Why is ethical and sustainable fashion so expensive?

So you’ve made the decision to shop more ethically only to discover the price is so much higher than the traditional outlets we would have grown up shopping with (hands up if you’re an 80’s baby!).

It can come as a rude shock to those not in the fashion industry. It certainly was to me when I started my journey of turning my original fast fashion label into one I could be truly proud of.

The “easiest” way to answer the question of why ethical and sustainable fashion is so expensive, is to highlight why fast fashion is so cheap!

Here are the four main reasons I have uncovered through my own research to becoming the most ethical and sustainable label I can be:

Cost of labour

Fast fashion is today’s modern slavery. Labour is the main cost in the fashion supply chain which can be pushed lower, usually through the exploitation of workers. And since 80% of the fashion workforce is women, this in turn leads to many workers turning to the sex industry in order to earn enough to buy food for their children.

One of the cheapest places in the world to source fashion is Bangladesh. The legal minimum wage for garment workers is 8,000 taka (about $121AUD) a month, however the estimated living wage is $243AUD in order to provide adequate food, shelter and education for a family. 

This would mean a garment worker would literally earn a few cents per garment they made in a month.

This is in stark comparison to Australia's average hourly wage of $21.94 for a garment worker, who is also entitled to holidays, insurance, super and safe working conditions. 

Which of course also means the cost to sew clothing in Australia is anywhere from $10 to $50 per garment, depending on the complexity of the item and the time it takes to sew.

rana plaza disaster

[The eight-story Rana Plaza building in Sabhar, Bangladesh housed several textile factories. When it collapsed on April 24, 2013, more than 1,000 people were killed - the worst accident to date in the international textile industry. (Foto: Bayazid Akter – Shutterstock.com)]

Cost of fabric and materials

The cost of fabric can vary widely and it usually depends on how the fabric was made and if it has certifications attached to it (most don’t). Some fabrics can be linked to the deforestation of rainforests (e.g. rayon), some fabrics require a high volume of water to grow (e.g. cotton) and many fabrics go through a heavy chemical process to turn them into a fabric (e.g. rayon, viscose, bamboo).

Thankfully nowadays, there are some companies doing amazing things to ensure fabrics are made in a more sustainable and ethical way, which means brands finally have some better options.

Lenzing for example has developed a closed loop chemical system for turning sustainability managed tree plantations into rayon fabrics. Their technology uses 50% less water in the production of fabric and then it all gets recycled and used again.

But, of course, sustainable and certified fabrics come with a much higher price tag. Let’s do some comparisons for undyed fabrics:

  • Uncertified rayon can be as cheap as $2USD/m or even less if buying in the thousands of metres.
  • Certified sustainable rayon tends to start from $6USD/m per 1000/m bulk lots.
  • GOTS certified cotton fabrics typically cost from $4USD/m if you can buy in bulk.
  • European Flax linen starts from $12USD/m for 300m per colour bulk lots.

Now, if you’re a small brand who doesn’t need 1000m of fabric, you’re looking at upwards of $13USD/m for printed sustainable fabrics.

Also, if you’re a label who also caters to sizes over a standard Australia size 16, most garments can have 2 to 3 metres of fabric. Therefore one dress can have at least $26USD ($40AUD) worth of fabric before any sewing costs have been added.

sustainable loungewear made in australia
Economies of scale

All clothing is made by hand, there are no magical machines spitting out ready made garments. This means making a single garment is time intensive and time is money.

Conventional fast fashion has kept their prices low by leveraging economies of scale, they produce vast quantities of stock even when there isn’t a market for it. This in turn has devalued the true cost of making clothes and perhaps is the reason why Australians send 23kg of textiles to landfill each year

Meanwhile, many “slow fashion” brands are moving towards small batch making or even a made-to-measure model. This approach drastically reduces waste as collections can be planned more thoughtfully and not overproduced (only making what you need) but that time and care costs more.

isle of summer australian made clothing

Wholesale markups

Typically the fashion industry follows a formula of 400% to 500% cost markup which allows for the cost of being able to wholesale their products in other retail stores. So, if you’re an ethical and sustainable brand who also chooses to wholesale their clothing (after all it is another sales channel) a $20 difference in base cost compounds to an $80 difference in retail markups.

So what’s the solution?

Sustainable and ethically made fashion must be the future of fashion, but if we continue to follow the “old ways” of making fashion, ethically made will always be cost prohibitive to the average consumer.

Since it’s not an option to exploit our workers and we believe the environment is equally as important, at Isle of Summer Label we believe the solution is to cut the retailer out by selling direct to our customers.

It’s time to stop making the mistakes of the past and create a new way of making and selling fashion.

While we’ll never be as cheap as fast fashion (i.e. Kmart, H&M or City Chic), our goal is to bridge the gap and find a middle ground, without compromising on quality or our values.