Who came first, fast fashion or the consumer? Who cares? However, we should care about the result because it has created one of a most wasteful industries in the world, ripe with human rights violations and environmental degradation.
It all comes down to the fact we want to afford a closet full of different clothing and this needs to change. Clothing should have never become this cheap. Because it has, the planet and even more importantly, people are paying the price.
In order for businesses to change we first need to change the demand to better quality, longer lasting and better made clothing with transparent supply chains and more sustainable fabrics. All these things cost more money compared to the prices we've become accustomed to from fast fashion retailers. Let's look at the costs of $15 tee compared to actual prices involved in one of our tees.
To write this article we scoured the internet for comparisons of different fast fashion analysis. We compiled a lot of resources which are all cited at the end from CNN, Macleans and independent analysis. Each company will differ slightly which is reflected in the slight differences in each investigative analysis but each finding is very close providing a reliable average to compare to.
Here's an analysis from Canadian MacLeans. This particular analysis was done on a garment made in Bangladesh, the leading supplier globally for fast fashion retailers.
Some things like tax, duty and logistics are inevitable and variable costs, largely out of the control of the brand. So we’re going to discuss two things the brand has total control over – quality construction and employee wages.
Fast Fashion Fabric
In order to make a shirt for this low cost, your fabric needs to be low cost. When it comes to fabric, low cost means low quality. That’s the first impact of a cheap t-shirt.
In this case, all elements of the shirt materials are 3.69 or 26% of the retail cost. The cheapest fabrics in the world are traditional cotton and polyester. They are the most widely available and although varying in quality they present two major negative impacts.
Cotton has one of the largest environmental impacts of any crop globally and is responsible for 16% of global pesticide use. Pesticides used on cotton are mostly nerve gases like cyanide. It also takes 2600L of water to produce a cotton t-shirt made of virgin material. No Bueno.
Polyester is essentially plastic; it’s made from oil and its production impact is worsened by the fact it releases microfibres when washed. Fabric this cheap does not last. It’s made to be consumed and thrown away.
Not all cotton and/or poly is bad quality. Some high-quality technical fabrics are made from those fibres, but they don’t sell for $1.00. When it comes to fabric, you get what you pay for.
For a point of reference, we buy high quality fabrics that are waste to the manufacturer and in most cases the minimum they will take is still $2-7.00/yard depending on the material blend. For our technical materials we can pay upwards of $15/yard.
This boils down to quality. This is the reason 70lbs of clothing is tossed every year. It’s made of shit fabric that doesn’t withstand use. That’s the first major impact of this low-cost garment.
Fast Fashion Wages
Industry analysis of sewing cost varies slightly but most (including a study done by Macleans above) has sewing account for about 1% of garment cost. That means on a $15 tee, the seamstress is making around $0.15. At this cost theirs a significantly higher chance workers are being treated unfairly.
There are so many economic factors that influence a fair wage you’d need a thesis for each country. Labour and design in the chart presented above include pattern making, graphics and the actual garment designer. Majority of industry cost analysis has the actual sewing construction of a shirt at around 1% or $0.12-0.15.
Without getting into the depths of economics and fair wage argument for each country, suffice it to say that with a shirt retail price set at $15 there is a significantly higher chance that workers are not being treated fairly.
Now it’s important to understand that could happen at any price point. A more expensive shirt does not mean more ethical. However, with an understanding of this cost analysis, a $4-15 shirt needs some serious backing to show that the company did in fact treat workers fairly. Most companies making shirts this cheap list only the country it was made, nothing more.
In Bangladesh, where the research a the typical garment worker makes just over the local minimum wage which is about 55% of what is considered to be a living wage.
In summary, there’s two major impacts you could be making with your purchase of a cheap t-shirt. One hurts people, one hurts the planet. There’s a small handful of situations where this may not be the case but it’s something you need to decide if you’re cool with risking.
At the very least you should be looking into the brand and see if they back up their products with transparent supply chains. When in doubt, ask. If they don’t or can’t answer, I’d take that as a very bad sign.
What about a $40 L/L Supply tee?
Our turn. We’re going to lay out the actual costs of one of our shirts to compare to the above. We source waste materials from mills and manufacturers, meaning every single style will cost us a different amount. The below is an overall operating average for us that we shoot for on each shirt.
Let’s break it down.
L/L Supply Fabric
We focus on natural fibres whenever possible. Primarily, we want quality that will last many washes and wears. That’s what we look for over everything else. We go through thousands of waste fabric samples and handpick every one we make.
This season most of our designs are upcycled hemp and organic cotton. We don’t exclusively do natural materials because sometimes we find high quality fabric we can save from landfill or incineration that may have a synthetic percentage. In our mind, we’d rather see this on a back than in the bin.
Every fabric costs us a different amount. Due to our method of sourcing, some of our fabric costs us as much as $8/tee. Sometimes when we buy fabric by the bail, we get it for $2/tee. 10% of retail price as an average goal is what we shoot for to run a successful business.
L/L Supply Wages
This show up as cutting/sewing on our example. The cost we pay to have the garment constructed. Transparency is a huge part of our ethos. We believe that you should be able to know who made your clothing and that they were treated fairly. That’s why you can scan our hang tags in store and see the face of someone who worked on assembling your shirt. We work with small family run factories and that allow us to make short run production when we get small quantities of waste material. This also means we know the people making our clothing.
Everyone down our supply chain is paid fairly. We know this because we know who they are - and so do you.
We produce outside Canada because producing small quantities here would mean doubling our retail price and making our apparel less accessible isn't part of our plan. We don't 'outsource' in the traditional sense. We visit the factories, we know the people and their wages and how our investment is making a positive impact on their lives. Taking it back to the comparison, below is an example of wages at one of our factories compared to a wage where the $15 tee was made.
|Mothly Wage Bangladesh||Monthly Wage Nicaragua|
Design/ Finishing & Eco-Offsets
Design and finishing is printing, graphics, tags and all that stuff. We use recycled materials for all our hang tags, wood buttons instead of plastic and so on. Generally these are 2-4x more than the virgin alternative.
Eco-offsets is what we give back. With every purchase we donate and then assist in co-ordinating plastic marine debris removal here on Vancouver Island. We also offset our carbon footprint by purchasing Gold Standard offsets for all incoming shipments and all outgoing online orders.
Brand & Retailer Profit
It's standard to sell wholesale at 50% of retail cost, leaving us with around 8% profit on a shirt. If we only did this, we wouldn't last six months in business. So we mix direct sales through e-commerce and our own retail store with our wholesale partnerships. This allows us to get you clothes in stores all across Canada and still feed ourselves. We try to keep the channels operating around 50/50 split allowing us to achieve a 30% gross margin to pay staff and all the other fun stuff associated with running a company.
A lot of research has gone into this balance and a lot of failed trail and error. It's like walking a tight rope to sell our clothing at a fair price and still run a business. When we say we sell you our clothes at the best price possible, we aren't kidding, we balance a lot to make that happen.
Higher Price Does Not Always Mean Better
There's fast fashion garments that sell for $100 a t-shirt. A higher priced item doesn’t guarantee ethics, only the brand can do that. Slow fashion brands generally share stuff like this. It takes a lot of time and effort to go against the grain in an industry. If a company is producing locally or taking the time to really audit their supply chain, they will tell you about it. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to find out if a brand is sharing this information.
This isn’t just exclusive to small companies either, there are some pretty big brands pushing the boundaries of transparency that also carry wide selections of garments.
The cost of slow Fashion
Fast fashion means thousands of items, made with the intention of selling some at full price, selling a lot at a discount and scrapping the rest. It moves so quickly styles are turned and burned weekly (literally burned). Fixed costs for photography, marketing, design and so on are absorbed by thousands or tens of thousands of units.
Slow fashion is the opposite. It generally operates on 2-4 seasons per year and limited quantities of items. We generally make only 80-300 pieces per style. All slow fashion brands have the additional burden of distributing those fixed cost across over a fraction of items.
The benefit is less waste (if any), higher quality, more thought out items and peace of mind knowing your purchase didn’t subject someone to poor working conditions.
Wrap it all up & What can you do?
At the end of the day, quality, ethics and sustainability cost money. Paying a fair wage costs money. Not using pesticides or pioneering a new method of production – they all cost more money than jumping on the fast fashion train. In turn, the resulting garments cost more money.
Sometimes socioeconomic factors play a role in the ability to purchase more sustainable, slow fashion items. This is something we’re trying to conquer by making our garments as affordable as we possibly can while staying in line with our ethos.
Our first tip for affording more ethically produced items is audit your own buying habits. As we mentioned, the average American buys 60 garments a year. How many are you buying? Can you cut it in half and double the amount you're willing to pay in order to make more informed purchases of higher quality items?
If it just doesn’t fit into your budget that’s totally okay. There are so many other options to buying new. Thrifting is an amazing (and the most affordable) way to divert waste in the fashion industry.
Maybe even better than that though is to approach the brands you find cheap clothing at and challenge them to back up their production ethics. Just simply ask a question. We live in an amazing time of accountability with the public forum of social media. As we discussed above, businesses simply react to customers’ needs – if their customers start needing answers, higher quality and more transparency, they will provide it.
This movement starts from the bottom up. It starts with you and me.
The Future is Bright
A recent Neilson poll revealed that 70% of millennials are willing to spend more money on something that is sustainable. In the past year, one behemoth fast fashion brand had to shut down 160 stores primarily due to sitting on 4 billion of unsold stock. Others have had to declare bankruptcy.
Since the 2008 recession, spending on clothing has somewhat plateaued after more than two decades of exponential rise. Small, slow fashion brands are popping up everywhere and people are starting to scrutinize their apparel purchases.
You’re here reading this, so you’re likely one of those people. For that, we thank you.