A common complaint in the sustainable community is that sustainable fashion is too expensive. When compared to fast fashion brands, they can indeed seem like spending so much on clothes is a waste of money. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to sacrifice a fortune to look stylish and sustainable. All it will take is a shift in mindset and finding the right brands for you.
What is sustainable fashion?
First of all, let’s define sustainable fashion. Sustainable fashion focuses on making clothes without compromising the health of the planet or the well-being of the workers. It’s a way to makes clothing that has the least negative impact on the world as possible. From getting the raw materials to reaching the shelves, each stage is assessed to minimize the impact on the environment.
There are so many ways in which the fashion industry is causing harm which is why this new movement emerged.
These eco brands only use recycled or sustainable fabrics, they don’t mass produce items, they don’t exploit their people, and often have schemes where you can send your clothes back (to be made into new clothes) so they don’t end up in landfill.
Everyone is used to T-shirts and shorts that cost only a couple of pounds. But it’s not possible for something to be that cheap and ethical at the same time. Companies always cut corners to increase profit and produce more clothes. And if something’s that cheap, it’s can’t be of good quality either.
Why is sustainable fashion expensive?
So why exactly is sustainable fashion more expensive than your typical high-street stores? Here are the main reasons:
Paying A Living Wage To Workers
As you probably already know, companies love to outsource the work to developing countries (mainly in the east). In countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka wages are much lower anyway, but companies take advantage and exploit the workers’ rights in order to make a bigger profit.
In most cases, they do not pay them a good wage and force them to work overtime and in dangerous conditions. As their only source of income, these workers cannot afford to lose even this little money.
However, ethical and sustainable brands, pay them a good wage, and treat them fairly. By doing this, they are also helping communities develop.
Obtaining eco-friendly materials is not cheap. Most fashion brands use pesticides and other chemicals to speed up and optimize production but destroy the natural surrounding along the way. Also, most of the clothes you see on the high-street are made of polyester, a cheap plastic material. This is not only bad because it’s made from a finite resource, every time you wash it in the washing machine, it releases microplastics.
Whereas, organic cotton, linen, and other sustainable fabrics do not use toxic chemicals and farmers/ workers are again treated fairly. Most of these brands try to avoid polyester as much as they can or use recycled polyester instead. Rather than looking for the cheapest materials and the cheapest way to produce them, they prefer making high-quality fabrics that don’t pose any harm to the environment. Hence, retail prices increases.
Clothes For The Long Term
There’s a term called ‘cost per wear’ which tells you how expensive something is based on how many times you will wear it. I know that most of you reading this will have bought something cheap only to wear it once or twice. I know I’ve done this a couple of times in the past.
On the other hand, if you buy something that is a bit more expensive, its quality will be a lot better and will last you many, many years. With this thinking, buying an expensive garment will prove to be cheaper in the long-term.
Many of us are tricked to believe that fast fashion is the best value for money. The few that think long-term know this to be false and that buying less but better is truly the best way to shop.
If you compare sustainable brands to fast fashion brands, they are relatively smaller. They have a smaller niche as people are used to buying from Misguided, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters.
Also, there are some brands that manufacture on-demand instead of mass producing them. And in some cases like People Tree, everything is handmade by skilled locals.
Since the demand is currently low, it only makes sense that prices are so high. But maybe that will change in the future.
Sustainable fashion brands
So due to all these reasons, sustainable fashion tends to be more expensive and some think it’s only for the rich. But I would argue against this. Like everything, there are high-end brands that charge more than £100 for a dress for example.
But that’s not all sustainable brands. There are many that are quite affordable. Not as cheap as fast fashion, but a reasonable price. Some of these include:
Should sustainable clothing become cheap?
While luxury sustainable clothes (which are sometimes even handmade) are quite expensive, I don’t see it unreasonable that some companies are charging 20 or 30 pounds for a T-shirt or sweatshirt.
I could not afford to go into a shop and buy 5 shirts each being £30. But since I only get around 1 new piece of clothing every year, maybe 2, I can save up a bit of money to buy one really good piece of clothing. This is the slow fashion mindset that I have adopted and one that society needs to become more familiar with.
Clothes should not be as cheap as they are now.
Hypothetically, if sustainable brands became as cheap as ‘normal’ clothes, then people would still buy the same quantity as they are now, and probably throw them away after a few wears because they are bored of them. Making things as cheap as they are now, has created a ‘throw-away society’.
If something costs a bit more (like they use to) people would look after their possessions more. Because now if something has a tear or is broken, no one hesitates to go online and order a new one.
In the past, without the mass production we have now, clothes used to be more expensive. Our grandparents used to buy clothes and wear them for decades because of this. But now we don’t want to be ‘out-off fashion’.
While sustainable clothes do need to become more available and accessible to more people, prices shouldn’t drop to fast-fashion prices.
We certainly don’t need hundreds of clothes in our wardrobe.
Making sustainable fashion more inclusive
I do agree that some brands are too expensive and no matter how much someone saves up, they would not be able to afford them. Now, these brands do need to become a bit cheaper if we want to make sustainable fashion more inclusive. But, remember that sustainability is not all or nothing. Do what you can in your circumstances.
Increasing demand is really the only way to make ethical clothes more affordable for more people.
Changing our habits
Even though it is more expensive than fast fashion brands, there’s one thing that many people forget. When you go on Asos or to H&M you buy 10 items and spend quite a bit of money. But because you bought so many clothes, it doesn’t seem that bad.
But sustainable fashion is also about the slow fashion movement. It’s not simply about buying ethically and sustainably made clothes. It’s about buying less and making them last. So instead of having a wardrobe filled with cheap clothes (half of which you don’t even wear), own a smaller collection that is high-quality and that you really love.
Other ways to make your wardrobe sustainable
Buy less – This is something that everyone can do. If you complain that sustainable fashion is too expensive, you don’t have to turn around and buy from fast fashion brands every month. Buy less and take care of your clothes as much you can so they last as many years as possible.
Repeating outfits – I hate how people feel that they can’t wear the same thing twice. We must normalize repeating outfits (I blame Instagram for this).
Keep – We throw tonnes of perfectly good clothes away every year. Only a small percentage actually get recycled. Most of them end up in landfills. So keep wearing what you own for as long as possible.
Mend and repair – If you get a hole in a pair of trousers, don’t rush to throw it away and buy a new one. Mending clothes is easier than you think. You only need a needle and some thread. Get into this habit.
Upon first, glance, sustainable clothes do indeed seem more expensive, but cheap clothes have much bigger hidden costs that we don’t see because it’s not written on the label. An environmental and social cost that you don’t see because it’s happening far away from you.
It may seem cheap in terms of money, but for it to reach your hands, it took the destruction of people’s lives and the planet.
Currently, it’s only the people who have money that are shopping from these sustainable brands. In the future, I would like to see them targeting a wider range of people. Sustainability shouldn’t be a niche. It needs to become more inclusive and convenient. We need to take down this barrier that you need to be rich to care for the planet. Everyone can take small steps.
Even if you can, in no way, save up money to buy the clothes that you need from the most sustainable brands, buy what you can afford. Just buy what you need.
Always choose quality over quantity.
All images from Unsplash