How Affordable Is Fast Fashion Really?

One of the most frequently heard complaints we hear about sustainable fashion is that it is too expensive. Many people will see a $50 t-shirt or $200 dress and go back to H&M for an option that is a tenth of the price. But what if you calculate how many times you wear a garment to see how much it costs you per wear? Is that a better gauge of how expensive something is? Or is it just a way to justify an expensive purchase? 

What is Cost Per Wear and What Does it Mean?

On average, an American woman wears an article of clothing 7 times before disposing of it. A 2018 survey showed that in that year Americans wore just 18% of the clothes they owned in the previous year; another report in 2013 puts that number at about 20%. How is it that we can justify buying these items if we get so little use out of them? 

One explanation could be that the clothing we purchase is so cheap it doesn’t feel like a waste to wear it a few times and then get rid of it. But if we look past the price tag the good deals will feel more expensive and the investment pieces less so. 

Cost Per Wear (CPW) is a common formula used to show how ‘expensive’ clothing is actually ‘cheaper’ than fast fashion if it is durable and will be worn often. To calculate it, you take the price of your garment and divide it by the number of times you’ve worn, or will wear it.

Cost Per Wear Formula

Consider the “Vimes Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness” from Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (one of my family’s favorite authors):

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He [Vimes] earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought…

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

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. Outside of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, even $50 is a pretty cheap pair of boots, so let’s adjust the numbers for our world. Let's say you buy a $25 pair of boots from Forever21 while someone else buys a pair of $250 boots from somewhere like REI. How many wears would you get into the Forever21 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.

The Problem with Using CPW as a Rule

So this whole cost per wear thing starts to sound really good until you think about all the variables. One of the biggest problems with suggesting everyone use CPW as a guide when shopping is that some cannot afford to opt for the higher-priced equivalent. Yes, you spend less money over time, but that doesn't help fill an immediate need now.

Another issue is that expensive things are not always of better quality, an unfortunate fact many of us have experienced. This is especially frustrating to those who save carefully to afford something pricey just to turn around and need to replace it sooner than expected. To avoid overpaying for investment pieces I like to read reviews and brand FAQ pages to learn about return, exchange, and repair policies. 

The CPW strategy doesn’t work well for second-hand garments either, especially ones purchased at a place like Goodwill. Since items from such places are largely under $5, the cost per wear can seem great even if you only wear it one or two times. I am of the mindset that if you don’t need the garment, purchasing it second-hand does not necessarily justify the purchase. I say this because it is so easy to get sucked in by cheap clothing that you end up spending more than you intended and end up with excess things. I’m of the opinion that it is perfectly fine to thrift something random and unnecessary every once in a while, but it is a slippery slope towards getting your fast fashion fix but from a second-hand store. Be especially careful not to thrift already poor quality clothing, they will only serve to disappoint. 

So in the end, is CPW just accessible for the privileged few who can splurge on costlier things? In a way...recommending that everyone use it as a hard formula can be exclusionary, but considering it as a guide and purchasing for usefulness and durability is for anyone and everyone. 

Using CPW as a Guide, Not a Rule

The way I see it, CPW can be used as a rule, but it can more inclusively and usefully be used as a mindset.

When making a new purchase, there are so many questions that should be asked to make sure it is the right item. One of these is ‘What will the cost per wear be?’, it is not a comprehensive question, but it does give insight that is necessary to properly evaluate a purchase.

Cost per wear is not the only ‘rule’ you can use to see if an article of clothing is worth it. Some people use the “30 Wear Rule”, meaning will you wear it 30 times or more? Yes? Good, buy it. This is a great template that I think can be adjusted effectively depending on the person. For example, the rules I use are: ‘Can I picture 3 separate outfits to make with a garment using clothing I already have?’ and ‘Can I picture myself wearing it for a variety of occasions?’ If the answers are both yes and the brand I’m supporting is sustainable and ethical to my standards or is second-hand, then I will buy it. 

Where to Start

Image Source: Unsplash
  • Track how many times you wear each garment of clothing you have. If you don’t have a lot of time or patience, do it for a few weeks and use that as your sample. This will help you see patterns in your shopping and wearing habits so you can make more conscious purchases in the future.

  • Determine how much you think is a reasonable cost per wear based on your financial situation. Some people aim for less than a dollar per wear but some don’t mind spending a bit more than that. Do what’s best for you. 

  • Find your own rules and standards. Figure out what you think is a reasonable amount of wears to expect out of your clothes and use that as your guide.

  • If money upfront is a barrier to investing in better quality, consider utilizing things like Afterpay or Quadpay. Though this can make people feel like they aren’t spending a lot of money even when they are and then get them into debt very quickly, you can use it effectively to afford a low CPW item. Just be wary and keep track of purchases.

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself! These are all just ideas. No one can be perfect, we all make purchases that don’t go as expected sometimes. Not to mention we all deserve joy, maybe the amusement you get from a t-shirt with a funny design is worth a high CPW!

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"We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we'll also have a lot more joy in living."

Thich Nhat Hanh