Debunking ethical fashion’s biggest myth: You have to be rich to support ethical fashion

Debunking ethical fashion’s biggest myth: You have to be rich to support ethical fashion

By Jasmine Mayhead

Words by Caitlyn Spanner.
Image by ethical label, Outland Denim.

When you’re faced with the financial uncertainty that accompanies a global pandemic, it becomes even harder to support important causes like ethical fashion, especially in a monetary sense. But we’re here to let you know, you can still support ethical fashion without being the CEO of a wine delivery business that has thrived throughout the pandemic. 

This article delves into the true cost of a garment (ethical or otherwise), it explains why you should consider cost per wear, and it lets you in on the most affordable way to support ethical fashion now and in the future. Consider the myth that you have to be rich to support ethical fashion, debunked and your fear of only being able to shop at H&M from now on, revoked.

The True Cost of fashion:

Technically a new ethical fashion garment is likely to be more expensive than a non-ethical one, but we first need to understand why. Let’s start with how regular fashion markups work.

To put it simply, fashion is generally priced using the keystone method, which means you multiply the price by two (or thereabouts) at the wholesale level and the retail level. For example, if a t-shirt costs $25 to manufacture, it will cost $50 at the wholesale level and $100 at the retail level. 

An ethical fashion brand is one that ensures each person involved in the process is paid fairly, especially those at the manufacturing level, as they’re the ones who suffer the most exploitation. Ethical brands are also likely to be using sustainable fabrics and dyes, zero-waste packaging, they might donate to charity, produce locally and they’re definitely transparent about all of the above (to discover more about what makes a brand ethical according to EME, see our values page). 

Each of these factors comes at an additional cost to the business, which then must be reflected in the retail price of the garment. That also means if a fast fashion brand is charging $10 for a t-shirt, the wholesale price will be around $5 and the manufacturing price is approximately $2. It seems impossible to manufacture any garment for $2, which makes it quite clear just how low the garment workers are being paid in this situation. 

So yes, ethical fashion does generally cost more than non-ethical fashion (especially fast fashion) in a dollar sense, but it doesn’t come at a cost to the people who made it and hopefully the planet as well. This, in our books, is priceless. 

Let’s fall in love with fashion

Ok, so now you know the true cost, it’s time to consider your relationship with fashion. We believe the best way to change your shopping habits and mindset is by looking at fashion through a different lens. If you consider clothing as a piece of art, not only because it’s beautiful, but also because it’s made by human hands, you’re more likely to cherish it and rewear it. 

An ethical garment is one that is made to be loved, reworn and repaired. Not one that you must have right now because it’s ‘trending’ only to wear it once then send it to the donation pile, the back of your closet, or worse, the bin. When something is cheap, it is likely to be treated with less care and respect. Similarly if you’re buying something because it’s the must-have trend of the season (and not something that really speaks to you personally), you’re less likely to develop a relationship with it—that’s right, we want you to start a relationship with your clothes. And not a one-off, casual hookup type fling, but the kind where you bring them home to Mum. If you save up your hard earned pennies for a garment in the same way you invest your time and energy into a good relationship, it’s going to mean a lot more to you and you are likely to care for and rewear it. This is where cost per wear comes in.

Consider cost per wear 

We’ve spoken at length about cost per wear (CPW) and how it encourages us to think economically about our clothes in the past. We suggest you hit up this article for the full version, but in short CPW pushes us to purchase long lasting, high quality garments that cost us more up front, but save us money in the long term. If you totally embrace the cost per wear ideology, while keeping ethical fashion values at heart, you’re in for a much more pleasant dressing experience in the morning, less waste thrown to second-hand shops or the bin, and a wallet that thanks you. 

We argue that if you buy a $200 dress, you’re more likely to rewear it, therefore the CPW reduces over time. Let’s compare it to fast fashion: A $200 dress divided by 10 wears equals a CPW of $20. A $20 fast fashion dress worn once also has a CPW of $20. Looking at a garment’s CPW rather than it’s retail price makes a purchase easier and more fulfilling (believe us, it’s like retail therapy on steroids). 

High end fashion is expensive which makes it ethical, right?

We’ve also covered this topic at length, but for the quick version: No. The mark-up of brands we associate as “designer” or “luxury” is astronomical and, as the Clean Clothes Campaign report tells us, is not always a direct reflection of the quality of the product, nor the standards by which it was made. A lot of the time the high price point is simply due to the name, reputation, exclusivity and trends associated with that brand. So don’t be fooled into thinking you are making an ethical decision. Although, if you’re spending $600 on a certain brand name belt, you’re probably going to nail that CPW factor! In that case, you’re making a much better decision than buying from a fast fashion brand—please just be sure to consider the person who made it when you go to tap that card. 

“This is all great, but I still can’t afford it”

If you’re saving your pennies, you lost your job due to the pandemic, or you simply don’t have the money to spend even if you really want to support ethical fashion, you might call this blue sky thinking—or maybe it’s green. Anyway, that’s a totally fair call. It’s a privilege to be able to look at it from the angle of CPW or similar, because you must have the dollars in the bank to be able to purchase an ethical garment in the first place.

If you haven’t saved up the money to support ethical fashion (just yet), there’s always second-hand. We’re talking op-shops, Facebook marketplace, Gumtree (Australia), Depop, your trendy cousin’s hand-me-downs, garage sales, markets and the list goes on. A second-hand purchase keeps fashion circular and reduces the time a garment spends in landfill. It’s one of the most ethical ways to support fast fashion without spending a lot of money. We’ve covered the pros and cons of buying fast fashion second-hand here and the truth about op-shops here if you want to learn more about this topic. 

There’s also the option of renting your clothes. This article includes a list of clothing rental companies in Australia and New Zealand, but please be aware these services may not be available right now due to COVID-19.  

The most economical (and ethical) decision

We’ve said it a million times and we’ll say it a million more: the best purchase you can make is no purchase at all.

Ain’t that affordable? We don’t need more stuff in the world and if you’re the average (hetero, able-bodied, white, cisgender, financially-secure) Australian, you probably don’t need more clothes in your wardrobe. Instead, save up your money for a once a year purchase of your dream outfit and cherish what you have already.  

So it turns out you can support ethical fashion without having bulk funds in the bank, even during the pandemic. Consider ethical fashion’s biggest myth, debunked. If you have any other money saving ways to a more ethical lifestyle, be sure to let us know. 

Disclaimer: Of course, everyone’s version of rich, ethical, and privileged is different and some of these points may not apply to everyone. Get in touch if you have another viewpoint that we might find beneficial. 

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