When it comes to shopping, one of the biggest factors that drives our decision making is the price tag. In the fashion industry, brands that have grown the fastest have, historically, offered us runway designs at a fraction of the price (aka, fast fashion). Despite its appeal, however, the last few years have seen many of us becoming increasingly aware of the devastating ways that cheap clothes affect people and planet. Recent McKinsey survey results support this, demonstrating that we’re prioritising sustainability more than ever before.
However, since we’re so used to be able to buy a t-shirt for $5 or a pair of jeans for $25, many tend to write off sustainable fashion as too expensive. Undoubtedly, not everyone can afford to spend double or triple what they would on fast fashion, but it’s huge environmental and social impact must be acknowledged. When it comes to low price tags, we need to start realising that there’s a hidden cost to cheap clothing that we don’t see.
A crucial part of understanding why sustainable fashion isn’t more affordable is questioning our own attitudes—like why we’ve come to think it’s normal that a dress can cost as much as a cup of coffee. But first, let’s dive into the technical reasons behind its higher price tag.
6 reasons why sustainable fashion is more expensive
1. 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 falls 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 quality of the garment, and also 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. On product pages, they list the cost of everything from fabrics and sourcing all the way down to retail mark-ups and logistics. 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 but also 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. A lot of the time, the higher cost of ethics (eg. better pay, working conditions) or sustainability (eg. 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.
2. It’s actually more expensive to make less
Historically, fast fashion companies are able to 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. Although there aren’t many, ethical brands with manufacturing units 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, shared that brands have to actually 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. 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. Christine also emphasises how important the willingness of a customer is, to support ethical brands. This is because we simply can’t compare the products across different price points. “While you see the health benefits to organic food or beauty, it’s harder for people to see the same for eco-friendly fashion.”
3. Sustainability pays fair
Ethical brands, who treat their workforces in a fair and dignified way, pay living wages. Obviously, this costs more money. In contrast, fast fashion has long been associated with sweatshops in countries like 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. Reasonable working hours, weekends off, paid overtime, vacation and paid sick leave, health coverage, the ability to unionize and of course, working in safe conditions. As expected, providing all this and a safe workplace comes at a higher cost too.
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 which 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 because of higher prices, but the prices of sustainable designs are higher because there’s lower demand.
4. 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 then made 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 one brands take to empower local communities.
The founder of Sui, Mahima, shares how she’s built the brand on collaboration, craftsmanship and a green heart. The brand owns its workshop and works with close vendor networks and artisans. This means the team is in direct regular contact with the workers. “We’re able to hire the right people who align well with our ethos, to manage our production”. 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. These handmade processes are time-consuming, laborious and are signature to artisan craft, which cannot be replicated.
However, many fast fashion and luxury brands continuously rip off artisan designs without proper credit. On the fast fashion side, they appropriate patterns and imagery, religious and cultural, without any of the thought and care behind the origins of these designs. Whereas luxury brands have been accused of using sweatshop labour in India for their embroidery, claim it’s all made by hand by people in white coats in ateliers in Paris, and raise their prices accordingly. This comes to show that a higher price is not reflective of a fairly paid workforce if the brand is not transparent about its supply chain.
5. The higher cost of organic and certified fabrics
Ethical fashion brands prefer certified organic, natural or recycled fabrics to minimise their impact on the planet. When a fabric is certified organic, it means farmers minimise their dependence on agricultural chemicals and focus on the health of the land and the people. Essentially, natural and organic materials cost more due to the extra work employed to make the process as low-impact as possible. This calls for manually taking on tasks like weeding, cleaning, and reparation of pest damage. Alicia from Esse shares how time-consuming and laborious these tasks are. Especially for fabrics such as linen, due to the flax fibres breaking easily during weaving, farmers can’t yield as much harvest as for example cotton, in the same amount of time. Since the demand for fabrics other than cotton and polyester is low, this means there are fewer producers of unconventional but more eco-friendly fabrics, which drive prices up.
Organically grown natural fabrics are generally better for the planet in regards to land use, water and air pollution, as explained by the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Crops such as linen or hemp don’t require a lot of land, water or pesticides. This automatically makes them greener options as compared to cotton. Most importantly, we can’t consider organic fibres as organic if we then artificially soften, bleach or dye it with chemicals. Even if the fabric itself doesn’t release microplastics, the amount of chemical residue on these clothes could irritate your skin and seep into waterways.
In addition to costly processes, certifications are expensive to obtain. There are sustainable standards to comply with, fair wages, safety regulations, record-keeping for accountability and even annual inspections and audits that add to existing business costs. But can a company still be sustainable if they don’t use certified facilities or fabrics? Yes, but with consumers wanting more transparency and accountability, certification such as GOTS, Fair Trade or B Corp gives the brand sustainable credentials, as proof of their promise.
6. Alternative and recycled materials come with a hefty price tag too
As you can tell by now, fast fashion is cheap because it uses exploited labour and low-quality materials. The most common fabric in the world, polyester, makes up 55% of the global fabric market since it’s cheap and easy to produce, and you’ll find a lot of it in fast fashion. These synthetics are derived from petroleum and are tremendously harmful to the environment. They release various toxins and microplastics throughout its lifespan. So, a lot of slow fashion brands go for fibres with a lower environmental impact; natural and recycled.
In addition to naturally-grown fibres, using other materials such as silk, wool, leather (natural or vegan), affects price points. Silk and wool are expensive, to begin with. However, ethically obtaining these materials without harming the animals the fibres come from is an additional price hike. This is because these processes are time-consuming, resource-intensive and yield lower quantities. Even for vegan leather, most on the market are PVC – unless it is specified as purely from plants or mushrooms. Natural vegetable-tanned leather, that uses no chrome or harmful dyes, are more durable and long-lasting as compared to synthetic leather. However, whether you choose vegan or conventional leather, opt for good-quality products that can replace buying multiple in the future.
When we talk of synthetics in sustainable fashion, we have to understand that there’s a difference between virgin and recycled in terms of its environmental impact and quality. For example, manufacturing units can recycle polyester mechanically and chemically, but the latter results in a higher quality product. A higher-quality means it will break apart less and releases fewer microplastics than low-quality synthetics. Since it is less common, chemical recycling is more expensive due to the lack of facilities and widespread infrastructure available. Recycling synthetics also requires significantly less energy than making virgin synthetic fabrics. Many recycling facilities even clean up the environment by preventing plastic from getting into the oceans instead of using new resources. It is crucial to remember that no material is perfect in terms of sustainability.
Changing our perspective on what’s ‘expensive’
Without the advent of ready-made fashion, clothes shopping was once a yearly occasion. 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. 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. 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.
Fast fashion prices aren’t sustainable
We need to shift our point of reference for how much clothes should cost, and it starts with transparency. If sewing were so easy, more people would make their own clothes. But unfortunately, cutting, sewing and finishing hundreds of garments a day requires skills that most of us don’t have. When brands are transparent about the time and effort garment making takes, the low price tags become even more shocking.
In essence, it makes no sense to compare sustainable brand prices to fast fashion. Simply put, the criteria are not the same. Fast fashion’s goal will always be to overproduce and make the most profit, regardless of ethics. Sustainable fashion’s objective is to create a fairer industry, protect the environment and marginalised communities, and add value to the entire experience of clothes shopping. The same goes for organic food at first. Initially, everyone considered it too expensive, but its benefits helped it become more widespread. And as more people bought into it, organic prices became more accessible to a wider range of consumers. When you buy sustainably, you support companies with the same values as you.
Sustainability in numbers
It’s not about replacing your entire wardrobe with sustainable alternatives (and we’re not asking you to). It’s about seeing how you can incorporate conscious consumption. We have to start viewing sustainable fashion as an investment – of our time and dollars. While there are tons of budget-friendly options to help you be more sustainable, such as secondhand or DIY, buying less and buying good quality should be your priority when you buy new. Just as many save up to buy a classic luxury bag or pair of well-crafted designer shoes, sustainable fashion is a luxury that makes you and the planet feel good.
To begin seeing sustainable fashion as an investment, starting thinking about how it will serve you and your needs. The easiest way to justify your purchase is by calculating its cost per wear. This method breaks down how much you really pay for your garment, sustainable or not. Let’s take a look at how a few simple items at two different price points. Since the different prices connote varying quality of material and construction, it affects how long that garment will last.
For the two t-shirts, the more expensive one is 4.5 times the price of the fast fashion one. However, a slow fashion brand will construct their garments to last wear and tear, surpassing the fast fashion tee tenfold. So even if you think you’re better off buying 4 of the cheaper tees, think again. Not only will you save money by investing in a sustainable piece, but you also save tonnes of textile waste. It’s not about owning the most garments, but making the most of what you have.
Playing the long game
Buying one ethically made product won’t immediately reverse the damages done by fast fashion. Sustainability is not something you can buy, but rather practice. So, it is the commitment to sustainability that will harness real change. By refusing to support an industry that continues to harm people and planet, we can make sustainability a default. In the end, what we might see as cheap and affordable has a much higher hidden cost. And we will have to address it sooner than later.
We fuel this beast of overproduction by our overconsumption. And if we only consume because it is cheap, it is a self-churning machine. We can address overconsumption with a simple question – do I really need it? Reducing consumption requires deep diving into our personal needs, whether they are physical, emotional or even societal. If we can begin reevaluating our definitions of what is cheap and expensive, it can help us build a more meaningful relationship with our wardrobes, and thereby our identities. Keep what serves you, not stresses you out!
Moreover, there isn’t only one way to practice sustainability. Whether you prefer thrifting or DIY, shopping local or not shopping at all (but maybe rent or swap), you can define sustainable consumption on your own terms. If you choose to buy sustainably and still find a hard time justifying the price, just ask lots of questions. Ask the brand directly about why something costs more. Whether it’s fine craftsmanship, carefully sourced materials or the cost of paying higher wages, they will be more than willing to help you on your journey. Yes, practising sustainability costs more of your money and time. But it is an investment you make to better the planet, the lives of others and yours.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.