Responsible Production comes at a cost, but this does not mean that we need to ‘buy’ a better world, but rather shift the axis around which we currently produce and consume.
What is Sustainable Fashion and how does it compare to conventional production?
Sustainability is the ability for something to be maintained at a certain rate or level, avoiding the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. However, fashion’s linear take-make-dispose model is unsustainable because it puts stress on precious resources and pollutes land, sea and air which contributes to climate change and has a disproportionate social impact on those who are least culpable. A responsible fashion brand ultimately applies sustainable practise to each stage of production from selection of raw materials, to the dying and processing of textiles, safe manufacturing conditions, and innovative waste solutions. Sustainability is an umbrella word that sits across the fashion value chain and should come from a place of positivity and optimism for a more prosperous future for our planet.
Currently the majority of brands focus on a transaction-based relationship with suppliers, where pursuit of the lowest possible cost price generates maximum profit. This rarely covers a living wage for the garment worker, and fabrics lack sustainable integrity; their raw materials derived from finite resources such as petroleum-based polyester which is cheap to produce, or cotton from an exploited workforce, and use of harsh chemicals. There is zero allowance for improvements, and environmental clean-up. Mass production at low cost allows brands to sell at unrealistically low prices. A responsible approach costs more, which pushes the selling price up, which is perceived as expensive but it reflects the real cost of making fashion. Optimistically a significant increase in awareness of negative impacts over the last four to five years, is beginning to shift our consumerist culture and break the disconnect between brands and suppliers.
A cost break-down of a responsibly produced tee-shirt
This cost-price model featured on Sustainably Chic a sustainable brand directory illustrates the costs that go into making a $36 ethically-produced tee-shirt. The example is a Fair Trade Unisex Tee from The Good Tee, who sell ethical and organic cotton basics.
Fair Trade Tee-shirt, The Good Tee
Cost break-down from The Good Tee
The Good Tee are transparent at each stage of production (mostly in India) from growing the cotton to delivery into the warehouse. Traceability through the supply chain is crucial in identifying impacts that may be addressed. Fair Trade certification guarantees workers fair wages and protects environmental standards. GOTS certification (Global Organic Textile Standard) is an easy pick for consumers seeking organic textiles. Premium long staple yarns are more durable and combing the cotton adds softness. Biodegradability ensures that a product can return to the biosphere and decompose without harming the environment. Garment manufacture and packing represents half the cost; premium construction for a longer life, safe working conditions, living wages. This tee-shirt is an investment in people and the environment. Crucially a total cost price of $9.22 does not include business overheads including salaries and marketing, which swallow part of the remaining $26 plus warehousing, store overhead, wholesale margins, design, development and reinvestment. When we see a tee-shirt under £10 we must ask ourselves, ‘how was it produced’? Of course, large global brands have immense buying power and can negotiate better prices throughout, but economies of scale do not get them off the hook – at that price, exploitation at one stage or other is in play.
Examples of other Transparent Brands
Birdsong is a UK brand based on social enterprise, a vision of integrity and fairness that warms my heart. Made in London, they pay a minimum of £10.85 per hour to their seamstresses compared to £3.50 which is often the going rate. Last year Leicester factories manufacturing for Boohoo were exposed by Labour Behind The Label for paying less than a minimum wage. As part of their #TransparentFriday manifesto Birdsong seek to educate their consumer on the real costs of their garments, highlighting the need to pay London living wages. They support makers in Tower Hamlets, a London borough where over 30% of children live in poverty due to low wages and high rents. A cost breakdown of their jumpsuit reveals that 40% helps to cover business overheads, 21% goes to garment workers and 15% for sustainable fabric. Vat and taxes, postage and packing makes-up the rest. You can buy a Boohoo jumpsuit for £25.00 or less, made from polyester which at volume may cost as little as 36p/meter.
Birdsong; cost-price breakdown of a jumpsuit made in London
I wanted to share another transparency model of a Susani coat from Zazi Vintage, a luxury sustainable brand partnering with social enterprise Saheli women in India, and Afghanistan artisans harnessing craft, skill and tradition whilst empowering women to build a better life; education, healthcare, security. Their embroidered Susani textiles and trims are up-cycled and account for over a fifth of the total cost, labour is upwards of a third. Because many of their pieces are one-offs and not mass-produced, shipping to various countries is exponentially higher.
Customs charges account for 30% before adding-in any VAT and brand overheads. Compare this to a £1450 Burberry Trench Coat lacking in sustainable credentials and uniqueness, but where brand marketing and mark-up are far higher percentages, enabled by volume.
Zazi Vintage cost transparency for a Susani Coat
Susani Coat, Zazi Vintage
Why does progress seem slow in the transition to responsible production?
The industry is based on profit-first strategies. Putting people first and planning for de-growth moves away from over-production and discounting but undermines profit forecasts. Sustainability is often seen as an after-thought, a bolt-on strategy rather than a manifesto across the entire business. Whether a sustainable ‘capsule’ collection or a line of organic cotton shirts, it signals a lack of commitment to the systemic change that is urgently needed. Large global brands have diverse and complex supply chains and progress will be slower because they are less nimble, however starting somewhere is imperative, as is investment in people on the ground rather than just a token team at head office. Another issue is Greenwashing where brands purport to practise sustainability but in reality it stacks-up to little more than an intention at best, to attract customers who care about making responsible purchases. This maintains profit margins at the expense of better materials and the well-being of millions of workers. It avoids doing the hard work.
There is a lack of willingness to engage with supply chain workers to understand the real issues that are hurting society. Progress will be slow until voices across the supply chain are represented.
Policy and legislation will help in holding brands to account but waiting until it is compulsory delays industry-wide response to climate change, to which fashion is a major contributor. Collaboration on innovative solutions and shared learnings with other brands is crucial in accelerating progress. Transparency and well-presented authentic data will help customers buy-into a green transition and understand the real costs. It will also put-pay to ubiquitous terms used, that attempt to hide business as usual. Sustainable footwear brand Allbirds have invested in a life-cycle assessment tool that calculates the carbon footprint of their products which they then label them with, to give customers clarity on the real impacts. We have become used to nutrition labels on food packaging, why not carbon impact?
AllBirds carbon footprint labelling
Rplanet is a new brand with an end-to-end purpose of responsible design, production and waste management. Research and development in this space has taken us almost four years to reach the point of going to market. The journey is long and complex but it is impossible to turn back. The technology and innovation exist to support a better way of making things, which comes at a cost because it is often not at scale in-part due to demand, or because smaller brands and start-ups lack the financial weight to meet minimum order quantities. I believe in a future where the fashion industry consists of similar motivated brands with ambitious goals, to create a fairer and more level playing field where customers are reassured in their choice. If brands put people and the environment ahead of profit, we are in reach of a better world.