Many people think that fair trade and organic clothes are too expensive for the average consumer. This is true for the most part; jeans made where workers are paid fair wages are going to be a lot more expensive than jeans made in sweat shops. People usually go for the cheaper price tag when given a choice. No one wants to drop several Benjamins on a pair of pants, but at the same time, no one wants to be supporting inhumane working conditions or poor environmental practices. It looks like shoppers are in a bit of a pickle.
But what if buying sustainable fashion was actually cheaper for the consumer in the long run?
Let’s use our favorite Hogwarts-student-turned-environmental-activist as a catalyst for discussion. Emma Watson made a huge statement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) Gala by wearing a 100 percent sustainable and reusable gown. This interpretation of the theme – the fusion of fashion and technology – caught the attention of eco-fashion advocates everywhere. Watson shared with her fans how her gown had multiple pieces that can be worn separately or together for versatile looks. Although not everyone can afford a designer dress, the idea of being able to wear a nice outfit multiple times is very appealing to someone on a budget.
As it turns out, wearing your clothes out is great for the environment and for your wallet. Watson used the hashtag #30wears to emphasize how clothes should be worn again and again. The #30wears campaign challenges fast fashion – such as Forever 21 and H&M – by asking buyers to think about if everything they are buying can be worn at least 30 times. This makes the purchase worthwhile. No longer is sustainable fashion just for people who “can afford it," everyone can be a part of this movement by becoming more aware of how clothes affect the environment and the people who make it.
Now it’s time for the nitty-gritty.
Fast fashion allows the consumer to buy trendy clothes on demand for extremely cheap prices. Most people buy on impulse, especially when it comes to clothes. Items are bought because they are cute and cheap. At first glance, the fast fashion movement seems like a win for consumers. Unfortunately, although a $3 crop top is nice on your wallet, the cost of cheap apparel quickly adds up in more than one way. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, Americans generate 21 billion pounds of textile waste per year, throwing away 85 percent of the items they purchased. With an average annual shopping budget of $1,700, that amounts to $1,445 worth of clothing that needs to be replaced each year.
Advocates say that shopping ethically – even with a higher price tag – can actually be more budget friendly because well-made clothing has a lower cost per wear over time. Think about it this way: If a shirt at H&M cost $10 and is worn five times, the cost per wear is $2. But to the dismay of the consumer, the shirt wasn’t made very well, so after a few washes, it starts to fall apart. At this point, most people would throw the shirt away or donate it. Now, if a shirt cost $35 and is worn 30 times, the cost per wear is $1.17. This turns out to be a better deal because not only will you wear it more, but the shirt was probably made with better materials and in a safer working environment.
Most clothing is still made by hand, and the price is largely tied to the wages paid to produce it. Driven by pressure to resupply inventory for fast fashion brands, people working in apparel factories located overseas are often under a great deal of pressure. When factory workers are forced to churn out items quickly, it is reflected in the quality of the construction.
To maintain an environmentally and socially sustainable wardrobe, it is crucial to buy fewer items and focus on the quality. Products that are made with natural fabrics like cotton, wool or linen are better for the environment than synthetic material. Before you make a purchase, turn the product inside out and check to see if the seams are intact. This is a good way to tell how quickly the product was made. Bad seams usually mean it was made in a place with poor working conditions, so know where your clothes are coming from and try not to buy on impulse because of a low-price.
You don’t have to be Emma Watson or any other high-profile celebrity to afford a sustainable wardrobe. Being able to commit to making smarter and smaller purchases with your clothes will bring us one step closer to environmental and social harmony within the fashion world.