And everything in between.
Image credit: Xingyun Shen
There is no denying that sustainable fashion options often come with a heftier price tag as compared to their fast-fashion counterparts. In previous weeks, we discussed what sustainability in fashion means at length - the continuity of life (biosphere and animals) on earth for future generations. Well-made and ethically-produced fashion brands often tell unique stories of makers and crafters producing within the capacity of finite resources. They commonly invest in the sourcing of natural materials and R&D in digital innovation to ensure minimal carbon footprint in the production processes. More often than not, they oppose the age-old narrative of fashion being “supersecretive”  and are very supportive of disclosing their pricing strategies. Nisolo, a footwear brand based in the US, launched the #LowestWageChallenge last year, by publishing their lowest wages paid to shoemakers and facility workers. Brands like these, are fully aware that being sustainable is a matter of principle, as they translate their ethos into actions that can be accounted for.
These values are invaluable and imperative to creating a healthy and regenerative fashion system. This isn’t a hard concept to grasp, and it definitely speaks to the moral compasses of citizens and consumers alike to consume more responsibly. However, many of us, myself included, are hit by an occurrence of cognitive dissonance – we know we need to buy better and yet cannot bring ourselves to fork out a larger sum of money to pay for the “ethically-made” t-shirt. Therefore, I ask myself if the sustainable fashion movement leaves out consumers with a tighter budget?
The short answer is, yes, it does. And the long answer is a debate. There is a lot to unpick here, so please bear with me as we address the accessibility of sustainable fashion and breakdown the nuances.
To begin with, clothes were never meant to be as cheap as they are now.
The intentional price depression on clothing fuelled by fast-fashion retailers comes at an exorbitant cost on the environmental and socio-economic wellbeing of garment workers and cotton farmers. Fashion journalist Jasmin Malik Chua, highlights the detrimental environmental outcomes explicitly, “Euromonitor analysts warn that the fashion market’s annual 5% growth risks ‘exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources’ by raising annual production to more than 100 million tons by 2030.” in this article.
On top of environmental degradation, this situation inevitably feels like a poverty trap, where garment workers are placed in a vicious cycle with no beacon of light for fair compensation. As a result, they (usually workers that are subcontracted by first-tier factories) live hand-to-mouth with extremely low wages and horrible working conditions. Only very recently (June 25), the Californian Senate passed the Garment Worker Protection Act. Prior to the passing of the bill (which is not yet law), it was legal to pay garment workers an average of 5 cents per seam. Sewing Resilience, a short film directed by Wil Prada and Pea Nuñez, follows the life of Santa Puac, a garment worker and the leader in the movement to end exploitation and sweatshop conditions in Los Angeles’ garment factories. It has become so convenient for brands to hide behind opaque fashion supply chains with zero accountability and to continue to bolster wage theft and irresponsible production practices.
Additionally, fashion brands send across ceaseless messages to distort consumer needs through advertisements, coercing them into keeping up with the latest trends. What a pity it is to not catch up with the “cutting-edge” styles or “celebrity-approved” pieces. Simply put, the value (along with the price) of clothes diminished over time when businesses prioritise the accumulation of capital through mass production.
The logical persuasion: Cost per Wear (CPW) of clothing
Cheap, trendy pieces of clothing are not designed to stand the test of time. Meanwhile, brands that champion sustainable and regenerative practices (i.e. reinvestment in carbon sequestration, regenerative agriculture, gives back to the local community), want to see the continual flourishment of sustainability in the fashion system. As a result, their items are usually priced higher, to ensure that all stakeholders in the supply chain are fairly compensated.
Before I buy any new articles of clothing, I do a quick CPW analysis (price of item ÷ number of times I’d wear the item) before I decide if the piece is worth my hard-earned money.
Imagine: Top A is an off-shoulder top that is part of a weekly launch from a brand known for the speed at which they produce (new) and sell their clothing. This top costs $15.90. There is no information on where the top is made, but the retailer provides vague information on the type of material used - “textured cotton material”. You are not too sure what that means, but it perhaps suggests a type of cotton blend with polyester? Now you come across a different top that carries similar aesthetics - Top B. Your research points towards the fact that this top is made with more care and consideration. It is conceptualised and executed with practices that you can stand behind. However, it is pricier. Maybe $60. Nearly 4x more expensive than the cheaper alternative.
Ok, calculation time (I know! Math?! Trust me, it’s quite straightforward): Let’s say you wear Top A once a week for a month - so 4 times. Presumably because either the trendy print gets dated quickly, or the hastily stitched together seams don’t survive in your washer, Top A doesn’t last beyond the 4 wears. So, this brings us to $15.90 ÷ 4 = $3.96, each wear costs $3.96. Now, Top B stands the test of time, as it is made to last beyond a season, both thanks to its more timeless aesthetics and quality. You feel good about the purchase. You wear it more often, definitely more than four times. It is your go-to item in the closet for the foreseeable future. Now, we take $60 divided by a lifetime of wear (ideally), and the CPW for Top B will surely be lower than $3.96. In fact, you only need to wear it 16 times for the Top B’s CPW to be lower than Top A’s. Gratification and cost of the item are stretched out across its long shelf-life in your wardrobe.
Therefore, the pricier top is probably a worthy investment.
Novelty isn’t superior, longevity is.
The scenario described above could apply to any item of clothing that is already in one’s wardrobe. It can be a secondhand LBD that flatters one’s curves, or a pair of denim jeans bought from a fast fashion brand that has not shrunk or stretched with wash and wear. My point is, I cannot advise you on how you want to spend your money as the value of clothing is subjective to every individual. It would be hypocritical and overstepping of me. Even as the CPW analysis stands to justify the purchase of a pricier item, it is important for consumers to exercise agency and discretion on their own accord.
Truth is, it doesn’t matter how fair or justified the price of an item is if it is simply out of budget and inaccessible. So, maybe the hot take is that we do not need to buy new, unless absolutely necessary. Ideally, it should not be consumers’ responsibility to ensure that everything sold to us is produced with sustainability in mind. However, until such practices are regulated and accounted for, structurally and systemically, the only way we can be more “sustainable” with our fashion consumption habits is to be in control of which brands or fashion activities we align ourselves with. Research into the practices of a brand or an organisation. If that leaves you still unsatisfied or not convinced, send them an email or a DM. Follow thought leaders, writers and intersectional activists of the sustainable fashion conversation and find out what they think about certain brands.
At the end of the day, longevity matters. Regardless of how much they cost, what matters is forging healthy, renewable and responsible relationships with our clothes.
Shopping “sustainably” should not be a thing
Thing is, we cannot shop our way into sustainability. “Outfitting yourself head-to-toe in sustainable fabrics does not qualify”, addresses Laura Francois, a social impact strategist and storyteller, in an article explaining conscious consumption. Sustainability is a mindset shift that actively translates into individual and collective call-to-action. Shopping “sustainably” cannot be a floating signifier to pass off equally consumerist ideals of engaging with fashion. The word “sustainably” is essentially an adverb used to describe the virtue of frugality when it comes to forging meaningful relationships with the clothes we own, and should not be referred to as a preference, especially when it comes to shopping for new clothes. This is no fault of the consumers, but rather, an outcome of the deliberate misuse of the term in bid of greenwashing efforts (for useful explainers on greenwashing, check out articles here, here and here).
Besides, items bearing higher prices do not necessarily mean that they are produced with consideration. It could be that prices of clothing are relatively higher than average simply because of a higher markup derived from premium branding. A documentary titled “Luxury: Behind the mirror of high-end fashion”, produced by DW Documentary, explains this in detail and puts things into perspective.
It is equally important to recognise that being able to fork out time and money to choose wisely, is a privilege. In this Op-Ed, titled “The People in Those Primark Queues are Not Your Enemy”, Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up and Footwork, powerfully addresses the nicety that comes with shaming one into their purchases. According to Hoskins, it is crucial to critique the fashion system “as a product of corporations drive for profit NOT as the fault of the working classes”, in order to diagnose the system beyond its visible symptoms. By grasping at the fact that fashion is incredibly personal and individualistic, neoliberalism (the idea that free-market capitalism distributes resources justly) sheds responsibility for the damage and relegates all solutions of fixing the industry to consumers.
Therefore, this discourse is reduced into one that is patronising and myopic when we solely focus on an individuals’ ability to shop “sustainably”. It is patronising because there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to advocating sustainable fashion consumption. As mentioned above, not addressing the structural issues that result in income inequality and restrictions in upwards mobility, is shifting the blame to people who cannot afford to “buy better”. I would go as far to comment that this narrative allows consumers with financial capacity to indulge in more clothes than they need. The only difference is that this time, they are buying from brands that carry different values. It is myopic because this monologue would place similar expectations on marginalised communities as they do privileged folks, when it is clearly, for instance, a lot harder to find plus-sized, well-made clothes as compared to the smaller sizes that are widely accessible.
At the end of the day, sustainability in fashion is about recognising that even at maximised capacity of decent individual actions, exploitation still occurs as the free market demands submission to the few that own most of the world’s capital. Nonetheless, I would like to believe that on a day-to-day basis, there is still joy and personal accomplishment in shedding a little more of fashion-as-commerce (consumption) and cultivating more of that fashion-as-culture (involvement in activities). Maybe “making a difference isn't just about where you spend your money, it is, arguably, more about how you save it.” In other words, a “sustainable” price tag probably does not exist. The most sustainable clothing item is one without a price tag, and it is already in your closet.
 Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion by Dana Thomas, pg 254
Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.