Fashion + Sustainability

The Secret Cost of Fashion You Didn’t Know About

What price are we willing to pay for the clothes that live on our bodies? How much is too much and is our vision of “affordable” askew due to a constant influx of things we don’t need? Sustainable fashion is often viewed as inaccessible due to high price points, but when we look at the cost per wear (CPW) we understand the value a bit more. 

“Cost per wear” refers to how many uses (or “wears”) you can get per item of clothing, so the more wears, the better. We also should factor in the cost of paying a living wage to all the workers that make our clothes.

In recent years, many companies outsource their labor which can be viewed as bringing business to less fortunate countries. However, many factories do not honor a true living wage (many workers get paid $.58 cents/hour or less), no paid days off, and 16-hour workdays.

Another cost of outsourcing is the constant movement of production from country to country and high-carbon transport infrastructure; for example, one part of a garment may be produced in India, then shipped to Cambodia to be dyed and completed in China.

The Pretty Price of Materials

In addition to cost per wear, there is also the cost of the materials and our earth. There are many toxic shortcuts to producing cotton, including the use of insecticides and pesticides just to name a few.

Many of the countries that we outsource to have low environmental regulations, causing even more harm to the soil, the earth and the workers. Additionally, when we use non-biodegradable fabrics in lieu of natural materials, we’re increasing the amount of landfill pollution.

Let’s move on to another interesting controversy: the discussion between cotton versus hemp. Have you ever noticed that cotton dominates the market when it comes to fashion, beauty, cleaning and even more products? You’re not alone.

In most instances cotton is actually quite sustainable, but it’s prone to shrinkage and requires a lot of water to grow and harvest. So, while cotton may be more affordable to buy as a price point in the fashion industry, we’re actually experiencing a higher cost of wasting our earth’s natural resources.

Enter its more sustainable cousin fabric: hemp. Hemp can be quite costly and here’s why: In the 1930s, hemp was actually banned by lobbyists that created a campaign to demonize marijuana. They were unfairly linked in comparison and it became illegal in 1937 to produce or use it for any purposes.

Ever since then, it’s been difficult to move hemp into mainstream fashion production which has been a huge barrier in promoting its long-term benefits in sustainability.

The Power of Your Decisions

So, what can we do to help? If we continue to buy more hemp products (even though they are more expensive), we can help drive the cost down as the demand goes up. Then, more companies will start producing hemp and use it in their production chain. And then? It’s a win-win! Hemp clothes will be more affordable AND we’ll be helping to save the environment.

All facts aside, I think we all have to ask ourselves: how often do we really need to buy something new and why are really buying something?

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by marketing ads, social media influencers and celebrity personalities, it’s easy to feel that we need to keep up with the latest Zara find or the “earring trend you don’t want to miss.” I am guilty of it myself. I’ve found that I’ll buy something then stow it away in my small apartment, only to find it a year later unworn. 

Another question for thought: what is fast fashion really doing for us as individuals? Does it make it easier or more difficult to find our personal style?

With so many garments coming and going, it’s difficult for trends to even stick anymore. When we look back at past decades, there are silhouettes associated with the 1950s (the classic shirtdress) or the 1970s (bell bottoms and flowy styles); however, if you asked someone what the trademark silhouette is for the 2000s, I think you’d be hard-pressed to nail down a definitive answer. 

We’ve been bombarded with images of “SALE” and know that we can walk into any fast fashion store and buy an entire outfit for under $15. However, you’re not really “saving money”. Someone is still paying for that cheaper cost: the laborers and the earth. 

In A Relationship With Your Clothes

When we look back to history, we see that clothes were actually pretty expensive in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, which is why people generally bought less items or they would simply make their own clothing at home.

My mom tells me her grandmother made dresses from scratch that would last a decade or longer. My dad still has an incredible leather fringe jacket that his dad made for him: it was hunted and sewn all on the soil of West Virginia, and it still looks brand new. My parents had less “things” and they truly cared for them, which is why they’ve lasted so long and these pieces each hold a sentimental memory/meaning. 

Somewhere along the way, we broke the culture of our grandmothers teaching us how to sew, and we’ve lost the value of inherited traditions. Instead we have a distant relationship with the ones that make our clothes.

Our closets have been primarily fabricated with clutter and fast fashion items that have little relationship to one another. And isn’t life oddly parallel? We spend more hours with our phones than we do having real conversations. It’s time to change the tides.

In the end, is sustainable fashion really more expensive than fast fashion? Absolutely not. We just need to focus on buying less low-priced styles that we will not wear as often and instead build a wardrobe of pieces that we will wear over and over and over again. Onwards and upwards!

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