Why those cheap clothes aren’t just the issue.

Ethical, Sustainable & Fair Trade Clothes is what we want everyone to buy. But its not just about that $10 t-shirt were buying, it’s not just about “Who made your clothes”- There’s a lot more to consider, underneath it all.

We all hear about sweatshops and how that $10 shirt you just bought was made. I’ve been known myself to ask individuals “Do you know how your shirt was made?”, or with the whole Beyonce scandal; “How could she not know what was going on in that factory?” The one major statement I hear a lot is, “Why do we even bother to get those countries to make our clothes, its all crap anyway?”

There are numerous problems with these types of statements. For one thing, the price of a piece of clothing is not at all indicative of the working conditions of its manufacturer. For another, implying (or outright saying) that there is something morally wrong with paying ten dollars for a t-shirt is incredibly classist. And finally, saying stuff like this shows a serious lack of understanding about how the garment industry works.


So let’s look at these myth’s and debunk them

Ethical, expensive, high-end brands are preferred                               

This is not at all true. Spending more money on an item of clothing doesn’t guarantee that the factory worker in Bangladesh who made it is earning a higher wage. It doesn’t even mean that the quality of the garment is any “better” than something you could buy for half the price. The truth is that when brand names charge higher prices for their items, that extra cash usually goes to two places: into the pockets of CEOs and other higher-ups, and into the company’s advertising budget.  Even buying clothing with a “Made in Italy” or “Made in the USA” label doesn’t guarantee that that piece of clothing was made by people working in decent conditions. A product can be almost totally manufactured elsewhere, but so long as it’s “finalized” in Italy (adding leather trim, for example, or sewing on buttons) it can be labelled as “Made in Italy.” Just because something is manufactured in Western Europe or North America doesn’t mean that the factory employees who made the item were paid a fare wage — illegal immigrants are often hired and paid under the table, meaning that employers can pay them whatever they like and the employees believe that they have no recourse for action. But even when companies do pay their workers minimum wage, it’s often not enough. In many countries, minimum wage is not a living wage, especially if you live in a big city. Even in our society, most of us find it hard living without help of food banks, or other hand outs that help us get through the month. Could you imagine only making $6 a day? 


Our society’s desire for cheap clothing is exploitative and unsustainable. People should be willing to pay more money for their clothing.

First of all, let’s talk about how classist this assumption is. I mean, if you’re well off, then sure, you can probably afford to pay more than ten dollars for a t-shirt. But if you’re making minimum wage and living below the poverty line, then cheap clothing is the only type of clothing you can afford. I myself, am a single mom and make minimum wage. I have a child who I am supporting myself. Between rent, utilities, & groceries, all the other stuff I need to pay myself through the month, I can’t afford to buy myself clothes let alone my son. But this is where thrift stores come in and help out a lot in the clothing department considering my son needs a whole new wardrobe every season. So cheap clothing is what I can afford. I can’t afford a top that costs $60 or $70 because it’s ethically made regardless if I’d love to be able to buy it, so I know where people come from when they say that can’t afford that ethically made shirt but they can afford that $10 shirt, at that moment there not thinking of how that shirt is made but how much they can afford at that time, and maybe that top is a reward for a hectic week at work. Think of those that can’t afford those clothes they wish they could buy but can’t.

And this would solve what, exactly? It certainly wouldn’t improve working conditions in those factories. In fact, it would probably lead to a loss of employment opportunities in those countries, meaning that the few companies that still hiring would be able to pay their employees even lower wages if they chose. People would be scrambling and competing for jobs, and would have to accept whatever came their way, no matter how badly it paid or the conditions or how long they had to work.The other thing is that no matter what country those companies are manufacturing their goods in, so long as they are trying to keep their wholesale prices as low as they are, the manufacturers will have to cut corners, pay their workers substandard wages, and skirt safety regulations in order to satisfy the companies’ demands. 

Salaries of CEO’s – The High Cost for Workers:

Here’s what major brands actually should do: cut CEO salaries. A CEO earns, on average, two hundred and four times what their retail employees earn. And let’s not even get into how much more a CEO earns when compared to one of the employees in their overseas factories. How is that even a little bit OK? Imagine how inexpensive clothing could be if we cut CEO wages. Imagine how much we could improve working conditions and how those employees are treated if we cut those CEO salaries.                                                                                                                      

Companies also need to institute frequent, surprise inspections of the factories that manufacture their goods. They need to find ways to ensure that their goods are being made by employees who have fair wages and decent work environments. They need to actually take responsibility for how their business is being operated.


Why do we even make stuff overseas? Why not manufacture more stuff in North America, Europe, and elsewhere?

The truth is that manufacturing clothing in North America and Europe is becoming more and more difficult. It’s less expensive to manufacture in Asia for a variety of reasons, and not just because labour is cheaper there. Another important cost factor is that many of the raw materials are now more readily available overseas than they are here. For example, China is the leading grower of cotton in the world, meaning that even if an item of clothing was sewn in Canada, the used would most likely come from overseas. Is there really a difference in how “ethical” your clothing is if the finished product is made here but the raw materials are harvested and processed by underpaid workers overseas? How ethical is it if the water used to grow those raw materials (cotton, for example, is a notoriously water-intensive crop) is partly responsible for major water shortage in China? How can we ever make sure that every person who has somehow contributed to making our clothing is treated fairly?

Look. The garment industry is screwed up, and major changes need to happen. Factories need to be unionized, workers need better conditions, and CEO pay needs to be cut. Here at home we need to increase minimum wage to a livable wage. We need to figure out a way to make sure that everyone who participates in the garment industry, whether they’re an employee in a retail store, a worker in a factory, or a small child whose water supply is being used to water cotton crops, is getting a fair deal.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure how we can make any of this happen, or what the world would look like if these changes were to take place. But what I do know is that the way that we live now is not sustainable, not by a long shot. I know that we need more accountability from the companies that make our clothing, and more tools like Good Guide to hep us figure out where to spend our money. We need to make more of an effort to educate ourselves about how and where our goods are made.

Most of all, though, I know that the $10 dollar t-shirt is not the problem. It’s just a symptom of the problem.

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3 thoughts on “Why those cheap clothes aren’t just the issue.

  1. Agree. The whole culture of acceptability of profits allowing insanely high salaries to upper echelons: not just in fashion, but in everything.
    Horrid culture of low paid, and £3 pr hr in UK now from some companies.
    Slavery is still in existence.
    Even buying organic isn’t enough now. There is just too much stuff.
    Like you, I buy from charity shops, the quality here in UK is fantastic, if you look carefully.
    Another crime is polyester – with us forever.
    Chemical dyes another disaster, where rivers in India flow with the colour of the week’s production.
    I love fashion, that’s why I make it, but treasuring the fabrics, rather than buying something cheap to hide in the wardrobe after a couple of wears.

  2. Pingback: Ten Things | Moral Fibres - UK Eco Green Blog

  3. Interesting read, Especially eye-opening are your points about classism and passing the responsibility on to the consumer. Thank you. I am confused by the first statement though, specifically the use of the word Ethical in that context. Surely the definition of an ethical brand is one in which the whole supply chain is considered, including the workers? I’m thinking of brands like People Tree in the UK. Can you explain this a bit more?

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