Many of us will know the feeling. You’ve spotted some gorgeous garment on your Instagram feed and clicked through in a Pavlovian fervour to find out more. It’s ethical, sustainable, small-batch, free-range – all the good stuff! Then you look at the price. And you want to weep.
How to reconcile sustainable fashion with the its higher price tag is probably the most complex question I face, as someone who spends a lot of time trying to persuade people to kick their fast fashion habit. A recent Cosmopolitan poll found that two thirds of respondents don’t buy from sustainable fashion brands – and of those who don’t, 80 per cent said it was because they’re “too expensive”.
True, they’re usually spendier than the rock-bottom price tags we’ve grown used to. But they need to be.
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Because while the word ‘expensive’ is subjective, the cost of fabric, thread, pattern-making, machinery and overheads is not. The cost of human labour shouldn’t be negotiable either, but it’s most often the people that get sacrificed for the sake of the profit margin. Less than 2 per cent of garment workers globally earn a living wage. When we buy a £4 dress from a fast fashion brand, it isn’t cheap by magic, it’s cheap because somebody else is paying the price.
Yet at the same time, it’s fair to ask: how much of that final price tag is necessary outlay, and how much of it is brands cashing in on our guilty conscience? Plain old capitalism, dressed up in organic cotton. How much should our clothes cost, really? And what if we just can’t afford it?
First we have to accept that the concept of ‘affording’ something is a slippery one. It exists on a scale from genuine poverty to juggling priorities; from relying on food banks to feed your family, to buying a £1 bikini because you fancied a fourth holiday this year.
“I totally understand that for some people, fast fashion is the most feasible option – it’s cheap and accessible and doesn’t require hours of trawling. However, for those with a bit more disposable cash, I definitely think there needs to be a shift in our idea of what’s affordable,” says fashion writer Fedora Abu. “I know lots of people who could afford to make more careful choices, but just like the idea of having lots of options, so will buy five dresses from Boohoo.”
As the cost of living continues to sky rocket in so many areas – housing, food, transport – clothes are one of few anomalies that are still getting cheaper, and that ‘race to the bottom’ has devalued our perception to the point where it’s possible to regard a dress as more disposable than a tube of toothpaste. And while a popular defence from the cheapest brands is that they ‘democratise’ fashion, it’s a blinkered argument. We can’t dismiss the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people while pretending that following hot trends is some kind of a fundamental human right. As one Boohoo warehouse worker put it to The Times last weekend after testing positive for Covid-19, “How is distributing cheap women’s fashion essential?”
No, the uncomfortable truth is that the group of people who genuinely can’t afford to spend more on their clothes is much, much smaller than the group who feel like they can’t, because we’ve been socially conditioned to believe we need a wardrobe refresh every couple of weeks to be happy. “I do agree that there’s an element of snobbery,” says Abu, “but I also feel like the [democratisation] argument is being used to absolve consumers of any agency – when we have a lot of power.”
Still, even once we’ve made our peace with spending more to make sure nobody has been exploited, it can still be hard to square your finances with a £500 dress. Every time I spy a certain much-hyped, prairie-tastic sustainable brand on my Instagram feed, I can almost feel my overdraft wincing. So how do we find our fiscal comfort zone?
Thankfully, not every sustainable brand will set you back hundreds – People Tree, Thought, Know The Origin, Mayamiko, We Are Kin and Armed Angels all have price points that wouldn’t look out of place on the high street. Then there’s the wealth of small-scale makers selling their wares via Instagram, Depop and Etsy. Check out Kez Made It’s traffic-stopping tulle creations and Abbie Louise for minidresses and handmade bikinis.
Meanwhile Exeter-based sustainable fashion boutique Sancho’s recently launched “transparent pricing”, a radical approach which allows customers to choose from three different price tags for the same garment. The idea was born when a subscriber messaged to say that she loved a jumpsuit, but couldn’t afford it.
“What’s the point of selling people things they can’t afford? There’s no logic in that,” admits Sancho’s founder Kalkidan Legesse. “But at the same time, if I don’t carve out some money for me and for my business, it won’t exist.”
The answer was up-front honesty. “We thought, let’s just tell them how much we make per item. Why does it need to be a secret?” Now, the Tya jumpsuit in organic linen costs either £68, £75 or £95. The lowest price covers its cost, the second covers the cost plus marketing, and the highest price includes an amount for business development. Which shoppers pay is entirely up to them.
It sounds like a risky move. Why would anyone pay more than they need to? “I was quite afraid,” admits Legesse. “You also don’t want to devalue the brand’s work, or our own work in selling it.” But just as pay-what-you-want restaurants have proven, people are prepared to pay more when they’re engaged with the cause. “It’s been really good! I’ve been surprised by the amount of people who are paying full price,” she says. “For those with financial privilege, rather than judging people for shopping at Primark, they can use their own power to make it easier for other people to shop ethically.”
Perhaps truly “democratic” fashion doesn’t mean making everything as cheap as possible – it means those who can afford to spend more paying it forward, to support small businesses and subsidise those who can’t.
Going #secondhandfirst, if you can, is still one of the most affordable ways to keep shopping without feeding the beast. Charity shops have many roles, from fundraising to recycling, but they also exist to provide low-cost clothing for those who need it. And while perfectly-preserved vintage pieces might set you back more than an H&M dress, resale sites are goldmines for barely-worn garms at a fraction of their original price. Before buying anything brand new, do your due diligence and check Depop, eBay and Vinted; it pays off.
Although, it’s important to note, price isn’t the only accessibility issue at play here. Sustainable fashion has a size problem too. Vintage can be notoriously teeny, and charity shop rails tend to reflect the sizing on the high street as a whole, overflowing with 8s and 10s but dwindling to a few meagre plus-size options. Fashion rental companies can be stubbornly size-exclusive, while there are seemingly endless new sustainable brands whose offerings grind to a halt at a ‘L’ size 14. It’s grimly ironic to see companies offer ‘thoughtful’ fashion with seemingly no thought for half the people who might buy it.
If you can invest in a sewing machine (try Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace for pre-loved models), learning to make your own clothes can be a great way to circumvent the sizist industry for less – especially if you use deadstock fabric, or focus on upcycling existing clothes into new ones. Plus, there’s nothing like toiling over your wonky seams for three days to understand exactly how much skilled labour should cost.
But time is a privilege too, of course. Not everyone has the luxury of free hours to rummage through thrift stores, or research the ethical credentials of every single purchase to sort the good from the greenwashing. Keeping up with the ever-shifting sands of the sustainability conversation can be practically a part-time job, and I say that as somebody who has made it one.
Factor in ableism, ageism, education, geography, and the myriad other threads of individual advantage, and you realise that even ‘fair’ fashion is far from a level playing field. We can only do the best we can do, with the resources we have. But most of us can still probably do better than we are.
Then of course, there’s the cheapest and most sustainable solution of all: just don’t shop. It’s easier said than done. Along the way, the messaging around ethical fashion has become warped by – guess who! – capitalism, from ‘buy less’ to ‘spend more’. We can use our money more wisely, but we can’t shop our way out of a mess that shopping got us into in the first place.
Once a fan of super cheap” fashion, Fedora Abu hasn’t sworn off the high street completely – but these days she’s proud to have a carefully streamlined wardrobe. “A lot of my friends, many of whom earn way more than me, think what I spend on, say, a pair of shoes or trousers is ridiculous,” she says. “But then they see the size of my wardrobe and are shocked at how little there is; I could probably fit everything into a single suitcase.”
Swapping quality for quantity has helped her save money in the long run, and cherish her clothes more. “Now every purchase feels like a real treat, whether it’s a pair of earrings that I’ve been waiting to go on sale for months or a really beautiful pair of shoes that I know I’ll keep forever.”
And that’s the final secret. The true cost of our clothes isn’t decided at the till – we continue to give them value by loving them, wearing them, taking care of them and keeping them in circulation for as long as we possibly can. The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe, after all. And that love doesn’t cost a thing.