How expensive should fashion be? The true cost of our clothes isn’t decided at the till

Many of us will know the feeling. You’ve spotted some gorgeous garment on your Instagram feed and clicked through in a Pavlovian fervour to find out more. It’s ethical, sustainable, small-batch, free-range – all the good stuff! Then you look at the price. And you want to weep.

How to reconcile sustainable fashion with the its higher price tag is probably the most complex question I face, as someone who spends a lot of time trying to persuade people to kick their fast fashion habit. A recent Cosmopolitan poll found that two thirds of respondents don’t buy from sustainable fashion brands – and of those who don’t, 80 per cent said it was because they’re “too expensive”.

True, they’re usually spendier than the rock-bottom price tags we’ve grown used to. But they need to be.

Because while the word ‘expensive’ is subjective, the cost of fabric, thread, pattern-making, machinery and overheads is not. The cost of human labour shouldn’t be negotiable either, but it’s most often the people that get sacrificed for the sake of the profit margin. Less than 2 per cent of garment workers globally earn a living wage. When we buy a £4 dress from a fast fashion brand, it isn’t cheap by magic, it’s cheap because somebody else is paying the price.

Yet at the same time, it’s fair to ask: how much of that final price tag is necessary outlay, and how much of it is brands cashing in on our guilty conscience? Plain old capitalism, dressed up in organic cotton. How much should our clothes cost, really? And what if we just can’t afford it?

First we have to accept that the concept of ‘affording’ something is a slippery one. It exists on a scale from genuine poverty to juggling priorities; from relying on food banks to feed your family, to buying a £1 bikini because you fancied a fourth holiday this year.

“I totally understand that for some people, fast fashion is the most feasible option – it’s cheap and accessible and doesn’t require hours of trawling. However, for those with a bit more disposable cash, I definitely think there needs to be a shift in our idea of what’s affordable,” says fashion writer Fedora Abu. “I know lots of people who could afford to make more careful choices, but just like the idea of having lots of options, so will buy five dresses from Boohoo.”

As the cost of living continues to sky rocket in so many areas – housing, food, transport – clothes are one of few anomalies that are still getting cheaper, and that ‘race to the bottom’ has devalued our perception to the point where it’s possible to regard a dress as more disposable than a tube of toothpaste. And while a popular defence from the cheapest brands is that they ‘democratise’ fashion, it’s a blinkered argument. We can’t dismiss the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people while pretending that following hot trends is some kind of a fundamental human right. As one Boohoo warehouse worker put it to The Times last weekend after testing positive for Covid-19, “How is distributing cheap women’s fashion essential?”

No, the uncomfortable truth is that the group of people who genuinely can’t afford to spend more on their clothes is much, much smaller than the group who feel like they can’t, because we’ve been socially conditioned to believe we need a wardrobe refresh every couple of weeks to be happy. “I do agree that there’s an element of snobbery,” says Abu, “but I also feel like the [democratisation] argument is being used to absolve consumers of any agency – when we have a lot of power.”

Still, even once we’ve made our peace with spending more to make sure nobody has been exploited, it can still be hard to square your finances with a £500 dress. Every time I spy a certain much-hyped, prairie-tastic sustainable brand on my Instagram feed, I can almost feel my overdraft wincing. So how do we find our fiscal comfort zone?

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