There is a reason that sustainable fashion comes with a higher price tag than “fast fashion.” So, unfortunately, it is not as simple as brands lowering their prices to make clothes more financially accessible.
Sustainability is often defined as people, planet, and profit, meaning treating workers fairly, reducing environmental damage, and making a profit. It is often forgotten that sustainability also refers to longevity, a well meaning brand or organization cannot do all the good it wants to without generating a reliable source of revenue.
Maybe the problem is not that sustainable fashion is too expensive, maybe the real problem is that we have created and operate within a society where living sustainably (as in, not at the expense of other people and the planet) is a choice available only to a privileged few. But here’s what we know: as individuals, we all have power and voting with our dollar will always be important as long as we live in a capitalist society. However, the problems with the current system far exceed what we can do just by purchasing from brands we respect.
Here, we have curated a list of resources to help clarify this issue, how we got here, and, most importantly, what needs to be done.
1. Why do we perceive sustainable fashion to be over-priced in the first place?
Clothing is cheaper now than it has ever been. While many things like food, rent, and college have gotten more expensive over time (even when adjusting for inflation), clothing has done the opposite.
We have to get over our mental block about how much clothing *should* cost. If you’ve only ever purchased fast fashion, ethically produced clothes may blow you away with their price tags. (But keep in mind that higher prices don’t always equal better quality or more ethical production; Zara costs considerably more than Forever 21...)
Labor outsourcing, sociological shifts, material use, and marketing are some of the reasons for this, Odessa Denby delves into each in her article. Her article provides much needed context and history about the issue and is a great place to start when trying to understand this phenomenon. If you are a fabric and/or fashion history nerd like me, this is an especially great read.
The average amount of clothing a person owns has skyrocketed in recent years. Here in the US, the reality of our clothing consumption is much different than that of other countries. Technically China consumes more clothing than we do, but we have to remember China has more than 4 times as many people. The average individual in China spends a quarter of what their American counterparts do on clothes in a year.
The average American woman owns 120 garments and buys close to 60 new ones per year, so it makes sense that extrapolating the cost of your wardrobe based on the cost of most sustainable fashion pieces would drop your jaw. If we owned closer to the number of pieces that people did 60 years ago, 36 pieces, sustainable fashion might seem much more attainable.
Much like the lowering of clothing prices, this tripling of clothing ownership came from many different shifts including the outsourcing of cheap labor, technological advancements, and advertising. Another thing to consider is that many products we are used to are made mostly, if not entirely, by machines (hence being able to be sold for a lower price because not as many human workers need to be paid), while clothing is still made mainly by hand. It is estimated that around 100 pairs of hands touch a garment before it gets to the consumer. All of these factors have fueled the expectation that clothing should be so cheap and, thus, that sustainable fashion is expensive or over-priced.
2. Is living a more sustainable life actually more expensive than living a typical lifestyle?
Living sustainably is not one size fits all. There are many ways to do it and not all of them are aesthetically pleasing, as-seen-on-Instagram style (though I enjoy that as much as anyone). It is not all mason jars, cute water bottles, stainless steel straws, and house plants (Shelbizleee has an awesome series on YouTube about “the non-aesthetic side of zero-waste” that I highly recommend). So, is living sustainably actually expensive?
Marine Leclerc did an analysis for Eco Warrior Princess that showed the way people live “sustainably” on Instagram is more expensive than a traditional lifestyle, while a more realistic sustainable lifestyle is less expensive.
Sustainable living appears expensive because it would imply purchasing a lot of ethical products, owning a huge house with a brand new minimal home decoration, new trendy zero waste accessories, fashion items that cost 10 times more than H&M tees and the list goes on...To me, sustainability cannot be expensive if learned and applied correctly.
I would have to agree. An important part of sustainability is the part where you are about to sustain it. I highly recommend checking out this article, it is a quick read, and Leclerc's honesty about Instagram versus reality sustainable living is both refreshing and needed.
However, I have yet to find a true analysis of how much time goes into living sustainably. I have only anecdotal (and personal) evidence that suggests it takes a lot of time and diligence. Having financial means is a privilege, but so is having time, specifically free time. I spend hours, days, and months researching different options before purchasing something. I do this partly because I cannot afford to make a bad purchase, but also because I have the luxury of free time and because sustainability is my hobby. But sustainability should not have to be a person’s hobby for them to be able to attain it. So in the end, I think the answer is no, living sustainably is not expensive, not inherently, with the caveat that that does not mean it is accessible, as it is still time consuming (and time is, at least in a sense, money).
3. Is cost per wear a better indicator of affordability?
In February, I wrote an article about cost per wear and what that means for the affordability of sustainable versus fast fashion. For those of you who didn’t get around to reading that post (yet!), cost per wear is the idea that purchasing garments based on dividing the cost by the number of times you wear or will wear them leads a consumer to spending less money over time. In my article, I quoted many lines from my favorite (though inadvertent) explanation of cost per wear, but the most important takeaway from the quote is this: “The reason that the rich were so rich...was because they managed to spend less money”. This refers to the ability of the rich and privileged to buy higher quality products and, therefore, spend less over time. Usually, we equate spending less money with being affordable, but in this case, the conflation doesn’t work.
There are two primary reasons someone buys inexpensive clothing and shoes: because they cannot afford something more expensive or because it’s so cheap they don’t mind making the purchase...Let's say you buy a $25 pair of boots from Forever 21 while someone else buys a pair of $250 boots from somewhere like REI. How many wears would you get into the Forever 21 boots before the heel breaks off or you’re tired of them? 3? 15? Either way, you spent over a dollar per wear. What about the $250 boots? You might wear them 100 times a year for 10 years, thus only spending 25 cents per wear...Yes, you spend less money over time, but that doesn't help fill an immediate need now.
Check out the rest of that article to read more of my thoughts on the nuances of CPW or to get a better idea of how to best use CPW to match your financial situation.
4. Is consumers voting with their dollar enough to spur change?
Though I do think that it is the duty of people who can afford to make more sustainable, ethical purchases to do so, I agree with Audrey Stanton that personal conscious consumption is not the only change that needs to be made:
Though I wholeheartedly believe that individual impact is important in keeping the sustainable fashion community in motion, it absolutely does not make or break anything. You can invest in a few quality pieces which will be staples in your wardrobe for life, and then do your best with the rest.
Something that is important to note is that not all fast fashion is cheap. Lululemon, Zara, Top Shop, Urban Outfitters, and Free People are all pretty up there in price. In fact, a pair of leggings from Girlfriend Collection (a favorite sustainable brand at Two Days Off) is less expensive than a pair from Lululemon. Because of this, I believe that if a consumer is already planning to spend a good amount of money, they might as well put it towards a sustainable garment.
However, it is unrealistic to expect all people to be able to quit fast fashion, because of current labor and wage issues, some people truly cannot afford to shop sustainably. There are also many people who can afford a sustainable piece here and there, but otherwise still need to fulfill other clothing needs. I completely agree with Stanton’s assertion, but I also think it can be even further simplified to be even more inclusive: just do your best.
5. What is the responsibility of those who cannot afford sustainable fashion?
Lily from the Imperfect Idealist has a great opinion piece on her blog about what she thinks sustainable fashion is and isn’t. Essentially, it isn’t shelling out hundreds of dollars on garments you don’t need just because they are from a sustainable label and it is using, taking care of, and mending what you have:
These are all things that low-income, BIPOC, and immigrant communities have been doing for years. Richer people love to use low-income people to say that sustainable fashion is classist, and use that as an excuse to keep buying massive hauls. But real sustainable fashion isn’t classist at all—most lower-income folks naturally participate in sustainable fashion due to their circumstances.
She also brings up the point that some people cannot wait to find what they are looking for or they don’t have the time to do research or shop second-hand. These are completely valid problems. One thing to be said in favor of fast fashion is that it has democratized fashion, in a way at least (read this short article for more on that). Sometimes there is an immediate need that has to be filled like clothes for a job interview or harsh weather and, thanks to fast fashion, many people will be able to afford to obtain them.
Unfortunately, the reality is that often people bring up those who cannot afford anything but fast fashion as a reason to keep it around, when really what they mean is “I don’t feel like changing my ways, so I’m going to use those less privileged than me as a scapegoat”. People are addicted to fast fashion and want to hold on to it for any reason.
What we’re doing at Two Days Off
At Two Days Off, we believe truly sustainable clothes must be priced as they are so they can be made of high quality, natural, ethically made materials and the people along the supply chain can be paid a fair wage, all while keeping the business afloat.
That being said, we want everyone to be able to wear our clothes and participate in the sustainable fashion movement, which is why we are launching the Two Days Off Community Fund! Though this is not a solution to the overall problems of wage issues and over-consumption culture, it is a way for people who could otherwise not afford sustainable fashion to have some in their closet.
Learn about our Community Fund here or click here to read about the inspiration for it.
Another important issue is size inclusivity. If sustainable brands are only interested in slender customers, or at most pay lip service to plus size offerings, they are leaving a great many customers out of the world of ethical fashion.