People often ask me, why is sustainable fashion expensive? I hear this a lot: “I can honestly buy the exact same item at Target for half the price.”
I get it. When you walk into an ethical fashion store or browse a sustainable brand online it’s often daunting to see the price tags attached to everyday clothing items. A sustainably created cotton t-shirt for example can cost upwards of $40 whereas a fast-fashion brand’s t-shirt often sells for less than $15.
But, what we fail to see when we compare fast fashion to sustainable fashion is that fast fashion brands don’t accurately reflect or account for the true cost of a specific item.
What is ‘true cost’?
The true cost, also known as full-cost, is the overall value creation. Think of it as the “invisible resources” that go into making your favorite products, i.e., the intellectual, human, social, and natural assets. It’s the who, what, where, and how of the supply chain, so to speak.
For example, even something as “simple” as a cotton tee has an extremely extensive supply chain. No matter how much you might wish it, a cotton t-shirt doesn’t just magically appear out of thin air. The cotton needs to be grown, transported, woven, cut, sewn, packaged, and shipped.
And because most “fast fashion” brands (e.g., H&M, Zara, Gap, etc.) today are primarily focused on profit — their revenues are based on selling more products — over the years they’ve come to adopt a highly unsustainable and unethical business model.
A few alarming facts about fast fashion:
- The fashion industry brings in $1.2 trillion a year worldwide yet workers can earn as little as $21 a month. In fact, most factory workers earn less than $3 per day. The wage difference is staggering. It would take a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break!
- It takes approximately 2,700 liters to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. Not to mention that every time you wash your cotton t-shirt you’re using about 40 gallons of water.
- Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water globally. It takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans. Academics estimate that 20% of all freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing.
- The fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping.
- Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned
- In the U.S. 12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills every year. To put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of one football field filled 14 ft deep with clothes.
The cheaper and faster fast fashion brands can make and sell a product, regardless of social or environmental consequences such as those listed above, the more profitable they become.
Changing the status quo
This fast fashion model of “treating people and clothing as disposable things” is one that sustainable brands today are trying to change. This isn’t to say that sustainable brands aren’t trying to make a profit — they absolutely are, they are businesses after all.
Yet, while fast fashion brands may be willing to forego ethical and environmentally focused practices to increase their profit, the same does not hold true for sustainable brands.
Brands such as California Cloth Foundry, Mien, Arielle, No Nasties, Symbology, and Passion Lilie, strive to elevate the farmers, the artisans, and the manufacturers working throughout the supply chain, paying them fair wages and ensuring they’re provided safe and healthy working conditions all while simultaneously creating high-quality, eco-friendly, and durable garments.
Doing so, of course, takes more resources and time (ever hear of the term slow fashion?), which is counterintuitive to the current fast fashion business model that encourages consumers to buy often and buy cheap and which turns a blind eye to the social and environmental consequences.
The challenge is that not everyone can afford sustainable fashion brands, even if they’d like to. I fall under this category. And while it can be disheartening it hasn’t deterred me one single bit from creating a sustainable wardrobe.
Here are a few simple tips that have helped me build a sustainable wardrobe affordably and consciously, i.e. without breaking the bank.
- Re-Wear. Just because you’re on a mission to support ethical and sustainable brands does not mean you have to throw everything out of your current wardrobe and replace it with sustainable brands. Don’t throw away perfectly good items just because you got them from a fast fashion brand. Just because they’re not “sustainably and ethically created,” doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Wear your clothes as long as they’ll last.
- Buy less. This may seem obvious, but one easy way to create a more sustainable wardrobe is simply to buy less. Really consider your clothing purchases and the larger waste trail behind the textiles we buy. Rather than buying 5 fast fashion tops at $10 per piece, consider buying one sustainably created top for $50. This is definitely a mindset shift but buying less from fast fashion brands will not only allow you to invest in higher quality pieces but reduce the amount of textile waste you contribute.
- Before you buy new, ask yourself: Do I really need it? Buying only what you need is easier said than done. It requires changing the way you think about what you already have. If you stop and think about what you’re shopping for, you’re giving yourself more time to consider the necessity of your purchases. It’s a challenge if you tend to treat yourself to new clothes and accessories.
- Secondhand first. If you need to buy something consider second-hand items first. You can find gently used clothing for sale in local thrift stores or online. There are so many benefits to this! You can get a lot of great deals and designer items, if that’s your thing, for less which is great for your budget! Plus, you’re giving these clothes a second life.
- Treat yourself. Every so often to congratulate myself or on special occasions such as my birthday, I’ll save up and treat myself to a specific sustainably created item I may have been eyeing for the past few months. I pick one or a few pieces that I need (I don’t buy unless I need something) and mix and match them with some of my pre-loved pieces.
At the end of the day, if your budget simply does not permit you to support sustainable and ethical fashion brands, then don’t be too hard on yourself. This isn’t a competition to see who can create the most sustainable wardrobe. Rather, it’s about working together, as a collective, to ensure that everyone along the fashion supply chain is paid a fair wage, treated humanely, and that brands do their best to implement environmentally conscious manufacturing practices.
And remember, your voice and the actions you take make a difference! Reach out to fast fashion brands, hold them accountable, ask them #whomademyclothes, ask them to be more transparent, etc. If you’re unsure where to start, check out organizations such as Fashion Revolution, Remake, and EcoAge. What and how you consume matters!