today is produced in equally appalling conditions to those listed above. Factories often employ single women (over 80% of garment workers are women) and children who are impoverished and desperate for work. They pay them next to nothing for 18+ hours of work a day. There are no unions to protect these workers rights - they are often indebted in some way to the factory, in fact, as the factories often own the dwellings that their workers live in and force them to pay high rents in a vicious cycle to keep them trapped and working.
The 4th and most obvious difference in a garment from a fast-fashion brand vs. a responsible brand is likely to be the quality of the garment itself. We’ve all had a favourite shirt from a fast-fashion company that fell apart as soon as we washed it. Either the fabric stretches, rips or pills, or the garment itself falls apart (and honestly at that price point it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to repair it, right?).
So here’s the thing, y’all:
FAST. FASHION. IS. DESIGNED. TO. FALL. APART. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, guys, I know. But it’s just not. Remember how they need to overproduce to bring costs down? Overproduction doesn’t work if your customers only need to buy one garment every 3 years. They DEPEND on us buying and re-buying and buying again to make their business model work and keep their costs down. You see, it allll comes back around.
Using non-organic & highly toxic chemicals, cheating building codes, paying disadvantaged workers well below living wages & making garments that fall apart quickly are some of the most basic ways that textile and garment factories cut costs so that we, the consumers, can have a closet full of cheap clothing.
Of course, most brands will never admit to cutting corners all for the sake of a dollar. But you can rest assured that if you are buying fast-fashion, from the fabric to the finished garment, it was made in conditions like this.
Responsible brands, on the other hand, will do their darndest to monitor their supply chain so that they know exactly where the raw materials for their garments came from - and the conditions the fabric and the garment itself was made in - right down to the details. Of course, it’s always more expensive to pay people properly, to follow building codes or to use organic pesticides, and this is another reason why, very often, sustainable or eco-friendly clothing will be much more expensive than fast-fashion. And best believe, if a brand is doing things right, you will know. They will be shouting it from the rooftops & singing their own praises like a songbird. (It’s still important to do your own research though, because Greenwashing is a huge issue in fashion as well as it is in every industry these days. Check out our blog on greenwashing in fashion to learn how to spot the trickiest tricks!)
Responsible/Sustainable brands also tend to make garments that are designed to LAST. Durability is a huge part of sustainable design - as is end of life care for garments (how it decomposes in a landfill and how quickly it is likely to end up there). More often than not, responsible brands will even offer a trade-in incentive to keep their garments out of landfill, or offer to repair them for free if they become damaged. Now THAT’S responsible design!
So. We’ve learnt that most fast-fashion brands are volume-based, producing way more than is necessary to drive down their manufacturing costs. We’ve also learnt that most large manufacturers today cut corners on textiles - using factories that exploit their workers and produce low quality, toxic products - as well as the garments themselves - using factories that exploit their workers and produce low-quality products that are designed to survive less than three washes.
And we’ve learnt that most responsible brands monitor their supply chains, paying living wages to its workers from farmer to sewer, use higher quality textiles that are designed to last through many washings, and produce less so as to have less inventory sent to landfill.
So, you tell me? Still think your t-shirt should cost less than your coffee?
No. Thought not.
P.S. This blog has a LOT of information in it, I know. Stay tuned for more blogs where I unpack some of these issues in more detail, or click any of the links in this blog to find out more about a specific topic.
“What the Sustainable Movement is Missing About Privilege” by Vice Magazine
“Is Fast Fashion a Class Issue?” by Refinery 29
“Is Ethical Fashion a Privilege?” by Sustain Magazine