Although I am no longer a proponent of hairshirt green, I have a passing interest in sustainable fashion, or what passes for it these days. I mainly purchase natural fabrics both for my sewing and in ready-to-wear, and I currently make more of my own clothing than I have in years. But I haven’t been able to afford “ethical” ready-to-wear options — even though some are finally available in my size.
I regularly break down the value of my self-made clothing, so I have a decent idea of the real costs of a quality garment. When I count my time spent sewing — at a living wage — even a simple t-shirt has a value of $40 on the low end. A simple woven dress could easily be worth upwards of $300. Fitted trousers represent $150 minimum and jeans more than that. Can you afford those prices in ready-to-wear? I certainly can’t.
You can argue that factories are faster and that they get all of their raw materials wholesale. They stick to standard sizes and don’t have the additional time needed to fit something to an individual. That’s a fair point. But they also have additional overhead, shipping, advertising, maybe brick and mortar stores — an entire swath of other expenses that drive up prices. So I think my value estimates are a fair starting point. If you’re paying less than my example prices, someone is getting screwed.
Clothing cost a lot more in the past, too — that’s why home sewing was the frugal option.
However, as addressed in this Instagram post, lack of income is the factor most often missing from the ethical fashion discussion. Wages have not kept pace with inflation, and housing, education, and medical costs have risen dramatically. The percentage of income that people used to spend on costlier clothing now goes by necessity to housing and other non-negotiable expenses. The average person cannot revert to those historical spending patterns. It’s not as simple as substituting “quality for quantity” as some sustainable cheerleaders claim.
Consider this a starting point; I’ll have more thoughts on this later.