I love to write about fair and sustainable (ethical) fashion, but I also love to talk about it. With some regularity, I give workshops at secondary schools about fair fashion. I often hear from the boys and girls, that they would prefer to choose fair fashion brands, but that they can’t because the clothes are too expensive. When they say this, I always nod understanding. Because honestly? I can also not really afford my favorite fair brands.
Price difference: 110 euro
Let me give you an example. Below you see two similar shirts. The left is the fair brand Alchemist. It is produced in Portugal in a certified factory and it costs € 139. On the right, you see a similar shirt from Mango. Where it is produced is not clear, but it costs only € 19.99. Why would you choose to spend € 110 more on an outfit that allows you to create the same look?
Sustainable and fair fashion is often more expensive than fast fashion. But why is sustainable fashion more expensive? I’ll tell you in this article.
The costs of fair production vs. unfair production
An important component that contributes to the difference in the prices between fair and fast fashion brands is the way in which the clothing is produced.
Since 1980 there has been a tendency to outsource the production of clothes to low-wage countries. These low wages contribute to saving on the costs of the production of clothes and thus more profit can be made. Since the ‘80’s, it is the new norm that our clothes are produced in countries such as Bangladesh, India, and China.
This is not a problem in itself. After all, the cost of living is lower in these countries than in Europe or the United States. In that respect, it is logical that production in Asia, for example, results in lower costs.
However, the problem becomes clear when you look at the price that brands actually are willing to pay the garment workers. Brands are interested in making high profits. Over the years, clothing brands have begun a race to the bottom when it comes to the price that they are willing to pay for the production of their clothes. Every time they want to pay less and less.
Governments in low-wage countries have become dependent on orders from the West. That is why the minimum wage in the clothing producing countries, is lower than the livable wage. This way the costs of production can be kept low.
The cost of fair materials vs. unfair materials
Sustainable and fair clothes are in most cases made of durable and sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled cotton, bamboo or tencel. The costs for the production of these materials are higher than non-sustainable materials.
Except that the raw materials are often scarce, which has an impact on the price, they are produced in a fair and sustainable way. This also comes with a price.
Mass production vs. small-scale production
Clothing chains such as Primark, Mango and Zara have grown into gigantic and global companies over the years. Due to their size, these clothing chains can produce on a very large scale. This also ensures that the price for the production of a garment can be low. Small, sustainable brands cannot (will not) produce masses, which has an impact on the price of their clothing.
Labor costs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the difference between sustainable and fast fashion. In the countries where our clothes are made, there are hardly any laws and regulations concerning working conditions and environmentally friendly production. Because of this, it is also easier to produce cheaply.
The actual price to produce clothes in a sustainable and fair way, s not reflected in the price of fast fashion. These costs are passed on to the garment workers and the environment. And that is why these chains can still profit from a garment that only costs € 19.99.
Clothing from fast fashion brands is not known for its good quality. I often hear people complaining about Primark shirts and that you can throw them out after wearing them five times. This is because the quality of the materials is poor. You cannot expect a high quality shirt for only € 5. If that were the case, the brand would not be able to make any profit out of them. And that is of course the whole idea behind this profit model.
In addition, the profit model of fast fashion brands depends to a large extent on mass consumption. So, the sooner you have to buy a new shirt, the more the brand earns. Fast fashion brands, therefore, benefit from their clothing being of a poor quality, so the consumer makes a new purchase faster.
Needless to say, that such a practice does not fit the mission of fair fashion brands. A shirt from a fair fashion brand is of a better quality and lasts longer. That is reflected in the price. Instead of buying something of lesser quality five times, you buy one good product. At the end of the day, there will be a financial difference. Buying something of a good quality will hurt more financially and you will need to get over this psychological boundary.
Appreciation of the clothing
If you compare a shirt of € 139 with an identical shirt of € 19.99 you will soon be tempted to choose the cheaper version, because for € 139 you can buy almost seven shirts from € 19.99. And seven is better than one, right?
The higher prices of sustainable fashion are a consequence of fair and sustainable production. However, these prices indirectly contribute to minimalism.
Nowadays it is normal to have at least 30 outfits in the closet. It has become the norm to have a lot of cheap clothes, but in reality, we do not need so many clothes.
If your attitude towards clothing changes and you see the value of sustainable clothes, you will consume in a different way. You would rather have seven outfits in your closet that you love and always want to wear, instead of 30 outfits of which half remain unworn.
Affordable honest clothes
The aforementioned reason causes fair fashion to be more expensive than fast fashion. However, there are also enough fair and sustainable brands that are in the same price range as Mango and Zara. Brands like Miss Green, Armedangels, Nobel Project, People’s Avenue and Goat Appearal. You can find the complete overview in the in the Palace of Bliss Fair Fashion Guide.
Furthermore, I believe in a future where the choice between fair and fast fashion is no longer influenced by the price. More and more people are starting to see the value of fair fashion. This increases the demand for fair clothes and that will benefit the price over time.
I am very curious about your opinion on this. Do you find sustainable fashion expensive? And to what extent does the price determine whether you buy sustainable fashion or not?