Dissecting the Cost of Ethical Fashion by Sharmon Lebby
So there I was, bundled up in a blanket on the couch watching The True Cost. It was a life defining moment. I was appalled and skeptical at the same time. I wondered how much of this was real and how much was propaganda. Where were they getting their statistics? How is it possible this is still a problem? Why weren’t we doing anything about it? Then, I heard the narrator point out how raising wages would only add cents to the cost of the garments. If this was true, why do ethically made products cost so much? After starting my own brand, I finally figured it out.
I could regale you with tales of Supply & Demand and Perceived Value, but in actuality the cost of ethical fashion is a relatively simple equation:
Lower yields + higher wages + extra costs = higher costing products
Sustainable fashion is on the rise and becoming more mainstream; however, it is still very much a niche market. Most ethical brands are small with limited start-up funding which means limited manufacturing runs and a smaller amount of materials purchased. And as backwards as it may seem, the less you buy, the more you are going to spend.
This doesn’t even begin with the clothing brands themselves. There is also less raw material being produced. Consider organic cotton, a heavily used material in sustainable wares. While the 2017/18 global harvest produced more than 23 million metric tons of cotton in total, only about one half of one percent of that cotton was organic.
One of the highest priorities of the ethical fashion genre is insuring people are earning a fair wage. With many brands producing locally in western countries, this greatly increases the cost of production. For brands that are producing overseas, paying a fair wage means more than a minimum wage or an industry standard wage. It’s paying workers a “living wage.”
For context, the minimum wage in the United States is currently $7.25 per hour, which would amount to a gross income of $1160 per month for full-time employment. A living wage—the amount of income needed for basic necessities and what is considered a decent standard of living—is approximately $15 per hour for a family of four, or $2400 per month.
Compare this to Bangladesh, a nation on the lower end of labor costs, which had a minimum wage for the garment industry of about $38 per month prior to the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster. After that, it was raised to $68 per month. Five years later, groups are fighting for an increase to approximately $192 per month.
When you pay people a wage that they can actually live on, the cost of production will naturally increase.
While it is possible to save money in the long run, the initial costs to create safer and more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes can be high—especially if a factory or farm is making the switch from more conventional processes.
Certifications also come with a cost. Though they give customers security about the ethical and sustainable processes of a brand, certifications aren’t cheap. The annual licenses for a B Corp start at $500 a year, and while their certification process is free, registering with other certifying bodies can cost thousands.
When you use materials that aren’t mass-produced, pay people a wage they can actually live on, and spend more on operating costs, the more you have to charge to recoup those expenses, let alone make a profit as a business. Of course, some brands will have higher prices with higher markups on their products simply because they can and cater to a specific demographic that affords them that liberty. However, most ethical fashion brands are simply trying to be fair with their pricing and transparent with the cost of manufacturing.
That said, knowing all of this, perhaps we can finally move beyond asking why ethical fashion costs so much and instead remember why fast fashion costs so little.
Sharmon Lebby is the founder of Blessed Designs, a size inclusive ethically made clothing brand and author of the blog The Road to Ethical. You can join the adventure online by following @blesseddesignsco or @salebby.