SHOULD SUSTAINABLE FASHION BE MORE AFFORDABLE? WELL, I GOT SOME THOUGHTS…
Some weeks ago, I was listening to a chat on Clubhouse about the downsides of sustainable fashion. It was overall a great conversation because, surprise-surprise, what we think of sustainable fashion isn’t always sustainable. But, at one point, the speakers started all mentioning that one of the negative sides of sustainable fashion is the fact that it isn’t affordable. In this logic, it is a thing of the privileged, and many people can’t afford it. Thus, they all insisted that sustainable fashion should work to be more affordable.
This reminded me of the argument that Laura Whitmore (an Irish TV celebrity and a model) made when she announced her collaboration with Primark. In her Instagram post, she claims that sustainability should be accessible to all, and that “you shouldn’t spend 50 quid on a t-shirt to be sustainable”. Sustainable fashion should be cheaper so that the masses can buy it.
Now, I won’t get into all the greenwashing behind the Primark Cares initiative, and the problem of celebrities endorsing fast fashion brands. That requires at least one separate article. Rather, I want to point out that the question of affordability in sustainable fashion is on lots of people’s minds. It’s sort of a hot topic and I see more and more people claiming that sustainable fashion should work towards being more affordable.
I well understand that new clothes made sustainable are pricey. In fact, I rarely buy from sustainable brands because of this. Yet, I’d like to challenge this idea. I’m not sure that sustainable fashion isn’t affordable.
Let me unpack that.
My problem with “affordability”
I’ll start with a simple idea. Sustainable fashion is expensive, usually because we compare it with the dominant model of the industry-the fast fashion.
Clearly, there are good reasons for this. Sustainable fabric costs more and sustainable brands make sure to pay their workers fairly. Better materials and labour come with a higher price. The biggest reason why fast fashion is so cheap is that they use cheap fabrics and profit from low-paid workers. To put it differently, making clothes sustainably goes against how the industry works and requires not only more time, research, and work, but it also costs more. Surely, if sustainable fabrics and production become more widespread, the price of an item would go down. In this sense, yes, we should work on making sustainability a standard of the industry.
Partly, this is what some speak of when they mention affordability. Yet, many focus on the price tag of sustainably made clothes. For me, this is a narrow way of looking at cost and is anchored in the same consumerist culture that made fast fashion the main business model in the industry. Ultimately, this way of seeing affordability focuses on the gain for the (usually Western) consumer and is a result of short-term thinking. I want to break down the main arguments why sustainable fashion isn’t as expensive as it may seem, and why we need to move away from thinking of sustainable fashion only in terms of shopping for clothes.
What’s your price reference
If we are used to seeing t-shirts that cost €10 or dresses for less than €30, anything more expensive than that seems like too much. It’s because we have a certain idea of what the price should be, we have reference points against which we compare. In the past 20-or-so-years, fast fashion has convinced us that their prices are what clothes really cost.
But it’s not like this.
When I was researching how the price of clothes changed over time, I realised that a century ago, clothes on average cost significantly more than they do today. However, the prices of other daily items (like food and housing) went up throughout the years. Yet, the process of making clothes and the labour needed for this hasn’t changed much. What changed is the business of fashion.
Most of the clothes in the industry are priced arbitrarily, not in line with the work and resources they use. This is clear when we think of luxury fashion: the price is a reflection of the image and social status, rather than the quality. The same goes for fast fashion brands that systemically put a lower price than the real cost of the production. Sure, these brands (looking at you Primark) may claim that they make fashion democratic, approachable, and affordable, but they profit from exploitation and slavery. Even more, as you probably know by now, fast fashion clothes come with a heavy ecological footprint.
This brings me to the next point.
Affordable for whom?
Borrowing what Aja Barber pointed out in her reaction to Primark Cares initiative, when we speak of affordability in fashion we need to ask: affordable for whom?
Fast fashion managed to be affordable mainly for the Western consumers but keeps getting more and more expensive for those who make the clothes, as well as our planet. We very well know that the majority, if not almost all, garment workers cannot afford to pay for basic needs, despite the long working hours and virtually no breaks or holidays. Is this really what sustainable fashion should aim for too?
Lowering the price of an item means that cuts have to be made somewhere. I know many sustainable brands that are cutting their own margins, to make their clothes cheaper. Yet, they still can’t compete with the prices we are used to. They will never be as cheap as big fast fashion brands. And they shouldn’t. Because cutting beyond or outside these profit margins means that we are cutting on the quality of materials and working conditions. It is already hard to be a sustainable brand in the current industry. Additional cuts would simply mean giving up on this model and adapting to the fast-fashion standards. Which beats the whole idea, doesn’t it?
In other words, we need to understand that sustainable fashion should truly be sustainable for everyone. Yes, everyone deserves to dress sustainably but we cannot twist what sustainably made means. A price isn’t only about consumers, but also those who live of making clothes.
Looking beyond the price tag
Yet, even if we only focus on the consumer perspective, a price tag is only one way of measuring the cost.
You might have come across the term cost-per-wear, especially if you’ve been in the world of slow fashion for a while. Essentially, it’s a cost you get per the number of times you wear an item. The idea is simple: a €20 top that you will wear a handful of times is more expensive than €40+ one that you will wear for years. It’s why, among others, we should look for high-quality items, rather than buying a bunch of things that aren’t meant to last. It challenges us to rethink what is cheap and what is expensive.
Moreover, this speaks of the difference between long-term and short-term thinking, and I don’t mean just in regards to the cost. Focusing exclusively on the price tag is focusing on short-term benefits. This is why fast fashion thrives-because it’s an instant benefit for those who shop. And we very well know the long-term consequences of fast fashion, from pollution, human rights abuse, to a potential negative impact on mental health. In contrast, focusing on ideas like cost-per-wear means that we are considering what happens to clothes after the purchase. It’s in line with the very idea of sustainability: something we can do for a long time.
There’s also something else to mention here. Sustainable fashion is expensive, in the long and short term, when we approach it with a fast fashion mindset. If we continue buying new clothes every couple of or even every week, it’s unaffordable. That is, unaffordable for our wallets, people, and the planet. No matter the material or ethical production conditions, producing clothes at the rate we are going now is unsustainable. Asking for sustainable clothes to be affordable is thinking in the same consumerism framework, which sells us an idea that we can shop our way towards sustainability. We need to be ready to tackle overproduction and overconsumption if we want to figure out how to navigate the future.
Sustainable fashion isn’t only new clothes
A final point I wish to make is that when we speak about affordability, we tend to forget that sustainable fashion isn’t only new clothes. Yes, brands that chose to make clothes fairly, slowly, and overall better are important. But shopping for new clothes is not the only way nor the main way of dressing sustainably.
There’s a reason why many of us insist that wearing the clothes we own is the most sustainable thing anyone can do. It’s also free. Using what we have, instead of reaching constantly for new stuff is a great and deep perspective shift and is a trend we need, to direct the industry towards a more sustainable path. Similarly, choosing to repair or upcycle clothes is important, and often cheaper than buying new ones. And of course, there’s the option of buying second-hand, which can sometimes be cheaper than buying fast fashion. Not to say that it is more affordable in a social and environmental sense too.
What do you think? Is sustainable fashion really unaffordable?
I'm an anthropologist, activist, and ethical fashion writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I'm endlessly curious and restless, and always looking to challenge the way we think about fashion, style, and sustainability. Through my writing business, Thinking Threads, I work with small to medium ethical brands, helping them redefine the standards of the fashion industry, one word at a time.