It’s not exactly a secret that it can cost more to do right by people and the planet. Or that price is a barrier for many people who want to shop with sustainable and ethical brands. But the preconception that sustainable shopping is only available to those who can afford it isn’t totally true either. There are ways to ensure that responsible consumerism is available to everyone – not just those who can fork out $80 for an organic, fair trade designer T-shirt. But these solutions aren’t always simple. They ask us to examine our own preconceptions around value, care, style and our responsibility for the people who make our clothes.
Phew. Feeling overwhelmed yet?
Honestly, same. That’s why last week we took these complex issues to the experts when we hosted our panel – Class, Cash and Clean Fashion: How Do We Make Sustainable Fashion Accessible to Everyone? – as part of the PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival.
For that wide-ranging discussion our editor-in-chief Wendy Syfret was joined by writer, producer and podcaster Maggie Zhou; CEO of The Social Studio Dewi Cooke; author and sustainability expert Lucianne Tonti; and designer Lois Hazel. Together they dispelled high-street myths, challenged a few biases about the fashion industry and looked at ways to cater for all budgets when shopping sustainably.
Not to be all cheesy about the panellists we invited, but they were amazing and gave us a lot to think about afterwards. So while we continue to ruminate on their points, we thought we’d share a few of our top takeaways.
If you’re used to shopping at high-street stores, there’s a certain price range you’re familiar – and comfortable – with. So when something like a T-shirt goes from costing under $30 to over $100, you might feel a bit conflicted. Shopping with your values is hard if you can’t see the reasoning behind a higher price.
The reality is most individuals don’t know much (or sometimes anything) about the true cost of clothing and what it takes to actually make a garment, let alone an ethical and sustainable one.
But providing a better understanding of the resources used, and the many hands employed along the supply chain, would at least give people more context to consider why a garment is three or four times the price of a high-street, fast-fashion item. For us, that’s why transparency is so important. The more information a brand is able (and willing) to share about how a product is made, the easier it is for customers to make better and more informed purchasing decisions.
Lois Hazel broke down the many different factors she considers when pricing a garment: the cost of goods (fabric, trims, the brand label, packaging and swing tags), the cost of labour, how many units are being produced and the wholesale and retail margin. As a designer, she understands that whatever price ends up on the swing tag needs to not only be accessible to the customer, but also allow her to fairly support everyone else along the supply chain.
It’s something to remember as shoppers when we are buying a new garment. Does the price feel expensive because we expect it to be cheap, or does the price feel like a fair representation of all of these elements?
Sustainability expert Lucianne Tonti added to that, saying: “it’s also really important to remember that, over the last two decades, we had a kind of miseducation happen, where everybody believed that clothes were supposed to be cheap…we’ve lost sight of the true cost of clothing. Everything that we’re buying should be more expensive.”
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This point was a big part of our panel discussion. In its simplest form, there is an argument that suggests high-street stores are important because they are affordable for most of the population and provide an access point to style and fashion for mid- and low-level earners. This is true, but, as Tonti pointed out, this thinking obscures who is really getting a “good” and “bad” deal. Cheap clothes feel democratic on the shop floor, but that totally erases the experience and rights of the workers who were short-changed to get them there.
“When we’re talking about people who can afford to buy those brands and want to participate in the style that way, we’re talking about a very specific group of people,” Tonti says. “And we’re forgetting about people who are making the clothes all the way down the supply chain. And it’s really a kind of false dichotomy: that middle-class people need cheap clothing, and therefore it’s democratic, when most of the women who make our clothes aren’t paid a living wage.”
CEO of The Social Studio Dewi Cooke added to that, pointing out that when we say “everyone” has access to high-street stores “we’re not talking about the world…we’re talking about a certain level of economic security”.
Here’s the thing: high-street brands aren’t going anywhere and, though they are associated with a lot of harm, they also provide important jobs for millions of workers around the world. So it’s up to customers to change what they demand from them.
Cooke reinforced this with an anecdote about one of her staff members who used to work for a big fashion brand in Turkey. “This brand was doing up to a million units per month – and that’s just one factory in one part of a town in Turkey,” Cooke said. “Those big brands will just go to wherever the lowest prices are…which unfortunately is a reflection of the relationship with the consumer.”
Historically, that relationship has been consumers (in certain parts of the world) expecting and demanding low prices. Whereas Cooke says, if people demanded more ethical supply chains or more ethical sourcing, then that may actually cause brands to react.
On that point, we have seen some high-street brands respond to these kinds of demands by introducing “eco” lines or adding sustainability spiels to their websites. Writer Maggie Zhou reminded us to approach this with caution: “I think it can be so dangerous to get our [sustainability] education from the same people who are trying to take the money from our pockets.”
Which is true in an industry rife with greenwashing. But as Tonti also pointed out: “It’s going to be a healthy mix of scrutiny and calling them out and demanding more…but also going along with what they’re doing because we need [their money and influence]… and it might be the thing that helps us.”
When people pin high-street stores against smaller, more expensive sustainable brands, they’re forgetting a big part of the equation: we don’t shop and consume fashion in a way that we should. We buy more than we need and spend our money on poor-quality garments that, more often than not, end up in landfill.
Sustainable brands are working hard to break this cycle and change people’s attitudes towards fashion.
Bringing it back to the high-street argument, RIISE’s editor-in-chief Wendy Syfret said that one of the interesting things about the way we currently consume (including our price expectations) is this idea that we feel like we deserve everything. “Your ability to buy a $5 top is because you might think you have the right to buy a $5 top.”
Hazel suggested people interrogate this kind of privilege by asking questions: “Are we living beyond our means? Are we just churning through resources because we think we deserve to live this way?”
Clothing and fashion are a big part of our lives and identities. What we wear has a psychological impact and can affect our emotions. But how often do you hear these aspects of clothing mentioned in discussions about sustainable fashion or high-street brands?
It’s important to remember that high-street brands know all about the emotional aspects of clothing. In fact, they often operate in a way that exploits our emotions. (You know, how you’re pushed the idea of “retail therapy” after a bad day.) Add in the reality that they’re also exploiting people down the supply chain and we’re sitting with a pretty uncomfortable truth. One that should make us start questioning whether those cheap, easy-to-buy clothes actually make us feel good.
Reflecting on her emotional response to shopping with her values, Zhou said: “One thing I didn’t realise was just how good it felt to make that switch and wear clothes that aligned with my values. We talk about fashion as a self-expression of your style but it’s also a self-expression of your values.
“And I’ve got to say, coming out and wearing clothes that reflect not only my personality, but also my beliefs, feels really good.”
Wearing sustainably made clothes might make us feel better, but that doesn’t magically make them more affordable. But like so many of the points raised throughout the panel, a lot of this boils down to shifting our mindset. Sustainable fashion isn’t just buying new or from expensive brands. It’s about reassessing our habits, how much we need, what’s already in our wardrobe and buying vintage or second-hand. As well as changing our perceptions of what clothing should cost and how it should be made.
“When I have these conversations, I always try to encourage people to really come at their wardrobes with the perspective of love and excitement,” Tonti said. “Find things in your wardrobe that give you joy…and approach buying clothes like that.”