What is the Real Cost of That Dress?

By Sarah Ripper on Sunday January 22nd, 2017

The Truth About Where You are Putting Your Money

Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes. —Vivienne Westwood

We are becoming increasingly aware of what we eat, and what we put on our body in terms of cosmetics and other personal care products. It is becoming more common for people to be mindful of the social and environmental impacts or benefits of their consumer choices. This awareness is filtering into parts of the clothing industry and fashion world.

It seems the fashion industry is spearing down several paths and some companies are increasingly compelled to utilise transparency and ethical practice as part of their sales pitch, but how authentic are their claims? The bulk of it is clothing with very short life spans. I’m definitely not a fashionista. I source lots of my clothes from op shops, pieces that are hand sewn (not by me, I lack the sewing knack) or made by local designers.

But, I still have pieces in my wardrobe with questionable supply chains – those bits and pieces that were cheap or convenient for me to buy. What’s the real cost of my choices?

What are the true costs of your clothing choices and what can you do about it?

Following the Trends

At this point in time, we are buying 400% more clothes than we did 20 years ago. Fashion carries with it the connotations of seasons, style, capitalism and four fashion shows a year telling you what to wear. People buy the watered down versions from affordable sources as part of fast fashion, which churns out 52 micro-seasons a year.

From fair working conditions to questioning the integrity of supply chains, the conversation is growing, particularly since the shift to fast fashion has seen the move from natural materials to synthetic petrochemical based fibres.

What’s the solution? Should we all just give up and become nudists?

Who is making our clothes and how is it affecting our planet? There are a few reasons why our current fashion and garment industry is problematic. Aside from crude oil, fashion is the most polluting industry in our world.

Alt text hereThe fast pace of high fashion sets the constantly changing trends.

The Destructive Impacts

The gender footprint is also considerable. Fashion is the largest employer of women across the world, but only 2% of these workers are receiving a living wage. Now that I know a bit more about where my wardrobe was sourced, I’ll be thinking differently next time I make a new addition.

It takes 2700 litres of water and a third of a pound of chemicals to create a cotton t-shirt, with 20% of global industrial water used for dyeing textiles, which impacts on the water supply and quality for both the people and environment in which the dyeing takes place. The bulk of mass manufactured clothing are created from synthetic fibres (many with hazardous chemicals on them) that are cheaply made and sold.

A study in 2014 found 85% of man-made materials found on shorelines were microfibers, which derive from the synthetic materials used in clothing. The average American sends 68 pounds of textiles to landfill every year and because they’re petroleum based synthetic fibres, they aren’t great for decomposing. The residual chemicals on clothing include lead, pesticides, insecticides and flame-retardants and other known carcinogens, which dwell on our largest organ, the skin. What’s the solution? Should we all just give up and become nudists?

Alt text hereThe impacts of fast fashion are both environmental and social.

Support Innovation

If we vote with our money and actions for the world we want to see, then how can we be more aware of what we’re supporting or saying “no thanks”, to? Funnily enough, the approach to being more mindful with our clothes is similar to our food – ethical, natural, local.

Funnily enough, the approach to being more mindful with our clothes is similar to our food – ethical, natural, local.

Refreshingly, there are plenty of researchers, businesses and communities working with nature’s creations, be it hemp, seaweed, pineapple, bamboo and even kombucha to create materials for clothing. All this innovation and research can be expensive to pioneer and seldom fits the requirements of the fast fashion machine.

Alt text hereInnovative materials like pineapple leather are changing the fashion game.

The Environmental Impact

Dyes have a huge impact on our environment regardless of which materials are being used. Potential positive impacts of moving to natural dyes include using the by-products for fuel and compost, which is a great possibility. At present, using natural dyes still has negative environmental impacts including being water intensive and using chemicals to bond the colour to the fabric. However, with more support and research this could be overcome.

Berkeley researchers have taken on reconsidering how denim production can be kinder to the earth. The humble jeans, which are found in many a wardrobe use one of the world’s oldest dyes, indigo. The petroleum derived indigo, like all dyes, has a dark side.

The 40,000 tons of indigo used a year pollutes waterways, corrodes piping in waste water plants and is toxic to fish and other aquatic life. With three billion pairs of jeans manufactured globally every year, Berkeley researchers have taken on exploring alternative options to modifying the gene and bacteria to produce indican, the blue colour required for denim.

Alt text hereThe mass production of jeans using indigo dye has a huge impact on the environment.

Simplify Your Wardrobe

Research and innovation is vital to creating clothes that are kind to the earth and people. There are also the Sustainable Clothing Research Group from Nottingham University keeping their finger on the pulse.

You could try doing a clothes swap with your friends, or donate them. For those pieces of clothing that aren’t able to be passed on in their current state, the next incarnation to save them from landfill could be to upcycle them. Be mindful of green washing when purchasing more ethical clothes and ask questions about their supply chain to ensure it’s aligned with your purchasing ethics.

Well-made + good materials = longer life span (for you, or the next wearer).

Alt text hereGo green with your clothing by recycling or upcycling your wardrobe.

Function Over Fashion

Some people are even opting to simplify their clothing choice by thinking about what they wear at work. The uniform or utilitarian dress movement, inspired by the male corporate suit, has been happening for a while. Wearing a work uniform is becoming more popular for the time, energy and stress it saves. People are selecting an outfit or a few outfits to wear during work time and opt to leave all other clothes for play.

From President Obama to Steve Jobs, many high profile people have had similar responses to why they wear the same or very similar clothing when at work – they don’t want to make decisions about food or clothes because they want to focus on how to do their job. It is, in essence, workable to have one or a few select outfits that look, feel and are appropriate, for the job.

It’s time for the new era of sustainable fashion where clothing is both ethical and produced with quality.

Words By Sarah Ripper

Writer and journalist




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16 Responses to What is the Real Cost of That Dress?

  1. Here is an idea. Start leading and inspiring the world to decrease its population humanely, ethically, fairly. Don’t kill people, and advocate for and streamline adoption while reducing the population through a VOLUNTARY reduction in the number of conceptions and natural attrition.
    We should never ever suggest that a country or a people have more children as a way to pay for past generations excesses. That is indentured servitude and is a bad if not a criminal plan.
    We add around 200,000 people to the planet every day. That is like the population of a city like Modesto, California or Akron, Ohio, appearing on the face of the earth every day. This is NOT sustainable.
    There is a number, maybe 1/3 of our current population, maybe more or less that would allow people to live free and happy lives everywhere, have heat in the winter, Cooling in the summer, use natural resources at our leisure with having to worry about out stripping the earth or finding new ways to desalinate water, We could make trash at an acceptable rate and more reusable easier if there weren’t so many people needing jobs making more crap to throw away,. With far fewer people we could have more space between us more room for disagreement
    You know I’m right. Don’t argue, just get started.

    My suggestion is reasonably un popular even though it merely “asks” it does not “force” by law or resolution, but by leadership and inspiration societies to change. The change is needed not in bureaucracy and policy, but in the basic tenants that reside inside the individual human.
    We have “reproduce” built in, and it just so happens that it feels good. Not only does the sexual act feel good but the knowledge that we have created something form nearly nothing feels good. And babies are cute. Since it feels good we do it. My way asks not for any pain, but clearly more responsible “feels good” moments and or fewer of them all together.
    The alternatives to my ideas are slim really. We can try to spread out in space, which will eventually happen and will get more important and more people will try harder the more our population here on earth becomes untenable. but at our rate of growth adding a few million to Mars or some to the moon will barely make a dent.
    Of course the obvious (at least to me ) alternative is that we keep growing at a crazy stupid rate with 1/2 the world putting their efforts, not into reduction of the initial problem (population) but forcing each and every of too many humans, to sacrifice more and more just to keep the planet habitable. And the other 1/2 trying to kill off the first 1/2 in the name of some religion or other non universal belief. While the second 1/2 are killing in the name of a God or a perceived justice, they will also continue to reproduce, not just because it feels good or babies are cute, but in an effort to make sure there are more of them than those who oppose them.
    Along with or regardless of whether or not there is killing and continued wars over land, power and in the future, water, there will be even greater suffering with eventual pestilence and disease running rampant. The more people there are, the harder it will be to educate and keep them all healthy.
    All of that sounds way more painful than my way.

  2. Hi Sarah Ripper and Uplift! Do you happen to have links to the sources for the claim that the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter? I was under the impression it was agriculture and would like to research it further. Thx!

  3. Interesting that we talk about buying less, but not about having fewer people. Population control would help more than anything else.

  4. Did we read the same article or just look at the pictures ? The article is talking about the environmental cost of clothing more than anything else .

  5. didn’t some American companies move their production to China some time ago (Nike…)? Maybe they are moving some of their factories out of China now, but it only happens now. How much money did they earn by exploiting Chinese people as cheap labour? It’s not only about how much these people are paid. It is also about how American people are left without work because big companies want to save money on labour. Neither Chinese should work for nickle and dime, nor American people should be left without their jobs, just because someone wants to earn enormous sums of money by exploiting people.

  6. You talked about knowing where the clothes are being produced and how they are produced, but how can we access that kind of information? Very few companies divulge it….

  7. Come on people! I know that we are buying brand clothes for overestimated price but in this case the real price of the dress is definitely not $0.60. What do you mean real? Only the price for the work of one human? What is about the salary of designers for this dress, transaction costs, tax payments, salary to sale manager in the store, usual manager, expenses for not sold or damaged clothes, etc…? Of course, all those expenses are included and this price is REAL. I know that you are trying to show people the truth, so please do it then. Show the truth but not the fairytales that don’t exist

    • The point was the material and labor cost to make the product complete was $.60. That alone is scary seeing if you take out the cost of materials how much was she paid to do the work? The women in these factories sewing all these products are usually treated like slaves. Ive seen investigations with women chained to a metal frame after passing out due to the fact they were working in high heat temps, with little to no clean drinking water. So when they pass out from dehydration they would shove an IV in their arm and chain them to a metal frame by a mattress thrown on the floor. You can down play this all you want to make yourself feel better about buying they product that cause this all you want, but that does not change the fact that people die in these conditions, and are teated like slaves just so you can look pretty! So go somewhere else with your self justification excuses!

      • Yes of course you are right in this point. People are working in horrible conditions damaging their health and we definitely have to change that. But look at your point from another side. You suggest not to consume those kind of products at all. Don’t you think that you will worse the situation of that women by this way? They have these jobs not because they want but because they don’t have another opportunities to earn money and feed their families. And closing the factory you take even this chance back. How should they earn money? Just ask this woman – will she prefer to die from hunger or her children to die or to have at least this harmful job but live somehow? If she is working there it means she made her choice. Yes, the amount of money she should have from the final price has to be much bigger. And it is the responsibility of the government of this exact country to set fair labor laws and conditions. Counting that these measures will be taken and working conditions will be fair you will see that the only one way to improve the life of people especially in poor countries to raise consumption and production together. You understand the problem but you don’t really understand the reasons of it I think. Try to go deeper to the problem

    • The cost is actually not including the material and all the other costs and margins involved, the $0.60 is what the garment worker received for sewing it which is what makes it appalling. Because it is fast fashion the labour in the supply chain is where companies and consumers are bargaining. Consumers need to press companies and hold them accountable. Government can only do so much, especially in developing countries. They are so desperate to accept work that profit and contributing to a countries GDP is more important than valuing the lives of the workers.

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