Photo by Devan Francis
Many of us have grown up thinking certain things are the way they are. Examples: mom is always right, peanut butter goes on toast, the sun always rises, and you can buy a t-shirt for $10.
Wait - $10? Have you ever stopped to think about what actually went into the shirt to be able to sell it at that price? By now, we are all aware of the notion that ‘children are starving in Africa’ and that ‘your clothes were probably made by slaves’, but when did these reminders stop shocking us and start being overlooked in the name of fashion and peace of mind? Ignorance may be bliss, but there comes a point where we need to face facts.
Today, we’d like to discuss the average perception of what things cost, uncover what goes into making these things we take for granted, and re-evaluate what we as consumers should expect to pay for our things.
At the moment, it is common to expect to pay the following for an outfit:
T-shirt: $10-$20 (H&M)
Underwear: $10 (Victoria’s Secret)
Hoodie: $30-60 (Hollister)
Jeans: $70 (Levis)
Isn’t it odd that a flimsy pair of underwear can cost the same as a t-shirt? One could assume that the underwear must be ethical then, and the t-shirt would be the obvious unethical pick, right? Designer / higher-priced goods = ethical payment of workers?
Wrong. Brands like Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, and Gucci are some of many large brands that have yet to disclose the factories they use. Brands such as Michael Kors have admitted to sourcing ‘small’ amounts of merchandise from low-paying countries such as Bangladesh. Bangladesh, along with Cambodia are among the cheapest countries to manufacture clothing in - there, garment workers have little job protection, are exposed to constant abuse, and are paid wages as little as 9 cents per hour, with insurmountable barriers to entering unions. If these big companies are having such large issues disclosing where their garments are made, it’s safe to say they are hiding the fact that their garments are likely made in similar, if not the same factory that manufactures clothing for Zara, at the bottom end of the scale.
Photo by Devan Francis
Recently, Burberry came under scrutiny by the press and admitted to burning roughly 48 million Canadian dollars worth of unsold merchandise in a year alone. Their excuse was that it was a ‘standard industry practice’ - a nice way of saying that they don’t want their garments sold at discounted prices and worn by ‘unsavory’ people. Although the company claims it captures energy through burning the clothing to be used for electricity, there is no excuse for wasting product that could have gone to better homes, all in the name of protecting the company’s perceived value. Moreover, if they can afford to burn away their profits, how much do you think they have squeezed the margins in favour of themselves, only to starve everyone else along the supply chain? Companies should not be rewarded, nor have the satisfaction of burning merchandise rather than selling it for cheap, for over-producing. Waste is a design flaw, and society can no longer afford be producing more than we can sell.
At H&M, a standard collection goes from concept to store in 2 weeks flat. A conscious company will usually have two collections per year, and work on them 1-2 years in advance. Working at such a fast pace puts immeasurable stress on designers, and places pressure on factories to always be performing better, faster, and cheaper than their competitors. This vicious cycle is what drives garment factory owners to mandate that their employees work 12-16 hours per day without breaks or air conditioning.
What we should expect to pay, at minimum:
When all costs are accounted for, $50 is an appropriate starting price for a shirt where everyone along the supply chain has been paid fairly, especially if the garment has been made locally. This includes the cotton picker, the fabric manufacturers (those who turn raw material into fabric), the cutters, sewers, designers, managers, delivery drivers, and a markup to sustain the company itself. Bonus points if the shirt hasn’t poisoned any cotton farmers with pesticides or rivers with toxic dye!
If the price still seems high, then think of it this way: if you’d rather buy a painting from a friend or local artist as opposed to a cheap and generic printed IKEA piece, then start thinking of your clothes in the same way! Generally, the higher the price point, the higher the skill level required to design and make it. Your clothing is ultimately a silent expression of your inner self, so let it tell a story! We believe in ‘less is more’, so owning a few key pieces that you love rather than a closet full of things you don’t will feel vastly more rewarding!
Photo by Devan Francis
On an individual level, you can start by looking for ‘social enterprise’ brands that line up with your values. Companies who are transparent about their processes and suppliers are key - look for words and phrases like ‘livable wage’, ‘unions’, ‘code of conduct’, ‘mission’, and ‘manifesto’. Check tags for materials that harm the planet less, like organic cotton, hemp, and linen, or look for certification badges such as ‘Fair Wear Foundation’ (NOVEL SUPPLY CO. uses this one!), ‘B-Corp’, Fair Trade, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). At NOVEL, we also partner with local artists to collaborate on graphics, which then get printed onto our shirts and crews. Local supporting local!
Now that you are newly educated about ethical and sustainable sourcing, we hope that you feel empowered to shift towards a more conscious wardrobe and even a conscious life! Once there is an appreciation for the time, skill, and art that is involved in the craft of making clothing, it is much easier to start perceiving ethically-priced clothing as fair, rather than expensive.