"I can't afford to buy ethical fashion."
When I hear a person utter this phrase, a physical change sweeps over my body. I sit a little more upright, fiery thoughts begin swirling in my mind, and I can feel my mouth doing exercises as if preparing itself for a rap battle.
But no sooner do the feelings of hostility enter, compassion takes over, and so hostility is forced to look for a more obliging host.
My frustration dissipates because price is a valid reason for why many people don't purchase ethically made goods. I need only reflect on my own behaviour in the organic food aisles to know that price is a factor in my purchasing behaviour. The way I react to an organic avacado priced at $5.50-$6 is probably the same as how most people react to a responsibly made dress priced at $200.
I may be an ethical blogger, but that doesn't mean I'm completely out of touch with the typical consumer.
And just to prove how not out of touch I am, I decided to survey my 1,000+ subscribers to get their views on ethical prices. So last month in an email newsletter, I asked them:
Does price ever deter you from purchasing organic or ethical?
The spirited responses proved I am very much in touch: some conscious consumers find it difficult to justify the exorbitant prices.
Cecil Menard, the store manager of Only Just, a not-for-profit fair trade brand in Melbourne admitted to facing the price dilemma when ordering stock, fearing that customers will be turned away by the high prices.
"We want to make fair trade products accessible to all but often the cost of sourcing goods is too high for us to stock them. The shops (we now have 2 shops in the north eastern suburbs) sell mostly gifts, accessories and toys, but we are looking at selling clothes and we are finding a worrying trend of ‘luxe’ fair trade fashion going on. Whilst we understand better than most that ethical fashion will always cost a little or even a lot more than fast fashion, some of the discrepancies in the prices we are asked to pay are not explained just by the handmade nature of products or the fair treatment of workers. The feeling I get is that often, ethical fashion is seen as exclusive for those who can afford it. It’s a bit as if people are buying a conscience, and those who would like to do the right thing, but are on a tight budget, are seen as not counting as a potential market."
Cecil is right. When I sent out that newsletter, I heard from many people raising families about the struggles they faced. It can be easy for well-intentioned childless conscious consumers (like myself) to flippantly reply, "Well it's not that hard, just do without until you can afford better." But that's just like me telling a person suffering with mental health issues they should just "think positive." For many people, life is not always so clear cut.
So why do we pay a premium for ethical products?
Clearly communicating why responsibly-made consumer goods cost more is essential to mainstream buy-in. And for those exposed to cheap prices (with globalisation and overseas production, that's almost all of us) it can be hard to work out why ethical consumerism comes at a premium. Accusing ethical brands of ripping people off is the fall-back stance of the sceptical.
While we cannot completely dismiss the idea that rogue "ethical" brands are charging high prices to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers, the real reason for the high prices is more about accounting and much less riveting: it's because of the high cost of inputs.
In her piece What Launching an Ethical Fashion Brand Really Looks Like, fashion designer Hanna Baror-Padilla explores the cost of ethically producing a collection in the United States explaining that prices have to factor in the higher cost of goods. She reveals that her biggest challenge is convincing "potential customers that the high prices are what they should be paying for if everyone is receiving fair living wages." Sweatshops are undermining the very fabric of the American fashion industry.
Kelli Donovan, ethical designer and founder of Australian fashion label Pure Pod, echoes the same sentiment:
"Sadly many of the industry, retailers and public think the designers are wealthy and can afford to cover everything and problems in production but in fact many of us are just artists. The only difference between an artist and a designer is often the artist makes their art themselves. A designer pays well for others to make their garments, patterns, grading, printing etc. Once you get to a certain amount in making styles and quality with your clothing you have to pay other skilled makers, printers, cutters, pattern makers etc to do the work for you. When making small units and in organic textiles, hand made, hand printed it costs a lot. Even if an ethical label did go off shore, the cost won't be as cheap as fast fashion to make because you're paying for specialised goods and organic or Fair Trade certifications. It also costs a lot of time and money just getting your garment to production ready. You might have made and fitted it 3-4 times before even grading the pattern... Fast fashion has made the public often not respect the hours it takes to produce clothing or treasure their clothing anymore."
Thus, ethically produced fashion, particularly if manufactured on Western soil, will sell at a price higher than fast fashion. It is the price that consumers are asked to pay for supporting a brand that not only pays workers a living wage, but may also be actively reducing its negative impact by choosing eco-friendly inputs.
And shouldn't 'economies of scale' reduce ethical fashion prices?
As we are all too aware, mass production can create cost efficiencies known as economies of scale. However even the resulting cheap prices should still be analysed: Is production done overseas or domestically? Are workers paid living wages and provided fair working conditions? Is the garment made of nasty polyester or eco-friendly fabrics? And how sustainable is large scale production really?
My hope rests with the economic theory of supply and demand: the more people demand ethical goods, the more businesses are willing to supply those goods, and increased competition may push prices down. I have yet to see this happen but I hope it does.
Price is a factor for many shoppers. To pretend it's not is doing a disservice to the ethical movement. Acknowledging this issue may help us to find a way to make ethical fashion - and organic food - more affordable. Because conscious fashion and clean healthy food should be available to more people - and not just those who can afford it most.