Why is ethical clothing so expensive?

As a mum of a 3-year-old I have always made a conscious effort to buy products that are as ethical as possible – that may mean buying local, buying second-hand and researching a brand’s ethos before purchase.

Clothing is something I love, never been fussed about it for myself but for my daughter, I really enjoy the choices of bright colours and fun designs for kids. Knowing that what I buy has a low carbon footprint and has not taken advantage of slave labour also sits well with me, but why is ethical clothing so expensive? 

The short answer is because it costs more to manufacture products when the production is done right with consideration for the environment and all workers involved in the process.

Some hand made clothes

Your ethical clothing questions answered

My main focus below is on organic cotton – remember that products like polyester have a much larger carbon footprint due to the amount of greenhouse emissions they cause during production.  

So what is ethical clothing? 

An ethical clothing definition is clothes that are produced in a way that causes the least harm to our planet, least harm to animals and least harm to the people that actually put the work in to produce a garment; from the farmers growing the cotton to the factory workers making the final product.

Why is fashion a problem and what is the real environmental impact of clothing and the fashion industry?

A fact that stunned me whilst at a talk about sustainable fashion was that the fashion industry is the second biggest pollutant in the world, after gas and oil. When I sat and thought about it and where clothes come from and how they are made, of course, it makes sense.

We have become a throw-away society with fast fashion all the rage, magazines promoting the next must-haves before the old have even arrived in the post. Most of us in the western world don’t fix clothes we just buy more, we consume.

It takes a considerable amount of water to produce and process cotton, approximately 2700 litres for one cotton shirt, additionally pesticides are used on the crops all adding a huge amount of pollution to an already over-polluted planet.  Most ethical brands will work with organic cotton which uses less water and no chemicals for production.  

A picture of organic cotton fields that are expensive to run. One of the reasons why is ethical clothing so expensive

Organic cotton needs to be sustainable (that is not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources so it’s supporting long-term ecological balance). But this can mean a lower production rate, so buyers won’t be able to make profits through quantity at a cheap price which is what many retailers rely on.

A further fact that left me aghast was that the growth of cotton makes up for 22.5% of the world’s insecticide use and 10% of the world’s pesticide use, the chemicals kill our planet and can cause illness to people who regularly come in to contact with them when working with these crops.  So to grow cotton in a way that uses less water and no chemicals is much more costly, and we start to see why ethical clothing is more expensive.

An ethical brand will ensure the farmers and manufacturers are paid a fair wage, that their working conditions are good and that children are not doing the work.  Some invest extra into areas where they have their factories and farms to help support the community as a whole and help children to get an education.

What does fair trading mean and why is it important?

From Fairtrade.orgFairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.”

Fair trading gives farmers a better deal, factory and garment workers fair wages, it gives control to the workers and farmers rather than being controlled by others and ensures their basic human rights.  It gives them dignity.  

What does organic mean and why is it better?

Organic means a product has been grown without the use of harsh chemicals like pesticides and fertilisers. Organic certification also normally ensures there is no use of genetically modified organisms.  

Organic cotton is better because it has less impact on the planet using 88% less water during processing and 62% less energy. It is beneficial to insects and animals, promotes safer working practices, conserves water (80% of organic cotton is rain fed), the oil by product (which can end up in food) is better for us or the animals that may eat it, producers get a fair price and there is less environmental impact on the soil.

You can find out much more detail about organic cotton and the facts and figures at aboutorganiccotton.org.

What should I consider to minimise my environmental impact when purchasing clothes?

The first question to ask yourself is do I really need it?  If you do, then consider whether you can purchase second-hand.  If that’s not an option then research the companies you want to buy from to check whether they thinking about the planet and the conditions of their workers.

For example, one of my favourite brands is Frugi, based in Cornwall UK, which is a local company who use only organic cotton and their outer wear is made from recycled plastic bottles!

They have a Code of Conduct which their suppliers must adhere to which includes no child labour, freely chosen employment, no discrimination, employees in the factory must be well looked after in relation to pay, hours worked, overtime and be provided with a hygienic, safe and clean place of work. 

Additionally, they donate 1% of their turnover every year to charities.

When researching a company if they are doing it ethically you should easily be able to find out how on their website.  Be aware though that they can word things very cleverly so it is also worth searching for references to the company on other websites or forums, to see what people are saying about them.

Once you have finished with the product consider how it could be reused.  You could sell it on or give it to a charity shop, upcycle it into something else or if it is really worn you may still be able to use it as a cleaning rag!

Why do I need to think about the full supply chain when buying my clothing, not just the end product?

The full process for clothing manufacture from the growth of cotton to it hanging up in your wardrobe is one with many steps, each can have its own detrimental environmental impact. 

Do you really want to be supporting this with your purchases?  

When we think about the production of clothes we generally just think of factories with workers sewing garments together but that’s just one small step in the journey.  Around 75% of the world’s clothing is made from cotton.

Initially cotton needs to be grown and processed, this involves a lot of water and chemicals, farmers who farm the cotton may or may not be given a fair deal by their buyers; the farmers have workers who may or may not be treated fairly – are their basic human rights being met?  

The cotton needs to be processed and delivered to its destination so mileage is added which has its own environmental impact.

Once processed the material is turned into a garment, exactly what are the conditions factory workers are expected to work in? Are children working in the factories? Are they getting a fair wage?

Once completed the clothing then needs to be transported, normally across continents, again more mileage. 

Finally it will then travel to shops, warehouses and eventually the end buyer.  But what about clothes that do not sell?  Some are incinerated or sent to landfill.

As you will see it’s a lot to consider and when trying to purchase ethical clothing every step must be accounted for.  It cannot be ethical if the cotton is organic but those that made the garment are working in poor conditions for an unfair wage.

Why should I buy ethical clothing and spend the money when my child will grow out of it in a few months?

I agree it is hard to justify the expense, especially if you have a tight budget, after all you could pay £30 for one dress and get 3 colourful ones on the High Street for the same price.  However do you really need all 3 dresses? 

Consumerism today is big business, we want more and more, even if we don’t actually need it. We could consider some quality over quantity when spending that money and be reassured that by purchasing that one £30 dress the clothing your child wears has not been made by a less fortunate child in another country.

You can also be reassured that that item of clothing has had a far less detrimental environmental impact which in turn is helping towards your own child’s future.  

Is there a way to purchase ethical clothing more cheaply?

I will be the first to admit ethical clothing is not within everyone’s budget unfortunately but there are ways to get them cheaper and these tips are how I often buy mine.

  • Do your research – look into ethical brands, some may be UK based like Frugi, some international and some may be local to you.  Find the ones you like, research them and check they have designs you love and then wait for the sale.  You could sign up for their newsletters so you know when it’s coming. I have got some fantastic bargains during various sales, some direct from brands, others from online retailers who stock them.
  • Consider buying second hand – I buy many items from specialist Facebook groups and Ebay.  There are always tight rules about descriptions and some items will be in perfect condition, others will be what they call playwear so may have small stains, I have mostly found people to be honest about the items they are selling. It can be fun looking for a bargain and you may find an old print you wouldn’t otherwise get.
  • Sell on – if your kids don’t completely trash the clothes you can sell them on yourself, often if you have bought second hand you can sell again for the same sort of price you bought them for.

Why is ethical clothing so expensive: final thoughts

I hope this post goes some way to answer why ethical clothing is so expensive, and perhaps make you think about your purchase power and what is more important long term, after all this is our children’s future and the choices we make now will be what helps make the planet they go on to inherit.

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