It can be difficult to determine the true cost of a garment’s production. This is how to shop for clothes with confidence

What is the real cost of a Zara Hsxazoodie? David Hachfeld, a Swiss NGO Public Eye, and a team made up of researchers from the Clean Clothes Campaign attempted to discover the true cost of a Zara hoodie in April 2019. They decided to analyze a black, large-sized top from Zara’s flagship sustainability line Join Life. The shirt was printed with Aretha Franklin’s famous lyrics: “R-E–S-P-E–C-T: Find out what it means for me.” This was a good choice because it was intended to determine if respect was paid to workers involved in garment production and how much of the average retail price of the hoodie, EUR26.66 (PS22.70), went into their wallets.

This was not an easy task. It took six months for several people to complete this task. They had to email Zara’s parent company Inditex and slowly get limited information back. Interviews were also conducted with dozens of sources in Izmir (Turkey), where the garment was made. They analysed trading data and financial results, and spoke with experts in production and pricing. Hachfeld said on the phone that it was a large project.

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Their research revealed that the largest chunk of the hoodie’s retail price, an estimated EUR10.26, went back into Zara to pay for retail space and wages. After VAT at EUR4.44, the next largest portion was Inditex/Zara’s profit at EUR4.20. The research revealed that Izmir’s textile factory received EUR1.53 to cut the material, sew and pack the labels. EUR1.10 was paid to the garment workers who had to put the hoodie together for the 30-minute task. According to the report, workers couldn’t have been paid a living wage. Clean Clothes Campaign, at the time of publication, defined a EUR6.19 hourly gross wage.

Zara stated that the research was “based upon erroneous premises” and “inaccurate reporting”. She also said that the EUR7.76 sourcing cost was incorrect and that workers were paid more than what was in Public Eye’s report. Zara declined to elaborate on the findings of the research when I reached out to her for clarification.

It is evident that it is difficult to determine the true cost of a garment’s production – even when you are evaluating a flagship “sustainability” line at a major high-street retailer.

Hachfeld points out Zara is not unique in being opaque. Zara is doing more than other clothing brands. It has long-term commitments to work towards living wages. They are consulting with trade unions and launching initiatives. He says, “But the question is: when will it happen?” It is rare for retailers to guarantee living wages in their complex, long-running supply chains. According to the non-profit group Fashion Revolution, only two of the 250 most powerful fashion brands in the world (OVS and Patagonia), disclose how many workers they pay a living wage. This is despite having the same resources that make founders billionaires. Forbes estimates Zara’s founder Amancio Ortega is worth $77bn (PS55bn), and H&M founder Stefan Persson is worth $21.3bn. the Sunday Times puts the wealth of Boohoo’s co-founder, Mahmud Kamani, at PS1.4bn.

Fashion is a complicated business. For decades, high-street clothing has become more affordable and less expensive. According to Gordon Renouf (CEO of Good on You), a major reason is that many western brands have “moved away from onshore production 40+ years ago to greater offshore production”. They often choose countries with lower wages, weaker labor movements, and less strict environmental regulations. We know this all, but we also have gotten used to the benefits. The way we perceive clothing and the amount of it that we need has changed.

For example, in 1970, the average British household spent 7 percent of its annual income on clothes. By 2020, this had dropped to 5.9%. Despite our lower spending, we still tend to have more clothes. The UN estimates that the average consumer now owns 60% more clothing, with half the life expectancy, than they did 15-years ago. Fashion is becoming cheaper. Super-fast brands like Shein (which sells tie dye crop tops for PS1.49) or Alibaba (vest tops at $2.20) have exploded online. This makes high-street brands seem slow-moving, expensive, and inefficient.

The correlation between ethics and price is not good. Stella McCartney’s wool-cotton jumper is just one example of the expensive brands that dominate discussions about sustainable fashion. Each $520 sustainable viscose-carbon-offset scarf neck blouse at Another Tomorrow features a QR code on the label that details every stage of the “provenance” journey.

Many people shop on the high street but don’t want to buy at Boohoo or Primark because they believe it is ethical. However, most mid-priced brands won’t guarantee that workers are paid a living wage or use environmentally friendly materials. The price of a garment is often more about customer expectations and aspiration than the cost of production. Hachfeld points to the fact that Zara’s hoodie was more expensive in Switzerland (CHF 45.90). Zara is considered a mid-range brand in Switzerland (EUR39.57) and Spain (EUR25.95), where Zara is seen as mainstream and more affordable.

The price of clothing is a hot topic online. Aja Barber, a sustainable-fashion writer, uses the term “exploitation prices” for very low clothing, such as the Pretty Little Thing bikini at 8.8p. She says, “Either the company is taking the hit or the garment worker, but most likely it’s the latter, since that would not be a profitable business model.”

Barber sets a personal limit when purchasing an item. She says that if a dress costs less than PS50, it is important to deconstruct the labour involved. Think about how much you are paid per hour – can this person make this dress in three hours? She also doesn’t base her calculation on the local wages in global south which are much lower due to years of oppression and colonialism. She avoids buying new clothes and avoids polyester, which is made from fossil fuels and used in garments to make them more durable yet cheap.

Barber is annoyed by the accusations that people make about super-cheap brands. She believes that these comments are mostly from middle-class people who want to be part of the system and not feel guilty about it. She believes that fast fashion is not supported by people with low disposable incomes but rather by middle-class excess.

It is impossible to determine if a garment was ethically manufactured by looking at the manufacturer’s website. However, many brands do not provide enough information. You can also check out Good on You’s rating, which ranks fashion brands based on their impact on the environment, animals, and people. Greenwashing is rampant even among brands who have made sustainability their main focus. Renouf cautions against brands that talk vaguely of being “natural” or “fair” or bang on regarding recycled packaging without providing details, such as the materials they use and whether they work with unions.

Sam Mabley, a fashion retailer, believes that ethical fashion is only possible if it’s expensive. Mabley owns a sustainable clothing store in Bristol. He thought it was shameful that he was selling ethical T-shirts at the PS30 price. He says that such T-shirts are usually made in small batches by “cool indie labels who do printed designs – a lot of work is in designing”. He decided to reverse that business model and create plain, organic cotton T-shirts in black and white, for just PS7.99. He secured over 4,000 orders in just one month of social media promotion.

He believes that it would be easy for fast-fashion brands, with their purchasing power, to “drive change in the lives of millions of workers across the globe” and ensure their factories pay living wages without compromising their margins. This view is shared by Jenny Hulme (head of purchasing at People Tree), who believes that ethical production is possible in all parts of the market. She says that large orders can reduce the price. However, if a company truly wants to improve, they can.

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High-street clothing shopping is far from the ideal. Except for a few “sustainable” lines by big fast-fashion companies – which I don’t recommend due to so many accusations about greenwashing – it is nearly impossible to find ethical clothing at rock bottom prices. This is because the business models that allow clothing to be this cheap rely heavily on low-wage, environmentally-harmful fabrics.

This may make it difficult for anyone to dress ethically on a high street purse, but Renouf says that there are options. He explains that Good on You is not just focused on promoting sustainable brands but also aims to provide ratings for as many brands possible. For example, you could move from a fast fashion brand to one that is more engaged and high-street, which may not be as expensive but could still represent progress.

Fashion campaigners will tell you that buying fewer but higher-quality items can help you save money. Hulme says, “Buy the highest quality you can afford, maybe in end-of season sales or by purchasing a thick sweater in the middle of the summer to wear next winter.”

Another avenue is to get out of the cycle and avoid brands that sell planned obsolescence. Patrick Grant, who is a judge on BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee explains that his Community Clothing brand seeks to give customers more value by selling basics and not constantly creating new designs. It also doesn’t need retail space or marketing. He works to reduce costs, so he can spend on quality fabric and keep the prices low. His PS49 hoodies are made of 470g 100% loopback Cotton, which is thicker and more durable than what you would find on the high-street.

Researching small, sustainable brands may be an option for those who are able to afford the mid-high street. Zara’s website shows silk dresses for as high as PS199. There are many others for sale at PS49.99. H&M-owned &OtherStories sells jackets for around PS120. Barber says that these prices could encourage shoppers to switch to ethical brands such as Lora Gene (for which she has created a collection) and Ninety Percent. A dress that I like is available for purchase at PS64 on the Ninety Percent Sale. A mustard Lora Gene Blazer is PS139.

These prices may be still excessive, so consider swapping clothes, shopping secondhand or repairing and rethinking your existing clothing, as well as renting for special occasions.

Voting with your wallet is only a way to vote. It won’t work for many people in need, as the UK’s poverty rate has risen to 15 million. It’s not about criticizing the magic of rock-bottom prices. You could instead write to CEOs and MPs demanding that they address the issue of living wages and environmental costs. Brands are responsible, but the government should also be accountable for a broken system.

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