Why Does Ethical Fashion Cost More?

As far as consumerism goes, there are some hard truths we need to explore. In upcoming posts, we’re going to talk about why we all need to consume less and why our lifestyles have become too disposable and convenient. Spoiler alert, both of these hard truths have everything to do with the planet. Today we’re going to explore something that impacts the planet and people. So what’s the hard truth? 

We should be paying more for our clothes.

It’s no secret that ethical clothing costs more than mainstream clothing. Why is mainstream clothing cheaper than ethical clothing? Because mainstream clothing costs less to produce than ethical clothing. When production is cheaper, then the retail cost of consumer goods is cheaper. Companies pay less; consumers pay less. Sounds great, right? 

Not so fast. We need to ask another question: Why is production of mainstream fashion cheaper? 

The long answer? 

Here are 5 reasons why the production of mainstream fashion is cheaper than the production of ethical fashion.

The short answer is that mainstream fashion brands exploit people and the planet. 

The long answer? 

Here are 5 reasons why the production of mainstream fashion is cheaper than the production of ethical fashion.


Mainstream fashion companies pay their workers poverty wages.

According to Labour Behind the Label:

“Wages in the garment industry are notoriously low. Most workers are not able to meet their basic needs and live in dignity. A lack of publicly available information on the supply chains allows brands to profit, whilst workers who make their clothes are kept living in poverty. In factories in Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Romania, Croatia and more, the people who make our clothes usually earn less than a third of what they need to meet their basic needs and care for their families.”

This problem isn’t confined to the Global South. Garment workers are paid poverty wages in the US and UK too. In 2021, in a story about California’s Garment Worker Protection Act, Reuters reported that

“About 85% of garment workers do not earn the minimum wage and are instead paid a piece rate of between 2-6 cents per piece. Most garment workers work 60-70 hour weeks with take home pay of about $300, according to the work rights group.”

And in the UK, an investigation found that “British-based factory workers producing garments for a string of top fashion brands are being paid less than half the legal minimum wage,” as reported by The Guardian.

Ethical fashion companies pay fair and living wages. A living wage is a wage paid to a producer or worker that takes into account the basic cost of living in a specific geographic area. These hourly wages are calculated at a rate that allows workers to meet their basic needs, such as food and shelter. It differs from place to place and in many countries is still extremely low compared to the U.S. cost of living. (Click here for a summary of global living wages.) It’s based on the principle that no working person be paid wages that keep them trapped in poverty. A minimum wage, on the other hand, is a floor set by a government. In places where jobs are scarce and economies weak, minimum wage laws are too low, not enforced or non-existent, which attracts businesses looking only to minimize costs and not taking into account other social and moral principles that should be factored into wage calculation. The good news is that many business owners and consumers are recognizing that there is a difference between wages being legal and wages being fair, and many are choosing to pay workers and suppliers a fair wage while still making a profit. When workers are paid a fair wage to produce products, we have to pay more to consume products, but we can do so knowing that people are being respected for their hard work.


Mainstream fashion companies have poor working environments and conditions.

Have you heard of the Rana Plaza collapse? Read this from the International Labour Organization:

“On 24 April 2013, the collapse of the  Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500. Only five months earlier, at least 112 workers had lost their lives in another tragic accident, trapped inside the burning Tazreen Fashions factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. These disasters, among the worst industrial accidents on record, awoke the world to the poor labour conditions faced by workers in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh. For some of the lowest wages of the world, millions of people, most of them girls and women, are exposed every day to an unsafe work environment with a high incidence of work-related accidents and deaths, as well as occupational diseases. Most of the factories do not meet standards required by building and construction legislation. As a result, deaths from fire incidents and building collapses are frequent. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, no fewer than 109 accidents have occurred. Among these, at least 35 were textile factory incidents in which 491 workers were injured and 27 lost their lives. In the absence of a well-functioning labour inspection system and of appropriate enforcement mechanisms, decent work and life in dignity are still far from reality for the vast majority of workers in the garment industry and their families.”

As you can see, unsafe working environments are not uncommon. Do you know what else isn’t uncommon in the garment industry? Forced overtime. Sexual abuse and harrassment

Ethical fashion companies have better working environments and conditions. They seek out manufacturing partners that operate safe and clean facilities and respect workers’ rights. Most undergo routine inspections to ensure workplace standards are being met. Some of these factories are even Fair Trade Certified. Other times, the production is smaller-scale and done in women’s cooperative settings where workers organize themselves. 


Mainstream fashion companies have larger environmental impacts, including bigger carbon footprints, more waste, more toxic chemicals and more air and water pollution.

There is a cost to minimizing one’s environmental impact. This is as true for your own household as it is for a large company and its operation. Maintaining a lower carbon footprint means using wind or solar power and reducing energy consumption; using eco-conscious and local suppliers; using hybrid or electric vehicles; and having a greener digital strategy. Reducing waste means reducing inputs through the use of more efficient production, reusing byproducts and recycling all unused materials. Avoiding the use of toxic chemicals and dyes means using more expensive organic raw materials and eco dyes. Avoiding air and water pollution means deploying filtration and environmentally-friendly treatment systems. 

Ethical fashion companies have lower environmental footprints because they take extra precautions at every stage, from textile production through garment construction to distribution. Some are even Carbon Neutral Certified or net-positive. Ethical brands don’t take these steps because they are required by law or regulation, they do it because they know that there is a steep price to be paid for having a large environmental impact. Someone, somewhere, at some time in the future, will need to clean up the mess that mainstream fashion companies are making. That is, if climate change caused by irresponsible business practices hasn’t already left the planet uninhabitable.


Mainstream fashion companies prioritize scale.

It’s cheaper to produce more of the same thing. You already know that’s one of the reasons large companies can offer lower prices than an artisan who handmakes one product at a time. This can be a good thing when the cost-savings don’t come at the cost of damaging our environment. But when mainstream fashion companies overproduce and then discard unwanted products in a landfill to emit methane and pollute our land and water, then these cost savings aren’t really less expensive at all. They are only less expensive because mainstream companies are NOT paying to clean up their messes. Ethical companies often produce in smaller batches or on-demand because they hold themselves accountable for their entire production process, including the waste and byproducts that result. 

This leads us to our fifth and final reason why the production of mainstream fashion is cheaper than the production of ethical fashion.


Mainstream fashion companies have a linear product lifecycle approach.

The final stage in a linear product lifestyle is disposal of the product. That means eventually something will get thrown away and another product will take its place. But where is away? There is no magical place where our consumer goods go to disappear and impact not at all our natural world. When something gets thrown away, it ends up in a landfill or in our oceans, and it continues to impact our environment, including the quality of our soil for producing food, the quality of our air, the quality of our drinking water.

According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, “ Each year millions of tonnes of clothes are produced, worn, and thrown away. Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill.” 

Because ocean pollution is way too big a topic to discuss here, we leave you to google and a box of tissues as you see with your own eyes the damage this is being done to people and marine life as a result of plastics and toxic waste wreaking havoc in our oceans. 

Ethical fashion companies have a different view. They use a circular approach. This means that their finished materials are compostable, biodegradable or (at least) recyclable. They operate recycling programs. They have take-back or re-use programs. Sometimes their products are even made from used or discarded textiles.

These are the hard truths. These are the facts. We all have a choice to make about how we respond. Will we change our consumer behaviors and stop rewarding mainstream fashion companies for the ways they exploit people and the planet? 

At People Heart Planet, we make it easy for you to discover and shop fair trade and sustainable fashion brands. You can filter by category. You can filter by price. You can filter by shipping destination. You can browse our directory of nearly 200 ethical brands and counting. 

It used to be hard to align our values of loving people and loving the planet with how we shop for clothes, shoes, bags, accessories, home goods and more. That’s why we created People Heart Planet. To make it easy. 

Go to www.peopleheartplanet.com and discover that a more fair, just and peaceful world is literally at your fingertips. 

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