You might think that paying over £40 for a sustainably produced cotton T-shirt is extortionate, when fast fashion garments are a fraction of the price, but these savings are at the expense of workers, the environment and future generations. The ‘green premium’ charged on ‘conscious’ clothing is about the redistribution of wealth and, ultimately, the cost of conserving the planet. In understanding why the high retail price of sustainable garments is justified, we must ask: why is fast fashion so cheap?
Scale and labour costs are two of the main factors fuelling the price disparity between ethical and fast fashion. Fast fashion brands lower production costs by manufacturing garments in vast quantities, reaping the benefit of economies of scale. Production is so rapid that the fashion industry is now responsible for an estimated 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Accompanying this large scale output is vast waste. H&M groups, for example, manufacture approximately 3 billion garments per year, whilst still having more than $4 billion of unsold stock (2019). Large scale production also encourages overconsumption; Shein drops between 700-1000 new styles daily, a number which cannot possibly be ethically produced. These companies feed an insatiable desire for new trends which are quick to produce, and even quicker to go out of fashion. Ultimately, these garments end up in landfills, with the other 300,000 tonnes of clothing that the UK disposes of each year!
Sustainable brands generally produce garments on a smaller scale, ensuring that supply does not outweigh demand. This allows them to avoid overproduction, unnecessary waste and excessive greenhouse gas emissions. This small-scale production makes it easier to monitor the supply chain and identify unethical practices.
Fast fashion companies tend to outsource their production to developing nations, such as Bangladesh. They take advantage of cheap labour to such an extent that 93% of brands do not even pay garment workers a living wage; they pay a far lower minimum wage in order to cut costs. Ethical brands, on the other hand, aim to close this wage gap between high and low income earners. These brands create job opportunities, paying a living wage that helps to lift people out of poverty. Charging extra to those who can afford it enables companies to improve workers rights.
Through minimising environmental damage and increasing wealth distribution, ethical brands can justify charging a premium. However, with this justified premium comes the threat of a tactic known as ‘greenwashing’, particularly among fast fashion brands. Coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, “greenwashing” refers to a skewed marketing strategy that misrepresents a company’s “green credentials”, sneakily making the company appear more eco-conscious than perhaps they are. Greenwashing remains rife in modern markets. Studies using the UK Competition and Markets Authority’s new guidelines on green claims unearthed that 96% of H&M’s, 89% of ASOS’s and 88% of M&S’s sustainability claims violated the guidelines. Furthermore, H&M’s Conscious Collection contains a higher percentage of synthetics than the main collection. Synthetics can release microplastics which can take upto 1,000 years to biodegrade and are harmful to humans, animals and ecosystems.
We also need to be aware that “expensive” is not synonymous with sustainability. This was particularly evident with the news that Burberry had burnt over £28.6 million worth of stock in 2017, simply to prevent the devaluation of their goods. Instead of spending more, the most environmentally sustainable and cost effective way to consume fashion is through the second hand market. The majority of ‘near-to-new’ second hand items are sold at half that of the retail price, making it unsurprising that second hand retailers, such as eBay, have experienced 404% year on year increase in second hand sales since 2018. Excitingly, this boom in “pre-loved” retail is set to continue its expansion with predictions that by 2030 the second hand market will be double that of fast fashion.
Being the perfect environmentalist is near impossible. Ethical living can be costly, time consuming and occasionally inaccessible, therefore it would be ludicrous to expect a person to be sustainable all of the time. Though, if you wipe away the greenwash, the facts can be found and educating yourself on what you’re buying is the most important step. Understanding the consequences, positive or negative, of your consumer choices is a matter that cannot be overlooked. Sustainability is a gradient across which you can move one ethical choice at a time, and as markets become more transparent, the sooner this shift can happen the better.