The biggest point of resistance that we hear most often when people start looking into ethical fashion brands is the expense. Yes, it is more expensive to shop ethically. But the inexpensive pricing we have become accustomed to within the clothing industry has not always been the case.
That clothes can be had for so little money is historically unprecedented.
Clothes have almost always been expensive, hard to come by, and highly valued; they have been used as an alternative currency in many societies. Well into the 20th century, clothes were pricey and precious enough that they were mended and cared for and reimagined countless times, and most people had only a few outfits that they wore until they wore them out.
Here is a historic sample of the cost of buying a women’s dress over the years:
- In 1909 it cost $15 to purchase a dress or $380 adjusted to our money today; a bargain dress may cost $8 the equivalent of $200 adjusted for today’s inflation.
- After WW2 a dress cost $16.95 or just under $200 by today’s standards, and average women owned 9 work outfits. A stark contrast to today’s women.
- In the 1950s, a dress cost $14.98 or more than $100 in today’s money.
- Current day, you can commonly find dresses anywhere from $15-30.
Every other basic commodity has increased in cost over the years. Yet the price of clothing continues to drop.
In the past few decades, the cost of clothing has decreased dramatically. “Retailers today are now forced to sell exactly the same products for less than they did fifteen years ago. In 2008 the New York Times tracked the price of deflation in fashion and found that the price of Liz & Co. capri pants had fallen by a third and a Lacoste polo shirt by almost a quarter. A pair of Levi’s 501 jeans sells for $46 today, about $4 less than it was in the late 1990s, when adjusted for inflation. Of nine items that declined in price, the Times found that those that dropped the most were basics like underwear and t-shirts, by as much as 60 percent,” (Page 32, Overdressed; Eric, Wilson, “Dress for Less and Less,” New York Times, May 29, 2008). H&M’s $4.95 dress released in 2010 sparked the Vogue article, ‘Do I get a Coffee, a Snack, or Something to Wear‘? Is that something we should be asking?
How are retailers able to charge so little for their clothing and still make a profit? We went over this in detail in our post ‘What is Fast Fashion?’, but simply put, corners are cut in quality and production. Garment workers are paid as little as possible, work in unsafe conditions, are often underage, and much of this is hidden in an untraceable supply chain that is never fully reported to the brand. The human part of the fashion process is exploited for the sake of the bottom line.
So, what should our clothes cost?
This is a complicated question, but if ethics are our goal, our clothes should cost much more. Our clothes should cost: Materials + Hardware (zippers, buttons) + Fair Labor + Duties (if produced overseas) + Transport + Reasonable Profit = Final Cost
This often means that a dress will cost closer to $125 instead of $30. Which means we get one dress when we are used to getting four which is an entire ideology shift. We have been conditioned to believe that more is better and to always find the deal. Personally speaking, through this entire ethical journey, I have found that less allows me to live more freely. It’s a slow process to realign your thinking, but I have definitely found it worth it.
Marketing research shows that women are the decision makers in an estimated 85% of household buying decisions.
Why is this important? It means that we have the power! We purchase the clothing for ourselves and our families. Through slowing down (or even stopping) our purchasing, being more thoughtful and educating ourselves on alternative, ethical options, we can push the garment industry towards change.
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