Like most conscious consumers, I try to be deliberate about where I spend my money. A primary aspect of sustainable living, after all, is buying less. Yet, when it’s time to buy, I find that environmentally friendly and Fair Trade brands are much, much, more expensive than their traditionally produced counterparts.
Ironically, our cheap clothing comes at a high cost: human safety, human dignity, and all too often, human lives.
One example: the hefty price tag of a simple $150 dress once deterred me, like many other shoppers, from purchasing at all. I thought that it was just too expensive for such a simple item. I had previously bought similar stuff from a fast fashion retailer for a fraction of the cost. But, once I learned more about sustainable and ethical production practices, I realized something that totally changed my shopping habits and my thinking about conscious shopping: Fair Trade products are not expensive––fast fashion products are cheap. And their cheapness is not by mistake, but by design.
As you may already be aware of, for any product on the market there are always few key components that influence its price: materials, labor, non-manufacturing overhead, and, you guessed it, demand. Here’s a snapshot of what these mean:
For fast fashion products, inputs are usually as cheap as can be: non-organic cotton, polyester, and chemical dyes of all kinds. Alternatively, a Fair Trade brand may use organic Fair Trade cotton, silk, modal, and plant-based dyes to make their garments. Though visually indifferent, these products are significantly higher in quality and require higher costs to care for people and the planet. In other words, they’re better––and (surprise, surprise) because they’re better, they cost more!
Ironically, our cheap clothing comes at a high cost: human safety, human dignity, and all too often, human lives. Employees responsible for manufacturing in the garment industry are rarely paid a living wage, regardless of their local currency’s buying power. (Hourly wages in the world’s largest garment-producing countries of India, Vietnam, and China average 68, 52, 93 U.S. cents respectively). Meanwhile, Fair Trade certified brands pay their employees a living wage as defined by established labor policies. In many cases, these brands pay significantly higher than legal minimum wage standards.
Fortunately, labor conditions and environmental risks are key in Fair Trade standards, so human safety and individual rights (freedom of association, for example) are core concerns.
This factor helps to describe the costs associated with a company’s administration and what it takes to actually sell a product. Think wages for HR, gas for delivery trucks, and even rent for corporate office and retail space. While average costs for these examples of day-to-day operations don’t vary greatly between fast and slow fashion brands, two costs do stand out as a major difference: design and factory rent.
On the fast fashion side, companies are notorious for stealing their designs more or less directly from luxury brands, creative slow fashion labels, and independent designers alike. Although not surprising, this is a kind of salt-in-the-wound fact of the mass-produced fashion model: creativity and design has to be appropriated or replicated from its real sources: small operations or talented individuals.
Less and less garment factories can be accurately labeled death traps since the tragic Rana Plaza collapse, but manufacturers and subcontractors are still unsurprisingly cutting safety measures to keep costs down. Fortunately, labor conditions and environmental risks are key in Fair Trade standards, so human safety and individual rights (freedom of association, for example) are core concerns.
The fast fashion industry is what’s called an economy of scale––meaning they make a large profit by selling cheap garments at very low prices (a tiny profit margin for each item), but in massive quantities. Contrast this picture with the sustainable brands.Unfortunately, the demand for these ethical products is much, much lower than the demand in traditional markets. Thus, to sustain their brands, they must earn a much higher profit margin per item to account for their goods’ dramatically lower demand.
For the benefit of people and the planet, one can only hope that one day soon this demand picture is turned upside down, forcing the cheap and destructive stuff out, and raising the standards for making and buying across price points.