The mounting toll on the environment, exploitative wage systems, and a need to preserve age-old crafts—the reasons for making the switch to sustainable fashion are multiple and compelling. However, price can serve as a deterrent for many who looking to make the change to a more ethical wardrobe.
The price tag on a sustainably-produced garment with fair wages for labour can often be much bigger compared to an off-the-rack, mass-produced design, causing the perception that sustainable fashion caters only to an exclusive clientele. However, in ensuring that every garment produced has minimal impact on the environment, several factors come into play that ultimately affect the pricing of a product. Ahead, industry insiders take us through the factors that influence how a sustainable garment is priced.
The relation between pricing and sustainable fashion
“Sustainability is a value system of something you believe in,” says Ruchika Sachdeva, founder and creative director of Bodice. The notion is seconded by Ayesha Barenblat, the mind behind non-profit organisation and fashion watchdog, Remake. “A sustainably made and priced garment reflects a brand’s dedication to reducing their impact on the environment and the makers as well,” she says. If sustainable fashion is considered expensive, it is only against the context of fast fashion that has conditioned a generation of shoppers to expect throwaway prices, she believes. “A garment maker once told us, ‘The price reflects the exploitation’. Fast fashion’s rock-bottom prices have kept a generation of young women, mostly based in South Asia, trapped in a cycle of poverty,” she adds.
So what goes into the pricing of sustainable fashion?
In a bid to undo the toll being extracted by fast fashion, its sustainable alter ego adheres to certain standards for fair and equitable production that ultimately play into the bottom line of a product. “Sustainable fashion focuses on durable products and longer lead times with factories, which allows more consistent payment of wages and a humane pace of production,” summarises Barenblat. Ahead, we get the experts to decode the crucial cost drivers that are involved in the pricing of sustainable fashion.
The biggest differentiator for sustainable fashion is its kindness towards the environment and longevity—by swapping synthetic fabrics for purer, long-lasting alternatives, there’s a smaller footprint left behind on the ecosystem it is developed in. However, beyond the choice of fabrics, ethical fashion also employs a discerning look at the process of the procurement of these materials. Shivangini Padhiyar, founder of The Summer House, explains, “Synthetic fabrics made from carbon-based materials and toxic dyes pollute the air, underground water and rivers. The unchecked use of pesticides and rampant deforestation to keep up with demand further compounds the problem.” For those looking to opt for a more sustainable approach, pricing starts with raw materials. Barenblat agrees, and adds, “Natural fibres, like silk, cost more than polyester-blend materials, which are essentially plastic. The factors that influence the price then include the type of raw materials, where the raw materials came from, how and where the product is made as well as who makes the product and under what conditions.”
Ensuring that workers are provided with a sufficient working wage serves as another crucial factor driving costs. “Ethically-produced fashion pays not just a minimum wage, but a living wage—which means the women who make our clothes are able to afford a life of dignity and safety,” she explains. What does this translate into for brands looking to develop a fair and equitable wage system for workers? Among other factors, the wage is primarily influenced by the country or region the workers live in as this impacts the standard of living. In order to offer equitable income to vulnerable sections, certain other parameters are also considered, such as access to healthcare, transportation, housing and safety nets, including severance and unemployment benefits, she says.
The scale of production also serves as another fork-in-the-road moment for the fashion industry. While high street brands are often driven by speed and seasonality, slow fashion has emerged as an antithesis—championing the joys of a slower pace of consumption—which plays into the scale of production. Barenblat says, “Fast fashion brands often place multiple orders to test what sells. This can translate into razor-thin margins, taking on debt to prepay for fabric and cutting corners by keeping workers on short-term contracts, and chronically under-paying wages and demanding excessive overtime.” By adopting a self-aware approach and rethinking our relationship with clothes, slow fashion prescribes a smaller scale of production. Sachdeva affirms, “Slow fashion often can’t take advantage of economies of scale because if you are producing in small batches, it is going to be more expensive than making something on a larger scale.”
In addition to sustaining the environment, ethical fashion also maintains a sharp focus on ensuring that age-old crafts and skills are sustained and passed on to the next generation. For her label, Sachdeva has chosen to work with several traditional textile manufacturers in the country, including an equitably-owned weavers cooperative in Himachal Pradesh that is focused on sustaining the craft of handloom. “When you are working with an artisan, you are sustaining a small, family-run, generations-old craft as opposed to mass produced, machine-made garments that can erode the sartorial legacy of our country,” she says.
How to encourage the adoption of sustainable fashion
The responsible retail revolution is aiming to undo decades of hyper-production, but how can brands prompt this unlearning when faced with legions of shoppers who’ve been trained to expect seasonality and speed? Barenblat believes that the task is difficult, but not impossible. “While trends come and go with fast fashion, sustainable fashion is about timeless style. A powerful way for sustainable brands to contradict fast fashion’s constant-churn model is to offer hyper-customisation and market one-of-a-kind products. Customers cherish unique and mindfully designed products that are made with care. Humanizing the makers behind garments with creative storytelling is an effective way to deepen the connection with shoppers,” she believes. Developing a loyal customer base then becomes dependent on marketing how garments constructed with natural, breathable materials that not only feel good, but also don’t compromise on style. “Helping customers understand the connection between women’s empowerment, climate impact and sustainable fashion is the best way to encourage greater adoption to a more ethical way of living,” she adds.