sustainable-fashion

Why Isn’t Sustainable Fashion More Affordable?

Sustainable fashion: it has to represent the future of the industry, lest we be condemned to ever rising levels of overconsumption and environmental waste. Despite the urgent need for a more circular, self-sustaining fashion industry, the cost of eco-wear is often far too off-putting. The necessity of sustainable fashion is eclipsed by an exclusive barrier of entry: its price. 

Unless you’re buying secondhand, sustainable fashion often comes with an unattainable price tag. And this is a perception that is commonly held too. According to a McKinsey survey, 67% of consumers think it’s important to shop sustainably when buying clothes. Yet less than a third of consumers are willing to pay more money for eco-friendly products. 

With such a disconnect – less than half of the consumers who want sustainable wear will pay more for it – is the pricing model a realistic one? Unfortunately it’s not so simple as lowering prices so as to attract the average customer. In fact, there are many institutional reasons why sustainable fashion is so expensive. Let’s have a look at them.

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1 – Labour Costs 

Ethical fashion is rightfully concerned with the fair payment of workers at every stage of the production chain. According to Rebecca Van Bergen, Founder and Executive Director of Nest, a nonprofit centred on increasing global workforce inclusivity, ‘labour is the predominant factor’ driving costs for sustainable fashion. The greater the distance between consumer and the person who made a product, the greater the investment a brand must make financially and in terms of time and education.  

The Clean Clothes Campaign states that ‘the fashion industry is built on poverty wages and sweatshop conditions, driven by an industry practice of pushing for the lowest price and shortest lead times.’ You’d be mistaken in thinking that this exploitation is endemic to developing countries. In fact, sweatshop conditions can still be found in the UK. In 2020, Leicester, home to a third of UK’s fashion manufacturing, was subjected to ongoing investigations by the Ethical Trading Initiative. The organisation’s report spotlighted unsafe working conditions, blocked fire exits and £3 per hour wages as commonplace in the area.

2 – Materials

As ethical clothing is often made with more sustainable materials like organic cotton, it is much more expensive to produce. There are very strict regulations for materials to be certified as organic, from pesticide use to labour rights, all which affect the cost of environmentally friendly textiles. In fact, the chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers used in traditional fast fashion fabrics serve to help keep the cost downs for local farmers. With fewer toxic shortcuts, comes a greater reliance on human effort that goes into the planting, growing, harvesting and manufacturing of sustainable materials. To achieve a balance between quality, ethical production and sustainability, brands will inevitably drive their prices way up.

3 – Certifications 

Of course, when a company adheres to the strict fair labour standards that align with a particular certification – such as Fair Trade – there’s a cost. These associations will change participating brands a sum of money that is used to support garment workers’ education, livelihood etc. While certifications aren’t the only way to ensure fair treatment at the base of the fashion supply chain, they do establish standards between brands and their workers. They also add credibility to a brand’s claim of being ethical. 

However, certifications, and the regular audits that coincide with them, can be expensive. When a business’ overhead is raised, the chances are that it’s reflected in the final cost of the garment. 

4 – Scale

Conventional fashion keeps pricing low by producing vast amounts of stock, selling them at cheap prices, even when there isn’t a market for these quantities. When production numbers increase to such a scale, fixed costs (such as rent, machinery etc) are spread across each unit sold. Sustainable fashion on the other hand, typically produces small-batches of garments. When a company boasts terms such as ‘bespoke,’ or ‘hand-made,’ the likelihood is that each single article of clothing is costing a great deal more time and money to produce.   

When a brand uses a factory for their garment production, they tend to be responsible for a few machine lines in warehouses that make tens of thousand units per day under multiple contracts. Although this approach to production may cut costs, these brands will sacrifice the sustainable practices that underpin their ethical counterparts. 

5 – Marketing

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In the traditional wholesale model, a brand will sell their completed units to a wholesale distributor, who sells the piece to consumers and keeps a cut for themselves. Brands are able to concentrate on the production of their garments, rather than focus on marketing and the intricacies of retail. Ethical fashion, however, uses a direct-to-consumer model. DTC marketing means that the brand sets the price for their product, and puts it online or in store to sell directly. 

While direct-to-consumer marketing may seem favourable in that they give brands fuller control over their profit margins, it’s a vastly more expensive model to run. It requires significant infrastructure and investment, from running a brick-and-mortar store, eCommerce site, to in-depth marketing. Of course, this will also include the cost of hiring the relevant professionals to perform these roles. It takes a lot of work to run successful marketing campaigns, to create SEO friendly content and to ensure that the product reaches its intended audience.

Is there an Inclusive Answer?

Although it’s vital to have sustainable clothing options, there’s no denying that they’re often unaffordable for the average consumer. True – sustainability is the antidote to the host of environmental and ethical sins committed by the fashion industry. Yet the current system is only contributing to institutional issues of its own. If sustainable wear continues to exclude a large portion of the buying public, it’ll cleave a greater divide between those who can afford expensive clothing and those who may have no choice but to rely on fast fashion. It’s one thing to want to shop sustainably, it’s another to be faced with the reality that your budget won’t allow you to.

The last thing anyone wants is for ethical companies to rely on the same cost-saving, environmentally-damaging gimmicks of its competitors. However, there is a dire necessity for a creative rethink when it comes to attracting consumers with a lesser budget. Perhaps the answer lies in resale? 

Resale

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Sustainable fashion has a great advantage – by its very nature, its clothing is durable, recyclable and timeless. For these reasons, it lends itself perfectly to the resale model. When clothing is designed with longevity in mind, it facilitates circular solutions. Clothing can be worn for longer, and by different consumers in various iterations. 

Were ethical brands to leverage their used goods in a resale model, they can be positioned as affordable alternatives to people looking to shop sustainably. This can be achieved through a buy-back policy, wherein customers can sell their clothing back to the brand, for the goods to be later sold on at a reduced price. It may take investment to provide a resale platform to their digital sites, but if brands were to expand their channels by including resale, they’d open themselves up to a wider audience.

Rentals 

By the same token, rental services can provide an accessible entry route into sustainable wear. Ethical companies can even employ various models. Customers can hire a garment for a set period of time for a set cost – say a dress for a special event. Alternatively, brands can take inspiration from platforms such as Onloan. Here customers have the option to sign up to a two tier subscription model – they receive items for £69 per month, or four items for £99 a month. Although these prices in themselves are exclusionary, the model is not. Should brands employ the same service at more attractive prices, then sustainable shoppers would get the buzz that comes with an exciting purchase without contributing to overconsumption.  

It’s clear – for sustainable to be attainable, brands have to do two things: commit to the ethical practices that they’re known for, yet consider ways to include a greater range of customers. 

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