EPISODE 61: Can sustainable fashion ever be affordable?
- Will sustainability ever be affordable?
- Components affecting pricing
Hello and welcome to episode 61 of the Fashion Unearthed Podcast. This episode was meant to be an interview. However, I lost my voice last week, so that had to be rescheduled because I did not want to subject you and the interviewee to that audio. Anyway, I'm back in business but had to think of a new topic for today. In light of everyone talking about costs and inflation and the impact of the Russian attack on Ukraine, I thought I could dive into whether sustainability will ever be affordable. The disconnect between what customers say about how they want to shop and how they actually shop also comes up a lot as a question. Typically something like customers says they want to shop sustainably, but will they pay for it? Or why aren't consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products? Today I just wanted to unpack and go into a little bit of detail about this theme.
A recent study from the Australian Fashion Council reports that Australians are currently some of the biggest consumers of clothing in the world. With the average person consuming 14.8 kilos or 56 items of new clothing annually, that's one new item of clothing a week, not including accessories, footwear, and jewelry. I can't speak for everyone in that survey, but you would have to assume that price plays a huge part in consumption, which is why I wanted to start this episode by firstly not justifying why sustainable fashion is expensive, but instead really thinking about and asking why is fast fashion so cheap? Cause I think we're fooled to think that these prices are okay and they're normal.
Let's start with labor. The people who are operating in all areas of the supply chain, from the people picking the cotton, from the people sewing the garments to the people in the dye house, there are savings and price advantages that businesses make by not paying people properly.
I mean, this could be a whole topic and conversation topic in itself. And actually, that is a topic of conversation. I've done an episode on living wages, but this is an area where savings are made in fast fashion. The next one is in materials. In Australia, two-thirds of clothing are made up of synthetic fibers from petrol. Basically, these are often perceived to be cheaper than natural fibers. But when you read articles by Richard Dennis, who amongst other titles wrote Econobabble, which I highly recommend, that reports that subsidies to the mining industry cost the Australian federal government about $4.5 billion per year with most coming in the form of tax concessions rather than an actual physical check. But you start to really think about why synthetics are seen as and are cheaper. And then if Australia is doing that with the mining industry, you could probably assume it might be happening in oil-rich territories such as America or Russia.
And another point to make with synthetics is that the cost is for extraction and doesn't take into account the cost of pollution or the microfibers that end up happening after it. Now, I know that often the conversation gets simplified into synthetics are bad, and naturals are good, but I just want to digress for a bit here and bring in a conversation I listen to with Nate Hagen on the Dumbo Feather podcast. He talks about how we treat energy the same as everything else, but it's not. Energy is special because everything comes from energy. He highlights how as a culture we are energy blind, and it really made me think of everything I use and take for granted every day that comes from energy. He says in the interview that an $85 barrel of oil does four to five years of human physical labor. If we didn't have oil, it would be the labor of a person.
And he goes on to say that globally we use a hundred billion barrels of oil equivalents of coal, oil, and natural gas every year. I just wanted to use that as an example to point out that natural fibers use energy too. There are processing requirements and energy needs within the natural fiber space as well.
The next area where fast fashion can make gains is within the manufacturing process. They can use construction shortcuts, they can use narrower seams, and they can use narrower hems as well.
And then the final area in that they can make gains is economies of scale. I think it's an interesting concept, and I think it's often quoted as a reason why some bigger brands can have those prices. And I know that businesses in the US absolutely put in big orders and some companies in Europe as well. Yes, I think this helps with material costs definitely. But knowing the range of quantities I've personally worked with in Australia, we don't have those volumes. Even for brands and big retailers purchasing fabric to use over six months, there's a ceiling. We just don't have that population.
Do businesses have running lines that sell thousands? Yes, but it takes them longer and they don't buy 18 months' worth of fabric. It's too risky. And depending on the relationship with the mill, it can tie up cash flow. Plus you don't get economies of scale from manufacturing. It still takes the same people to sew those items. And this concept of getting a better price when you buy more only accounts for when you first bring that item in, not all product sells at full price. That gain you made in the beginning by ordering extra is canceled out when you mark it down, or you do it two for one deal later in the season.
Having said that, though, your development and patent making and the cost involved in that do benefit from the economies of scale. That's some of the reasons why fast fashion can make cheaper products and where they make gains in their pricing.
Let's now talk about what goes into a sustainable product. And similarly to fast fashion, the wage is a big part of that. The flip side of fast fashion is that people are paid above a minimum wage, in best cases, a living wage, regardless of whether that's onshore or offshore because we know that just because something says made in whatever country, and it's a first world country, doesn't guarantee people were paid fairly in that region. But definitely, wages are a big component of what makes sustainable fashion expensive.
The next area is certifications. Now, I know that certifications can really get some people riled up. I was chatting to a Melbourne maker this week about GOTS, and that was a whole other conversation in itself. You know, they're often independent businesses, they're paid to play, and they're not foolproof. They can and are forged, so you do have to check them. I've discovered many fraudulent certificates for brands, but customers are increasingly wanting to easily find markers that distinguish products as being more sustainable. They aren't willing to take a brand's word for it. While they're not perfect, I know that for businesses who are using certifications, there is a cost that comes with that, and there's a cost that comes to the manufacturers as well.
The next area is around the materials. Often more sustainable items are using natural fibers, and these are ironically at the mercy of climate. For example, I read recently that BCI Cotton was forecasting a 40% shortage after the Pakistan floods, which will automatically drive up prices.
There's a lot of time and process and labor that's invested in being able to cultivate a crop and then put it through all the different processes to be finally spun and knitted or woven into a garment. That's just a little bit of information, I guess, about why fast fashion is cheap and therefore makes sustainability seem more expensive. We really need to be changing the conversation from cost to value on both sides - at a business level and a customer level. It's still a reality. The businesses when faced with paying a bit more than they used to, they'll say no, and they'll keep the cheaper option. And of course, when a customer is stressed about putting food on the table and energy bills, they don't have spare cash to buy items that are more sustainably and ethically made if they can even figure out what that means and which products they are.
It's important to really think about, and I believe until legislation forces businesses to build in living wages and tax harmful materials and production methods for people on the planet. The true cost of the so-called cheap options is finally revealed. They'll always be this illusion that it's a choice between fast fashion and sustainable fashion, and the heavy lifting is on the consumer to put their money where their mouth is. But it's problem shifting. We know that when fast fashion didn't exist, people shopped and bought less.
Finally, I spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff, reading information from experts in the field and brands. And every time there's a scandal of certifications or toxic chemicals or human rights abuse in the supply chain, I can't help but think we've just gotta produce less, buy less and wake up to the fact that cheap clothing is a mirage. It doesn't exist. Until legislation gets involved and levels the playing field, fast fashion will continue to have a financial advantage.
I hope you enjoyed today's episode. It wasn't too heavy, but it was just something that was playing on my mind, and I really wanted to, I guess, flesh it out a little bit here. And if you did like it, I would love it if you gave it a rating or a view on your listening app. And if you wanted to get in touch on Instagram, you can find me at @belindahumphrey_ or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, you'll find the show notes and any links on the website, belindahumphrey.com in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.