A costly impact: 8 reasons why sustainable clothes are so expensive
Table of Contents
The problems with fashion
From stories of burning clothes, to forced labour in opaque supply chains, to the barrels of oil that go into making our clothes, the environmental and human costs of the fashion sector are no secret.
It’s estimated that by 2050 the textile industry will be using 300 million tons of oil a year, largely to make polyester clothing. This is clothing that will then go on to contribute to the vast amounts of microplastics that are littering our oceans.
Sustainable fashion brands claim to offer a kinder and greener approach. Such an approach sometimes comes with a hefty price tag. This can create the argument that sustainable fashion is a luxury for the rich, rather than a solution for a broken industry.
So why are sustainable clothes so expensive, and is it a real solution to fashion’s problems?
The human reasons that sustainable clothes are more expensive
It’s important to make the distinction that socially ethical doesn’t always equal environmentally friendly and environmentally friendly doesn’t always equal socially ethical. A company can be clean and green and still treat its workers terribly. Similarly, a company can be employer of the year and still treat the environment terribly.
But, importantly, most sustainable companies are also champions of social ethics. Many sustainable accreditations also require social standards alongside environmental ones. So, what are the things that make socially ethical fashion more expensive?
1. A living wage and fair working conditions
The low prices of the fashion industry are achieved in part because workers along the supply chain are paid very low wages and work in unsafe factories. This reduces the overall cost of production and, by extension, means that brands can charge less and still make a profit.
Sadly there is a big difference between a legal minimum wage, often agreed by governments to attract companies to set up in their country, and a living wage. A living wage allows workers to enjoy a decent standard of living including not only food, housing, transport, clothes and health but also education and saving for unanticipated events.
If garment workers are paid fair wages and factories are maintained, then a product costs more for brands to make, and they need to sell it at a higher price.
2. Child labour
Children are often the hidden victims of the cheap clothes on the high street. One report found that over 30% of children in Dhaka’s slum region were employed in the garment sector. These children are paid very little, or sometimes, are not paid at all.
Ethical fashion labels are stringent about where they source their clothing. This means sourcing from factories that do not use child labour. This again drives up the cost of the item but lowers the social cost of clothing.
3. Transparent supply chains
Fashion brands hide behind notoriously murky supply chains. The dizzying size of the modern industry means that many brands don’t trace their supply chains to ensure ethical and responsible practices.
Fashion Revolution has been a key advocator for transparent supply chains. The organisation’s transparency index has found that over 50% of major brands involved in the index still don’t publish information on their supply chains.
Tracing supply chains, getting third-party certifications and trusted audits to ensure ethical factory practices, costs money.
Environmental reasons for why sustainable clothes are so expensive
Sustainable brands work to minimize their impact on the environment. This means cleaner production, eco-friendly materials, and conscious business practices. While this can drive up prices, it means that the environment isn’t having to foot the bill for our cheap clothes.
1. Sustainable fabrics
There is no escaping the fact that many of the clothes we wear every day are not kind to the environment. Cheap, low-quality synthetic materials now dominate fashion. Derived from fossil fuels, these synthetics use up our natural resources, are unsustainable to make and are major contributors to microplastic pollution.
Certified organic cotton can be 20%-30% more expensive than conventional cotton. While sustainable and organic fabrics, including organic cotton and recycled materials do cost more to produce, they don’t come with the same environmental issues.
The increased cost of producing these fabrics is reflected in the final price tag of sustainable clothes. For our analysis of the most sustainable fabric, check out our article What is the most sustainable fabric.
2. Sustainable production
Taking a product from raw materials to finished garment can be a long and complicated process. Sustainable brands look at every step of the process to create a sustainable supply chain using sustainable practices. These include:
- Closed loop manufacturing – The sad truth is that in many cases it is cheaper to dump waste into the nearest river or field than it is to responsibly treat it to make it environmentally safe. Installing closed-loop manufacturing systems, in which waste is treated so it can be reused or can be safely disposed of, costs money.
This cost is reflected in the overall increased production cost of a clothing item. However, it is a system that helps to minimise the environmental impact of fashion production.
- Natural dyes – Many of the brightly coloured clothing we find on store shelves are a product of synthetic and toxic dyes. While they may be great for vibrant hues, these cheap dyes are woeful for the environment. Not only are they made from petroleum or coal but when they contaminate waterways and soil, they cause drastic negative impacts on the environment.
Only 10% of textiles are dyed with natural dyes. While these dyes cost more to buy, they are biodegradable and don’t come with the same environmental risk as their synthetic counterparts. For more on clothes dyes see Dying for colour: toxic dyes in the textile industry.
- Sustainable energy – It takes power to manufacture clothing. Therefore many sustainable brands implement the use of renewable energy across the supply chain. This can mean installing new infrastructure or refitting factories. While renewable energy can be a cheaper energy source than fossil fuels, installing it can be a costly process.
3. Small batch manufacturing
The unsustainable practices of fast fashion brands are built on rapid mass production. Mass manufacturing in large batches reduces the cost per item. This means a brand can charge less at the checkout and still turn a profit on each piece.
Many sustainable and ethical brands use slow fashion approaches, including made-to-order models or only produce small batches. Manufacturing in small batches (when only a small number of items are ordered and made) drives up the cost per item.
4. Innovative materials
Many brands use innovative materials that are produced by only a handful of companies. Materials like fabric made from recycled fishing nets and vegan leather from pineapple waste.
These materials are often more expensive to produce than conventional fabrics. There has been cash splashed on developing these materials and taking them from a sustainable idea to an innovative product.
These costs of production and development are reflected in the price tag. As the industry continues to expand this may be lessened, but at the moment can significantly impact the cost of production.
Market reasons that sustainable clothes are so expensive
Aside from the sustainable and ethical reasons that sustainable fashion is more expensive, there are market reasons for why sustainable fashion is so expensive. One of these is certifications.
Many sustainable and ethical fashion brands use certified products or are certified themselves by third parties. This comes with a cost. It costs money to become certified and costs to remain certified.
While certifications definitely help to avoid greenwashing and give us and brands certainty in what we buy, they drive up the cost of sustainable products.
Is sustainable fashion really more expensive?
There are lots of factors that go into the overall cost of an item. While sustainable fashion can be more expensive, it doesn’t necessarily have to cost that much more than conventional fashion. There are ways for consumers of every budget to access the sustainable sector.
A fast fashion mindset
With the rise of fast fashion, we have grown accustomed to rock-bottom prices for our favourite styles. But, these prices are unrealistic. They are the product of poorly made clothes that exploit people and the environment.
Sustainable fashion isn’t necessarily more expensive than conventional clothing, it is just more expensive than the skewed price point of fast fashion.
Buy less, buy better
Sustainable clothing brands often use higher quality materials. This reduces the need to frequently re-buy clothing.
Paying more for better quality clothes can, in the long run, reduce the overall cost per wear. If that £50 dress lasts five years, it’s better value than the £20 dress that needs to be replaced every six months. The ‘buy less, buy better’ mindset of sustainable fashion can become a cost-effective choice.
Second hand and renting
Sustainable fashion also includes second-hand and rental clothes. These can be highly cost-effective options that can come in even cheaper than new fast fashion pieces.
Why pay through the roof for a dress you’ll wear once to a wedding when you could rent it for a fraction of the price and save valuable space in your wardrobe?
More brands emerging
And, as sustainable fashion becomes more popular there are more brands emerging, offering greater choice when it comes to price point.
Just look at affordable brand Yes Friends, which produces ethically and environmentally friendly made clothing, starting at £7.99 for their organic and Fairtrade cotton t-shirt. They keep their carbon footprint down by manufacturing in a wind and solar-powered factory.
So, why is sustainable fashion so expensive? Because it costs more to manufacture clothes ethically and it costs more to create clothing from quality, eco-friendly materials.
The prices of sustainable clothing reflect the real costs of making a garment. They are clothes from sustainable brands that don’t ask the environment or communities along the supply chain to pay for our new clothes.
To be really sustainable it doesn't cost more
But ultimately, one of the big misperceptions about sustainable fashion is that you need to throw away what you have and go and buy new sustainable clothes.
You don’t! All that does is to create a bigger problem of waste and of over consumption.
Wear what you have and make it last
Actually, the most sustainable thing that you can do is to wear the clothes you already have, learn to style them differently, look after them well and make them last.
And if you do need to buy new, do the best you can. If you can buy from a sustainable brand even once it helps. If you have to buy from a fast fashion brand (because of price or convenience to you) just try to buy consciously: buy less and buy pieces that you love and will keep a long time and wear often.
Washing your clothes less (really), learning to sew and mend and buying less in the first place is the way to truly live sustainable fashion. And it costs less not more!
For more ideas about how to make sustainable fashion affordable see our article with 8 cool ideas.
Frequently asked questions
What are the problems of sustainable fashion?
The main problem with sustainable fashion is its image of being out of reach to many people because of the price. Hopefully we’ve shown you here that it doesn’t have to be.
Why are sustainable clothes better?
Sustainable clothes are made in a way that causes less impact on people, planet and animals. Some of the ways that they are made you won’t feel directly in your clothes.
However there are tangible aspects too:
- Sustainable clothes are made with less harmful chemicals that will negatively affect you or your family when you wear them.
- Sustainable clothes are made to last, to create less waste going to landfill, so should last you longer.
Is Zara a sustainable company?
Zara is not generally thought of to be a sustainable company. While they are undertaking some sustainable initiatives, they are ultimately a fast fashion company that encourages overconsumption. Good On You rate them as Not Good Enough.
Why are sustainable clothes better?
Sustainable clothes are better for our planet, the people who live in it and the animals who reside there. For a full round up of why they are better, see our article Why is sustainable and ethical fashion important.