#5 | the real cost of clothes


How much did your clothes cost?

Maybe that pair of jeans cost $30, and that shirt $15.

Where were your clothes made?

Your closet is probably full of clothes with tags that read something along the lines of ‘made in China’ or ‘made in Vietnam’.

So who made your clothes?

In Asia alone there are over 15 million people employed by the garment industry. That’s great right? Not exactly- I mean yes, of course it is great that they are being employed. But that $10 shirt you bought earlier? It was made by a pair of hands belonging to one or more of those 15 million people, and they are being constantly exploited.

We have a serious problem.

The fact is, cheap fashion means relying on these people to work 12-18 hour days, often making less than $2 a day. $2 is not a living wage.

living wage

1:  a subsistence wage
2:  a wage sufficient to provide the necessities and comforts essential to an acceptable standard of living
The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights says, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”

Most of us take a living wage for granted, and most of you reading this probably make a bit more that a basic living wage. This is because we probably live in places where making anything less than $7.25 and hour and working more than 48 hours a week is scandalous. What if we applied that same mentality to the people who made our clothing?

It’s not just about the money- the health and safety of these garment workers are compromised too.

Since 1990, over a thousand people have died in factories in Bangladesh. Basic comforts and needs such as clean drinking water and use of the bathroom are not options offered to the people working in these factories. These factories often don’t have emergency procedures or exits. Working with chemicals in unsafe conditions without proper safety precautions causes major health risks and issues that go unattended to.

There’s so much going on, and I’ve touched only the tip of the iceberg. If you’d like to read (a lot) more, you can read Clean Clothes Campaign’s Asia Wage Report.

Remember the environment too.

  • Fashion is one of the most wasteful and polluting industries, second only to the oil industry.
  • Only 1 out of every 10 garments that are donated actually get recycled or resold, the rest end up in landfill.
  • The average American throws away 82 pounds of clothing a year.
  • Clothing made of synthetic fabrics, such as nylon and polyester, are non-biodegradable and release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
  • Rayon is made from wood pulp, and forests are cleared to make room for farms.
  • Making these fabrics requires massive amounts of water and energy.
  • Cotton seems a lot more friendly, but it is often heavily dosed with pesticides and insecticides. The garment holds these chemicals and releases them throughout its life time into our skin.
  • Companies in places with few environmental protection laws dump chemicals and waste into water ways.

(sources: The True Cost and Green Living)


What do I do with this information? Does all this mean I stop buying clothes? No. Absolutely keep buying clothes, just maybe do some research before you do and find out if the company you want to buy from treats their employees fairly and if they produce ethically. I would also use this ethical fashion checker to find places and brands to buy ethical clothes from.

If you are unsure ask yourself this: is it made locally or is it imported? My rule of thumb is to avoid textiles made anywhere but the US or Canada, when possible. Here is an alphabetical list  of brands that are made in the US. Typically, if it is made in Asia and I don’t know for sure they are an ethical brand, then I don’t buy it. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t wear clothes you love and feel comfortable in, because if you want them you can check out my all time favourite ethical clothing options: thrift stores and consignment shops.

I have an affinity with consignment and thrift stores. I have found so many of my favourite articles of clothing there and for better prices. Plus, they help keep clothes out of landfills. They’re a great place to recycle old clothing, and prevents waste. Most I know of even partner with charitable organizations that will take the clothes the shops won’t, so you don’t have to take them home again after trying to sell them and they go to people who need them.

Also, try clothes made with organic materials or are produced sustainably. Learn more here.

The Debate

So I stop buying clothes made in other countries? What about the millions of employees? These are both really good questions. If doing this meant it would harm the employees more than it would help, I wouldn’t have considered it. Instead of putting your money into businesses that don’t treat their employees or the environment ethically, wouldn’t you rather do the opposite?

There are ethical clothing brands out there who genuinely care for the those who work for them and for the world they work for. They use sustainable materials and practices (more next time), treat their employees fairly. Some even give classes and resources to their employees so they can branch out, get an education, and better their lives. It takes a bit of looking, but you can find them. The coolest I’ve seen so far is Krochet Kidswho works “with highly vulnerable women who live in poverty stricken regions of the world. Our program empowers women with the resources to rise above poverty. Forever. Empowered women transform their families, communities, and the developing world.” Plus, they are big into the “know who made your clothes”, and every product comes with a hand-signed tag by the woman who made it.

Be an activist.

As the demand for safer conditions for workers, a fair wage, and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry grows, activism groups are growing too. Check out Fashion Revolution– a movement dedicated to #whomademyclothes. Let your voice be heard.

I think we can change this.


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