Why is sustainable clothing so damn expensive?!

It’s about time someone answered the most asked question about eco fashion.

This section on Ethical Fashion is made possible with the support of Bhu:Sattva

More and more people in India are embracing sustainable and conscious, healthy eating habits. And the trend makes sense because food goes directly into our mouths and reflects upon our bodies. So it is not rare to see people paying a premium for organic, fair-trade, preservative-free, non-GMO and natural food options. But, when it comes to clothing, very few shoppers can make the connection between sustainable fashion and our physical well-being. I have been asked this question more times than I care to count; “Why does sustainably made clothing often cost more than garments made by some of the big retail brands out there?” So I decided that it is time to put the matter to rest once and for all by talking about some facts and busting some myths that surround sustainable fashion.

1. Changing one industry requires time, effort and money. Changing two takes double the trouble

Our clothes are the result of two tiers of supply chain – namely two industries that supply to each other – the textile and the ready-made garment industry. Sustainable clothing would mean adopting environment and society friendly practices of making clothes. This includes choosing to avoid pesticides and GMOs during farming, using cruelty free silk cultivation methods, recycling synthetic materials already in use, using low-impact dyes and inks during the making of yarn and fabrics, and paying a fair wage to garment workers and others involved in the garment manufacturing process. In the complex eco-system of apparel supply chain, these choices often feel like swimming upstream against a very strong current. These industries have been functioning in a certain way for many decades (textile & readymade garments were among the key drivers of the Industrial Revolution) and sustainable clothing production is a change that often means putting extra time, effort and money into R&D and altered ways of doing things. Sustainable fashion brands have to rely on third-party certifications and tests to ensure the credibility of their work at each stage which has a big impact on their costs.

2. Economies of scale are against sustainable fashion right now. That will change

The productivity in organic cotton farming and cruelty-free silk cultivation is not as high as it is in conventional methods. Recycling synthetic fabrics is not yet a commonplace phenomenon. Making and dyeing of yarns with better quality, less harmful chemicals and low-impact dyes costs more because it still does not happen at the scale of conventional fabric production. Further, the cost of making clothes comes down exponentially only if the volumes are high. If  a factory has to make 10 pieces of a particular dress, it may cost you Rs. 600, but if the number required rises to 100 of the same dress, the cost might come down to Rs. 400. If you ask them to make 1000 pieces of the same dress, the cost can go down to as low as Rs. 250! This effectively means that younger companies with lower volumes and high attention to eco-friendly practices often pay as high as twice the normal price of getting their clothes made. However, these challenges also imply that as we buy more sustainable clothing, the demand grows, helping the industry become mature. It will eventually translate into prices coming down to an optimal level.

3. Higher prices could mean more value in the case of sustainable fashion

Sustainable clothing is not just about using a certain kind of material for making clothes. It is also about making things that last a really long time. Most sustainable clothing in India is made keeping in mind international standards of quality and workmanship and a fine attention to detail. These labels are not churning out cheap and disposable clothing, because their philosophy is that of conscious consumerism and they want you to buy quality over quantity. I can say this confidently, after talking to many young and passionate entrepreneurs who have started sustainable fashion labels in the last few years. So, before making up your mind about a label, just by looking at their price-tag, ask them genuine questions about the processes and quality standards they follow that make their products more valuable and worth the price.

4. Clothes are not so cheap, if hidden costs are accounted for

If you have ever been to the industrial town of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, which is also a big garment production hub, it is very likely that you have crossed the polluted remains of what was once a river and has now reduced to the size of a drain. The water table in the area has also gone down substantially. The main reasons for this are the unsustainable textile making and dyeing processes being followed there for the last two decades. A lot of big brands get their clothes manufactured in Tirupur, and people in some part of the world are able to enjoy cheap clothes because the people of Tirupur are paying the hidden cost of those clothes in the form of a lost natural resource. Costs that include contaminated soil, groundwater and surface water which renders all three unfit for drinking and irrigation.

All places that produce clothing in India and the rest of the world face their own version of this menace. We. consumers of these garments, pay these hidden costs through taxes to government, who is eventually left to clean up the acts that follow unsustainable industrial textile manufacturing practices. All this money can be used to better the state of education, healthcare and other public services if all of us decide to eliminate these hidden costs by buying sustainably made clothing.

5. Our perception of what a ‘good deal’ is matters a whole lot

We are caught in the midst of a disturbing trend when it comes to buying clothing. We only perceive discounts, rebates and sales as good deals. What’s worse is that we seem to get offended by how much eco-friendly clothing costs because we believe that it is not important to spend money on appreciating beautiful things made with care and detail by skilled people in earth friendly ways. Since when did our idea of being authentic and down-to-earth become buying cheap and disposable clothing from discount-stores or half-price online sales? It is also ironic that our so called expensive buys these days – the georgettes, chiffons & crepes (which are actually different types of weaving styles, irrespective of material) used to be made with silk and are now mostly made of one of the cheapest fabrics available to humanity, polyester, and we do not know how to differentiate between the two. So it is about time that we change our perceptions of what is expensive and go back to valuing the right things in the form of sustainable clothing.


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The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 

The Hub is supported by logo, India’s first certified organic designer apparel brand. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at http://www.bhusattva.com

Hansika lives in Bangalore and hails from a small & green township called Korwa, in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. She studied fashion and graduated from NIFT Delhi in 2010. She went on to work with fashion retailer H&M for 3 years in Delhi & Colombo (Sri lanka.) The way fashion is made and consumed has been a big inspiration behind co-founding the non-profit initiative around conscious consum... more


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Hansika lives in Bangalore and hails from a small & green township called Korwa, in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. She studied fashion and graduated from NIFT Delhi in 2010. She went on to work with fashion retailer H&M for 3 years in Delhi & Colombo (Sri lanka.) The way fashion is made and consumed has been a big inspiration behind co-founding the non-profit initiative around conscious consum... more

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