A question that every new person that gets into sustainable fashion movements asks themselves: Why is sustainable fashion more expensive?
Most of us, when we find out how fast fashion is impacting the environment, the farmers and factory workers, are determined to quit buying from fast fashion brands for good.
But, the moment that we see that a dress we used to buy for $10 now we have to pay $90 from a sustainable brand or a shirt that was the same price as a cup of coffee now we have to pay $30 to $40, we are easily discouraged into changing our mind.
Before I go into detail with the reasons for the big difference in price between a sustainable brand and a fast fashion brand I encourage you to think a bit about the following.
When you buy an item from a fast fashion brand:
- How long does it last you?
- How easy is it for you to throw it away after using it for only one season?
- To what are you comparing to know if it’s a good price? (probably another fast fashion brand)
If you were honest with yourself when replying to these questions you probably realized that what you buy doesn’t last you that long before it loses quality after some washes or you just easily lose interest in those items that you paid very little for, and more often than not you end up throwing it away.
When it comes to price, most probably you compare it to what you are very used to seeing, which is fast fashion prices.
What you have to understand before anything is that you are comparing two different things.
Buying a dress that is timeless and high quality means that you can wear it now and in 5 years and it still looks like new. This is when it comes into play the cost per wear, which is the cost of the item divided by the number of times you wear it.
Let’s get into the reasons why sustainable fashion is more expensive:
This is an important phase of the fashion industry that many forget and it’s one of the key aspects that makes the product more expensive.
Nowadays, there is farming of all kinds, from cotton to gooses, sheep, alpacas, and all the way to crocodiles and snakes, that can be done by implementing ethical and sustainable procedures or not.
Even though, for some people, there is no way that a fiber that came from an animal can be ethically made, which I totally understand. I do want you to see the difference between the two types of farming and how that influences the price.
To point out the difference I will take as example cotton and wool.
– Organic Cotton
Why is organic cotton approximately 20% to 30% more expensive than regular cotton?
This discrepancy in price starts from the very beginning, organic cotton is grown using a different type of seed so-called non-GMO, which has a higher cost.
Regular cotton is the crop in the world that is sprayed with most pesticides, it accounts for 16% of global insecticides releases. Aldicarb is one of the most commonly used cotton pesticides, even though a single drop of this pesticide absorbed through the skin can kill an adult.
Aldicarb is banned in many places but is still used in Uzbekistan, which is the world’s largest cotton exporter.
On the contrary, organic cotton farming puts first the health of the soil, the ecosystems, and its people. It relies on ecological processes, the growing is adapted to local conditions without forcing the crop to grow unnaturally with pesticides.
This, of course, increases the price of fiber.
– Ethical Wool
As with many businesses that involve animals, maximizing profits is one of the main goals, which then leads to cutting corners and sacrificing the well-being of the animals.
One of the most common practices to shear the sheep is called mulesing, which is practiced generally without anesthetic which leads to suffering and eventually, more times than not extremely painful deaths.
Australia is responsible for 50% of the world’s wool, which is unlucky as it’s one of the countries known to use the mulesing procedure.
New Zealand on the contrary is known to be the world leader in ethical wool production. Mulesing is strictly prohibited, proper shearing is used to minimize accidental cuts, sheep are kept in low-density flocks and raised free-range.
Shearers in ethical wool farms put the well-being of the sheep in front of the benefits that selling more wool can bring to them. The sheep are sheared only when they get heavy or when the weather is warm enough in order for the animal not to be deprived of necessary insulation in colder seasons.
A crucial benefit of natural fibers is that later when they are no longer used, they can be composted instead of ending up in landfills.
Fibers that come from sustainable and ethical farming are more costly because it also requires a bigger investment.
According to Fiber2Fashion.com, textiles used to be naturally dyed until mids of the 19th-century, only after that, textiles factories started to use synthetic dyes, which are extremely toxic to the environment and the workers.
Synthetic dyes soon became very popular, reaching a total of 1.3 million tons, due to affordable prices, color availability, and the fact that it was extremely easy to produce them.
Nowadays, the textile industry is accountable for discharging 40,000 to 50,000 tons of dye in the water, affecting not only the sea life but also the communities in those areas.
Textile dyeing can be achieved in a more sustainable way by using chemical-free dyes and using more friendly environmental processes, but to do so the price of dyeing will increase.
Most sustainable fashion brands care a lot about the dyeing process, which due to the technology behind makes this process quite more expensive than the traditional way of dying.
Production is another reason why sustainable fashion is more expensive than fast fashion, and for a good reason.
Sustainable fashion brands take months to sign a contract with a factory because the brand wants to make sure the factory they will be collaborating with has the same values as them.
This means that they want the garment workers to be paid a fair wage, have health insurance, and have good working conditions.
Some sustainable brands even work with artisans that handcraft each piece, to preserve the practice and to support economically the community.
On the contrary, fast fashion brands collaborate with very cheap production lines that exploit workers by forcing them to work 10 hours a day 7 days a week, and even reaching 14 hours a day during peak seasons to meet the demand.
Workers have no right to sick leave and are threatened if they want to take a day off, not talking about child labor that according to UNICEF, the garment industry is responsible for a total of 170 million children, which makes for 11% of children in the world.
Economy of scale
Brands that are focused on only satisfying the need of a niche, and produce just the right amount of items that are needed, have a bigger cost of production than a big brand such as Nike that overproduces.
This is when the economy of scale plays a big role, which basically means that the bigger the number of items the brand produces the cheaper the price the brand will pay for each individual item.
Sustainable brands are still quite smaller than brands such as Zara, H&M, and Forever21, which means that their cost of production is quite bigger than those brands and it’s not just because those brands collaborate with factories that pay their employees way below the average cost of living.
Quality of product
Most of the sustainable fashion brands are not mass-produced, which means that each particular item is produced with more attention to detail and the quality of the garment is the main focus.
“Your skin is your largest organ, and it is capable of absorbing 64% of the chemicals from the fabric you wear into your body.” – Lydia Wendt
Lydia of the California Cloth Foundry argues that we not only should watch for what we eat but we should also watch for what we wear, as our skin is the largest organ that is capable of absorbing.
Sustainable brands focus on quality because from their point of view the longer that item will last you, wash after wash, the smaller the environmental impact, however, to be able to create a quality garment, the brand has to use fibers of quality and ensure high standards of production, which will increase the price.
Now that you have a better understanding of why sustainable brands are more expensive than fast fashion brands I think that you should also know how to identify a real sustainable brand.
Unfortunately, nowadays more brands are using sustainability as a marketing strategy more than anything else, which is not fair for the environment and neither for the customers.
It’s very important to know how to distinguish a fake sustainable brand from a real sustainable brand, as greenwashing is a big issue at the moment.
The big question is:
How can you tell that a brand is sustainable?
1. Check for labels & certificates
Even though there is not a unique label that proves to the customer that the brand is truly sustainable there are a couple of labels that you can look for when purchasing from the brands.
Checking for labels is a great way not to fall into the greenwashing trap, if you want to know more about this topic check out the article on how the avoid greenwashing in fashion.
These are some of the labels that prove that the fabrics are organic and that the animal is treated fairly.
When a brand is truly sustainable it’s not only informing throughout marketing campaigns about them being a sustainable brand and it’s not enough to just mention sustainability on the homepage of the website.
Companies that are sustainable are extremely transparent about where they produce, the brand also mentions the exact factories they collaborate with. Detail on the type of fabrics the company uses and what makes that fabric sustainable.
Information on how the brand is able to reduce their carbon emissions is often also detailed on the website and what are their future goals when it comes to sustainability.
A brand that does not use sustainability as a marketing strategy is honest with themselves and most importantly with their customers.
No matter how sustainable and ethical a brand tries to be, it’s obvious that production still affects the environment and even certain communities.
However, if the brand is able to be honest, and admit that there is space for improvement and that it is in their plan to improve those key points for the future you can trust them more than a brand that claims it`s the most sustainable and that they have no impact at all.
These are three ways how you can tell a brand is sustainable, and that it’s worth your money.
To conclude, I believe that we as consumers have to change our mindset on price and be more aware of what that cheap price means to the environment and the labor. Because there is always someone that pays the cost of those cheap prices.