• Manon Raath

The true cost of fashion.

Updated: Nov 3, 2020



I hear you. Sustainable products aren’t cheap.

When we think about sustainable fashion, for example, one of the first things that deter people from buying ethical clothing is the high price tag. But it’s important to understand why. And it’s important to understand where your money goes.

It’s an awkward conversation, isn’t it? To talk about money. But sometimes it is a necessary one. It is totally understandable to feel shocked and discouraged when you first see a price tag of some sustainable fashion items compared to fast fashion items.

A survey of over 2000 people done by Nosto showed that over 50% of fashion consumers said they wanted brands to act more sustainably, but only a third was willing to pay more to do so.

There isn’t just one answer to why sustainable products are so expensive, so I will show you a cost breakdown of a fast fashion item and compare it to a slow fashion item.



· Wages: do I need to point out the very obvious problem? Not even in a 3rd world country like India (where most of our fast fashion brands source their clothing from) is 43c/hour a living wage. Big brands will cut the cost of labour before they cut the cost of anything else.

Why do we think our own time is worth more than someone else that is working just as hard? How on earth do you support your family on these wages?


· Fabric: fast fashion brands pay less for fabric because they buy in bulk, and when I say bulk, I mean 10 000+ m. It causes copious amounts of waste since 25% of their inventory usually gets thrown away at the end of a season. It’s usually a lesser quality, synthetic fabric too.


· Overheads: fast fashion factories’ overheads per item are minimal since they produce thousands of items a day. Sustainable fashion brands are usually in a smaller factory, producing smaller collections and amounts, thus having higher overheads per item.


· Mark-ups: these are tricky. Having a mark-up less than 3 times the cost of the item is not sustainable for a company. Remember, a brand still needs to pay tax, shipping cost, packaging, designer fees, marketing fees, money to develop new collections, and the list goes on. The industry standard for fast fashion brands is a 4 – 10 x mark-up.

This is a very simple cost breakdown, but you get the idea.

Sustainable fashion cost less in the long run.



It is a short-term pain for a long-term gain. Slow fashion items are of better quality and usually have a timeless design which means it won’t be out of fashion in the next fashion cycle. It is an item you can wear for years to come and maybe even pass down from generation to generation if looked after properly.

Let's take a $5 vs $40 T-shirt as an example.

The $5 T-shirt will maybe last you a season or if you are lucky then maybe a year (3 – 12 months). Most T-shirts pull askew at the side seams once it has been washed and start pulling around the armholes after a few months.

$5 x 10 (10 seasons = 5 years: 2 seasons a year) = $50 every 5 years.

The $40 T-shirt will last you 5 – 10 years, depending on how much you wear and wash it.

In the end you will spend the same amount or even a little less on the slow/ sustainable item.

You will also start buying fewer items if you shop timeless pieces that suit your style and body, instead of buying what’s in the fashion cycle this month. Brands used to have 1 – 2 collections a year (spring/summer and autumn/winter), but now fast fashion brands have up to a collection a month!

Cheaper alternatives to sustainable fashion.

· Thrift shopping

It’s a really fun experience and you can find some amazing pieces. Make it an exciting day with your friends, try on different styles, play dress-up... You never know what you might find. I have found some remarkable designer pieces that cost a fraction of the original price.




· Mending

Mending your clothes isn’t just a job for your grandma. And mending doesn’t necessarily need to be invisible. Make a statement or a little artwork. Sew a patch over the hole or cover it with a hand-embroidered design. The possibilities are endless.



Image by Bel Jacobs.

· Making

You can go all out and make your own clothes. Find a pattern that works for you and make the item in a few different fabrics. Megan Nielsen patterns are some of my favourite. The instructions are clear and simple and the designs are modern.

· Swapping

Swap, borrow, trade… love that top your friend wore a few weeks ago? Ask her if you may borrow it for your next special occasion. Just make sure you take good care of it. Or maybe one of your friends or your sister or someone else you know would like to swap some items. Websites like The Clothing Exchange are fantastic to look into since they host regular clothing exchange events.

· Affordable slow fashion brands



Not all sustainable fashion brands cost an arm and a leg. Here are a few of my favourites:


- Everlane

- Vege Threads

- The Mnml

- Kowtow

- The Great Beyond

- Boody

Look, I get it. Ethical fashion costs more at first. But in the long run it will save you money, it helps more people and the environment. We have been conditioned over the years to look for the cheapest products and not care too much about the quality. But the result of this is horrifying when you look at the impact it has on the environment and the people who made your clothes. These are real people, just like you and me, being treated like no one should be treated. But you can be part of the change. The responsibility falls on us all. When you spend your money on something, you are casting a vote.


The question shouldn’t be: “Why is ethical fashion so expensive”, but rather “why is fast fashion so cheap?” – Sophie Benson.

Stay tuned for the rest of our series on the cost of fashion as we delve deeper into this important topic.



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