Why is Eco-Fashion So Expensive?

Designer Eviana Hartman of Bodkin, Bodkin

Eviana Hartman, the designer behind Brooklyn-based eco-fashion label Bodkin

Why does sustainable clothing cost more than big-box brands? For the same reason that an heirloom tomato costs more than a box of McNuggets: a combination of economies of scale and economies of globalization. Unfortunately and perversely, the things that are best for you and the rest of the world are often more expensive than whatever’s fast, cheap, and easy. Clothing prices are, in many cases, artificially low because we’ve been trained to buy quantity over quality. With food, more people are willing to pay the premium because it goes into our mouths and is reflected on our waistlines. With clothing, too few shoppers make the connection.

Bodkin Autumn/Winter 2009, Eviana Hartman, Bodkin, Brooklyn, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion

Photo by Tina Tyrell

ECONOMIES OF SCALE

Proactively limiting one’s choices to eliminate pesticide use and uncertain labor practices is a very new way of approaching a business that is at odds with its existing, very opaque structure. Many of us are young, idealistic, and still small; we’re still trying to figure it out. For instance, I’ve given up on making leggings and T-shirts for now because I just can’t compete with American Apparel.

Clothing prices are, in many cases, artificially low because we’ve been trained to buy quantity over quality.

Say you’re a newish designer, and you bring a dress to the factory and ask them to make 10 dresses. They might charge you $100 apiece, whereas if you want 100, they might cost $20; that’s because figuring out how to sew a new garment together is a complicated, challenging project, and once it’s figured out, it goes by a lot more quickly. Also, it costs a lot more to produce domestically than in China—which, you guessed it, is easier to do when you’re a big corporation.

Bodkin Autumn/Winter 2009, Eviana Hartman, Bodkin, Brooklyn, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion

Photo by Tina Tyrell

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Then there’s the fabric, of course. The good and bad news is that demand for organic cotton these days far outstrips supply. Which, of course, makes it more expensive. While a more holistic approach to agriculture can eventually increase crop yields and strengthen communities and their economies, for now, factory-farmed, cyanide-spritzed cotton is cheaper. And if you’re ordering a small quantity of fabric, the price often doubles.

Unfortunately and perversely, the things that are best for you and the rest of the world are often more expensive than whatever’s fast, cheap, and easy.

Then, there’s the retail markup. If designers aren’t selling through their own stores or catalogs, they have to keep in mind that stores more than double the wholesale price. So if I sell something for $100, the boutique, having its own costs and risk to cover, will sell it for $230. It’s extremely easy to hit $100 when you’re talking about a sewer’s time, a pattern maker’s time, your own overhead, and a couple of yards of nice fabric that hasn’t been produced with chemicals.

Bodkin Autumn/Winter 2009

Photo by Tina Tyrell

THE SNOB FACTOR

I get upset when people seem offended by how much clothes cost. Some politically outspoken people I’ve met act as if buying basics from cheap chains confers authenticity and down-to-earthness, whereas appreciating beautiful things made with care and detail by skilled people—because they are “designer clothes”—makes you a snob. Sometimes it’s nice to support the little guy; you may even get to know that little guy personally. Then maybe you can get a discount.

+ Bodkin

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11 Responses to “Why is Eco-Fashion So Expensive?”

  1. Feral Childe says:

    Thank you for this article! It’s great to hear the perspective of a fellow designer. There are so many green-behind-the-scenes choices for designers to consider as well: sourcing fabrics and trims domestically to support local economies and reduce the carbon footprint of shipping, bio-plastic bags for shipping and storage, recycled hangtags printed with less toxic inks, and so on . . .all of these choices contribute to the expense of producing eco-fashion, but as materials and options are more readily available, we all hope to see the costs go down.

  2. [...] that eco-fashion is more expensive. As a special treat, Bodkin designer Eviana Hartman tells us, in her own words, what makes sustainable clothing a bit more pricey and why it is actually worth every [...]

  3. greenandchic says:

    People often forget about quality when it comes to clothing shopping. I have repurposed and thrown away so many clothes in the past because they did not last more than a few months if I was lucky. I now have quality pieces (purchased used or new) that have stood the test of time. Great article on eco fashion!

  4. [...] out this timely article that answers the oft-asked question: Why is eco-friendly fashion so freakin’ expensive?! And [...]

  5. Such great points! I was raised to think that spending money was indulgent, which I’ve internalized with shopping. Nothing makes me happier (or strangely proud) than a great deal. I’m realizing that to be the shopper that I’m trying to encourage others to be, I have to allow myself to “indulge” because it’s the RIGHT thing to do. Spend more, buy and throw away less. I think it’s a profoundly important point to address with consumers – that it’s not actually indulgent – it’s healthier than the shop cheap, shop often cycle we’ve promoted to keep our consumer-driven society going.

  6. Laney says:

    Thank you for such a great explanation! I knew some of the reasons sustainable clothing is more expensive but some of your points solidified my desire to be more eco-conscious when buying clothing. Maybe enough people will read this so they, too, will understand. I purchase much of my clothing second-hand, from good quality thrift stores and on eBay, trying to keep the “reuse” part of of equation going, but will start buying good pieces of eco-fashion that are timeless rather than cheaply made clothing that will fall apart or go out of style.

  7. Urban Sherp says:

    Not to mention to costs associated with paying fair wages to the people who are making our clothing. I would much rather pay $30 for an organic fair trade t-shirt than $5 for one at Target. The economic and environmental costs of that $5 t-shirt are worth my combating with my $25 investment.

  8. Tob says:

    Great Article! We founded our label for sustainable, local made fashion this summer and are experiecing exactly the same difficulties. The trouble is that it is hard to prove that higher-priced, but top-quality garments will last longer. We follow our “lieblingsteil” philosophy because we don’t believe in short term fashions anymore and rather produce timeless style which accompanies its owner for several seasons. If you like check out our website at http://www.vontum.de (Englsih version coming soon). It would be great hearing from you! Cheers, tob from VONTUM

  9. feminista says:

    Of course, the most eco-friendly way to dress is to buy used. Then absolutely no resources are being used to make new clothing and things that might otherwise end up in a landfill are being worn.

  10. glamspoon says:

    great article – there is a logic behind eco fashion and it’s just the reality that we live with right now. it costs more than mass production, which makes it worth more.

  11. Charles De-Richelieu says:

    Very interesting article although i would dispute “Eco fashion” being “expensive” Izzy Lane for eg, with a coat costing £300-500 and considering the whole structure, it is actually “too cheap”! I make this statement based on the price of a Nigel Cabourn jacket, they cost nearly and in some cases more than twice as much. Loro Piana, Givenchy, the list is enormous. Eco Fashion represents the “True” cost of being environmentally sensitive.

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