I often get asked why the price of an organic cotton t-shirt is so much higher than that of a comparable fast fashion brand, or how are we supposed to be able to afford sustainable pieces with only a small amount of disposable income? The answer to these questions is much more nuanced and complex than one may think. To really examine the issue, we need to look at the cost of these products as well as the consumer mindset behind shopping in general.
The Price Behind the Label
When first asking yourself, “why does this item cost as much as it does?” a great place to start is the clothing label. Those few words, “Made in…” will tell you a lot about the cost behind and item. Depending on the country of construction, cost will very significantly. For example, a shirt manufactured in Canada will most likely be priced higher than one made in Bangladesh. This is for a couple of reasons. The obvious answer is that workers in Canada will get paid significantly more than workers in Bangladesh. Labour and wage laws in the Global North tend to be more stringent, resulting in higher wages for garment workers relative to those in the Global South. It’s also important to keep in mind the value of the currency in the country of origin. What is considered a “living wage” is vastly different between countries. Within this concept, the value of a countries currency can have a huge impact on the wealth of an individual between countries. What I can buy with $10CAD in Canada is much less, for example, then what I can buy in Bangladesh for $10CAD. With this idea in mind, there is an opportunity to have the dollar of a business in the Global North go much further by manufacturing in the Global South by paying what is considered a living wage to workers in another country while paying significantly less overall to do so. But is this opportunity taken by most organizations? The answer is most often no. But that is a whole other issue for another post.
The country of origin will also often dictate how the garment was constructed. Typically in the Global North assembly lines are used utilizing what is considered "lower skilled" labour. This means you will have one person doing one very specific part of the construction process such as sewing a button on or attaching a zipper. In small batch or made to order operations, it is often one person sewing the majority of that single item of clothing from start to finish. This is more time consuming but allows for a higher level of skill to be learned/ utilized resulting in a greater constructed garment and room for the workers to grow there own skills and advance in their field.
Next you can look at the materials. Is it made out of a synthetic fibre like polyester or nylon? If so, it most likely costs much less to make as it requires few resources and less time to cultivate. These fibres are cheaper for a reason. They were created for our own convenience for laundering and ease of use. But keeping with the common theme of lazy human nature, there are significant downfalls to these conveniences in the long run. These materials are made from plastics that will take years to break down in a landfill, creating an immense amount of waste due to the high turnover of product from our consumption habits. They also release small microfibres into the water when washed that easily pass through filtration systems, finding their way into waterways as well as important ecosystems within lakes and oceans globally.
Natural fibres tend to be more expensive due to the lengthy processes of obtaining them through crop cultivation/ farming as well as spinning those materials into yarn for weaving and kitting. Natural fibres are often a more sustainable option because they are able to naturally decompose into their original elements once we are finished with them, further reducing the amount of permanent waste seen from the fashion industry. They also require less energy to produce in general and the fibres are already in existence without the need to melt down plastic as synthetic fibres do, removing a significant amount of energy from the production cycle all together.
Some examples of natural fibres are:
- Cotton (organic over conventional)
- Flax or “Linen”
- Lyocell or “Tencel”
- Rayon or “Bamboo”
Going back to these questions about affordability and justification of price brings up a deeper issue around consumer behaviour in our society. It is without a doubt a privilege to have the finances to obtain these higher priced garments, and I acknowledge that it is not within everyone’s means to do so. With that being said, if you are currently in the habit of purchasing new items on a regular basis at a lower cost, the price of the item is not as much of an issue and the way you are consuming. Going into ethical clothing stores or browsing online with the idea that you will be able to buy the same quantity as you would with fast fashion is flawed. Of course, it will be expensive if you want to buy 10 things a month at a higher price.
The idea that needs to be at the forefront of you mind is quality over quantity. Keeping in mind cost per wear and really thinking purchases over before making them will create a much more affordable mindset to entering this higher priced niche. If you are set on wearing something new every day for a month, then your ability to obtain clothing made responsibly out of higher quality materials will drastically diminish. And if it is quantity you’re looking for, pop into your nearest thrift store and purchase something that has already been created and consumed conventionally.
Longevity within your closet is just as important if not more important environmentally than buying something ethically. I know as a consumer I struggle with this a lot due to constant exposure to new items and trends put forward to continue our desire for something new. We have been taught for so long that we need to be in constant pursuit of the latest thing to be considered up to date with the current times and trends and not stand out like a sore thumb in a society fuelled on the overconsumption. But it’s not all a lost cause. We can break this pattern if we really set our minds to it. We can stay away from shopping malls and browsing online by throwing ourselves into something we love for that instant gratification we are urning for. We can switch things up and challenge ourselves to wear every piece within our closet and try new combinations based on trends rather than simply heading to the shops to pick up something new. Simply not shopping is the best form of practising sustainability and is such a powerful for of resistance to the entire Fast Fashion system.
So buy LESS, and buy BETTER.
And if you cant afford the larger price tag at the local ethical shop on your block, think about why that is. Is it because you buy so much already and enjoy quantity over quality? Or is it because you simply cant afford to pay that much when you need something replaced in your closet or actually NEED something new? If your answer is the second question, then you are not really part of the problem here. It is those who expect to buy in excess to what they need, so much so that Fast Fashion companies have growing profit margins year over year, that are the issue.
So when and if you can, buy what you need and wear what you have.