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Is Buying Ethical and Sustainable Clothing Expensive?

Is Buying Ethical and Sustainable Clothing Expensive?

In a nutshell, no. But if that answer doesn’t quite satisfy you, or you disagree, then read on!


Firstly, it depends on how you define “expensive”

When someone says expensive, naturally we assume we are talking about money, so let’s start there. It is estimated that 3 out of 5 items of fast fashion clothing end up in landfill, and this is due to thinking of the garments we wear as short-term tools rather than long term investments, we end up throwing away our own money. In fact, the average amount of clothing thrown away per person annually is 3.1kg (the average tee shirt weighs 85g). So anywhere up to 30 items or so of clothing thrown away every year. You are not throwing away your higher quality items that’s for sure!

Between 2000 and 2014 consumers on average bought 60% more clothes annually but kept each garment half as long. However, when investing in any good quality piece of clothing, and we all know those pieces in our wardrobe we wish we could wear all the time, you love it and keep it for as long as it can last, and you get a lot more for your money over time. But expense isn’t confined to being purely monetary. Our attitudes towards our clothing means we contribute to wasteful consumption patterns that inevitably lead us towards drastic climate change.


Environmentally expensive

If anyone acts surprised at the fact that clothing production has a huge negative impact on our planet, they are either lying, purposefully ignorant to it, or have somehow managed to live under a rock for their entire life. However, in case you were curious as to just how damaging clothing production can be, here are a couple statistics for you broken down into what goes into a standard cotton tee.

  • One cotton tee takes 2,700 litres to produce, enough water for one person for 2.5 years,
  • Cotton farming is responsible for 24% of insecticides, and 11% of pesticides globally
  • The average American has been estimated to throw away around 37kg of clothes every year. So, this tee isn’t going to last long it doesn’t seem!

In a world where there are water shortages everywhere, the fact we are using such a significant amount to produce clothing with little to no value is ludicrous. How can we justify putting such a low value on a precious commodity like water? If each person in England bought just one less T-Shirt a year, lowering demand from the fast fashion brands who create these cheap low-quality items, together this would amount to 151,200,000,000 litres of water saved (that number is 151 billion litres FYI).


Socially expensive

What do I mean but socially expensive? Well, someone makes what you wear, real people on the other side of this transaction that you will never see or hear from but who have made your clothing. We have all seen stories surrounding the human rights abuse that is going on within the fashion industry. This includes slave labour, child labour, and horrendous working conditions that some people suffer through to make clothing cheap. People do know it exists, but like the majority they would rather pretend it doesn’t because that is just more convenient for their wallet. Harsh truth.

Just one example comes from Northern China’s Xinjiang province, home to the Muslim Uighur community. They are being targeted by the Chinese government, which appears set on ethnic cleansing at worst or converting the entire area into a concentration camp at best. The documented abuses are forced sterilisation or abortion, separation of families, and torture by electrocution. But what has this got to do with the fashion industry? Videos have documented the Uighurs being shackled and blindfolded before being placed on trains for factories and forced to produce cotton for the garment industry. Around 20% of the world’s cotton is produced in China’s northern region. Given the large volume of cotton that comes from the region, every global fashion brand must guard against indirectly profiting from Uighur labour. Zara, Nike, Gap and Adidas are amongst 83 brands that have been directly or indirectly linked to factories that exploit Chinese Uighurs.


Fast vs Slow is the key (still talking about fashion…)

Fast fashion essentially is cheap, quick, and mass-produced clothing bringing in new styles so often than by the time you have left the shop the clothes you bought are “out of style”. Currently, fashion trends move so quick and brands are chasing increasing profits causing a downward spiral in the industry. Manufacturers mass-produce garments to keep up with customer expectations. This constant demand in the fashion world to outperform causes numerous knock-on effects. Consumers now demand and expect more for less, pushing down hard on price and quality. The chase for new style at rock bottom prices leads to corners being cut in quality, workplace practices and environmental sustainability.


Slow fashion is about conscious shopping and wearing clothing with sustainability in mind, from the environment to social impacts. The whole point to it is to design, create and buy clothing to last a long time. It’s about fair working conditions, reversing environmental damage, using long term sustainable resources, improving communities, creating quality products, wearing clothes for longer, and valuing your clothes.

Conflicting with current attitudes, cheap is not good and more is not better. Yes, items individually may be more expensive, but you don’t need as much when you know they’ll last for many years and when you buy things you genuinely like. In fact, many people joining slow fashion’s approach choose a more minimalist wardrobe. A change of perspective is needed within consumers in how they spend their money and the value they place on their clothing. Buy clothing you know you will love for years, and not what is “in style” just this summer, because there is a lot of context behind the price tag.

So, what can you do?

  1. Buy less,
  2. Buy better quality items that last longer,
  3. Don’t buy cheap, there is a reason it’s cheap and you know it,
  4. Buy clothes that you know you will want to have for a long time,
  5. Do not bin clothes, send them to charity shops or recycle them,
  6. And lastly, stop being a dick and ignoring the problem when you know it’s there.
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