Shifting the Cost: Why Our Clothes Are So Cheap

Americans purchase five times more clothing today than in 1980, but are not spending proportionally as much as they did then. The percentage of disposable income used on clothing has dropped over the years, likely as a result of low fashion prices, so our money goes further and style-conscious consumers can reap the benefits.

This drop in price has consequences that we don’t see, however. The costs of manufacturing clothing aren’t diminishing—they’re just borne by someone else, usually in the developing world. 

Take a look at the video below of a social experiment by Fashion Revolution, in which passersby are given the opportunity to buy a €2 ($2.23) t-shirt from a vending machine.

Before the item is vended, the potential customers must learn how that low price point came to be: garment workers in developing countries spend as long as 16 hours a day in the factory, often in unsafe conditions, earning as little as 13 cents per hour. After this information is revealed, the customers are given the option to continue with the purchase or donate the €2. Nobody featured in the video follows through with the purchase.

The Winners and Losers of Fast Fashion

The driving force behind these low prices is the “fast fashion” model, which pushes items out of the factory and into the stores in rapidity, counting on the consumer to discard and buy at a similar pace. Keeping these prices down means subsidizing costs in the form of low labor wages, unsafe working conditions, and environmental degradation, all of which we as buyers are too distanced from to personally feel.

Poverty is so oppressive in many of the countries manufacturing our clothing—China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, to name just a few— that working long hours for criminally low pay is still the most viable way for many workers to earn a living. And when a system like this sustains itself by prioritizing cost-efficiency over the rights and safety of employees, there is bound to be tragedy. For evidence, you can look to the Rana plaza tragedy that killed 1,137 workers and injured 2,500. Or the factory fire in Pakistan that killed nearly 300 textile workers. Or the five Cambodian workers killed for protesting for fairer wages.

You can also see the environmental toll, specifically in China where 65 percent of the world’s clothing is produced. The World Health Organization states that 75 percent of diseases are caused by water pollution, and many of China’s rivers are perpetually dyed an unnatural color because of the textile industry. There is a saying in Shaozing County, which hosts approximately 30 percent of China’s textile and dyeing industry: if you want to know what color is fashionable this season, just look at this river.

What We Can Do

A one to three percent price increase on individual garments is all that’s needed to provide a living wage and safer working conditions. It’s not unrealistic to think that most consumers in the developed world would gladly shoulder that extra cost in order to ensure that those who made their clothing were compensated better and worked in safer conditions. And although we as consumers are in large part to blame for propelling the fast fashion model, we also have the power to correct these injustices. By shopping smarter and putting pressure on brands and manufacturers, we can help protect those who make a living working in textile factories.

We can also make sure that our fast fashion doesn’t end up in the trash. Recycling clothes helps reduce the impact of climate change, and developing countries are the most vulnerable to the droughts, stronger cyclones, and higher temperatures.

Remember: if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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