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"Fair Trade Products Are Too Pricey"

Debunking common objections to shopping ethically.

Every day in the mail I get some new clothing catalog, full of the latest fashions. And as a mother of small children who are constantly outgrowing clothes, shopping for clothes is a necessary part of my life. Yet the clothes I buy and wear don’t just affect me; they are part of a global industry that affects all parts of the world. The garment industry employs some thirty to forty million people worldwide, and leaves its impact on their communities, environments, families and health. It is easy to walk into a store and purchase whatever you think is cute and cheap enough for your budget. However, it is rare for the average shopper to stop and consider the hidden costs of what he or she is buying—and who might be paying the costs.

As simple as purchasing ethically may sound, there are a few issues that often stand in people’s way.

Excuse #1: Ethically made clothing isn’t stylish. 

While part of me questions the need to place style above loving others, I understand this is a big deal for a lot of people. The stereotype of organic or fairly made clothing is that it is intended for “hippies”—you know, long flowing skirts, lots of rough-woven hemp, tribal patterns. While such clothing does exist (and can be found in my closet), it is far from being the only ethical option out there. Fairly made clothing exists that is just as trendy and “normal” as anything you can find in a traditional store. It may be harder to tell that it is alternative clothing since it looks just like what everyone else is wearing, but you will know what you are supporting with your purchase.

If you need a little help finding a variety of fair trade styles, start your search on sites like BTC Elements, Fair Indigo, Indigenous Designs or Ecoland.

Excuse #2: Ethically made clothing is more expensive.

If you are accustomed to buying really cheap clothing from the typical big-box store, the cost of ethical clothing will seem high. I can relate to the desire to shop frugally, but to overcome this hurdle, it may be necessary to step back and consider the hidden costs of the eight-dollar shirt we might typically buy. For a shirt to cost that little, usually the workers who made it had to be paid very little as well. While the reverse is not also true—that because something costs more, the workers must have received a fair wage—it is true that if a worker receives a fair wage (and better working conditions), the cost of an item will be more.

Most ethical clothing companies are bringing in less profit than conventional ones even though the price tag on their clothing may be higher. The question boils down to whether we are willing to pay a price for our clothing that ensures that workers were treated well. Often that price isn’t that much more than conventional prices, but it can still be a difficult choice to make. Speaking personally, I do my best to seek out ethically made items when I need a new item of clothing. This means that I spend more on each item, but to compensate, I simply buy fewer clothes. It has forced me to realize how often I buy clothing just because I want something new. Being deliberate about shopping helps put those habits in perspective, revealing needs versus wants, and this actually saves money.

Also try to seek out alternative ways to avoid supporting the conventional system, like borrowing from friends or shopping at garage sales and resale shops. I understand how much of a struggle this issue can be. Many people don’t have the means to buy new clothing at all. Yet I’ve also observed that no matter what a person’s income, new clothing often becomes a priority in our fashion-obsessed culture. Rethinking that priority and reevaluating what you buy is part of what it means to seek justice in this area. This is more than just a price-tag issue, and there are ways to make it work, even if that requires altering habits or making sacrifices.

Excuse #3: I can’t find clothing that is ethically made (in all areas).

The third major issue is discovering which items are ethically made and where you can find them. I often encounter sites that sell clothing made, for example, by a women’s co-op that ensures good working conditions and fair pay, but the site gives me no information about the environmental or health impact of the fabric production. Similarly I can find organic cotton clothing but with no information regarding worker conditions. The most frustrating is when I find an item for sale that was neither produced in environmentally friendly ways, nor made under fair-labor standards, but which will donate 1 percent of its profits to some charity cause. This helps the buyers feel good about their purchase but distracts from the underlying justice issue. What we need, instead, is for public awareness of these issues to increase and for the demand for clothing made ethically (in all aspects) to increase. As demand increases, more clothing companies will be forced to take responsibility for the clothing they sell.

Excuse #4: If I don’t buy ethically made clothing, at least the workers in sweatshops will still have jobs.

Of course the economics at play here are complicated. Our global system both employs and harms workers. Some might say it would just be better for me to buy as much as I can to keep workers employed. They question the call for factories to treat workers fairly, claiming that will put other workers who are desperate for jobs out of work. Such arguments claim that workers are grateful for their jobs in sweatshops, because those jobs are better than nothing and to stop sweatshops will destroy their lives.

I am disturbed by the assumption that a worker’s only options are a horribly abusive job or no job at all. Such a view assumes reform is impossible and that conditions can never improve. The call to eliminate sweatshops is not a call to shut down factories (which is too often the path taken by clothing companies caught in unethical behavior); it is a call to improve conditions in those factories. The point is not to destroy jobs and lives but to bring healing to those already broken.

Awareness about the production conditions of our clothes, and love for those who make them, cannot remain in the realm of ideals; it must translate into action. We can choose to buy clothes made under decent and fair conditions, send messages to companies, and alter our consumption habits. Clothing companies will see no need to start treating their workers well unless consumers send that threefold message. Seeking everyday justice for workers starts with these small changes in each of our lives. But small changes add up and can eventually change the whole system. So next time you ponder “what not to wear,” remember that how you answer has global implications with very personal meaning for individual workers.

Adapted from Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices by Julie Clawson. Copyright(c) 2009 by Julie Clawson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

65 Comments

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taylors commented…

There is a point you left out from thisarticle. that is that people so called "ethical clothing" is a marketing play. Its been around for years, people create ideas for us to spend and extra $30 on.(I live inNZso idon'tknow what you guys in the US spend on cloths)

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Kevin commented…

I agree with you regarding that most Americans can't afford to pay $12 for one pair of underwear (check the Ecoland website). Can a person really afford that if I make $9 an hour?

I definitely agree with shopping ethically. However, it's not as simple for the less wealthy. Or maybe that's the target audience for this movement? But as long as we have the working poor, companies will make goods for them that's inexpensive and uses cheap labor to produce it.BTW... the clothes are not stylish... of the websites mentioned... men's clothes was minimal at best... where are the button shirts, khakis, dress shoes, suits, pea coats, athletic gear... I can't wear a t-shirt to work (plus I don't want to)... if this movement is going to be taken seriously... the style and variety of clothes needs to be improved... GREATLY.

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Allie Molina7 commented…

I work at Non Profit called not for sale actually we try to stop human trafficking slavery and sex trade. I think its wise to buy fair trade products yes they maybe pricey but worth it. I rather change the world then buying things that are made by slaves.

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Chris commented…

It's often a difficult trade-off. The argument for "If I don't buy stuff from sweatshops, people won't have jobs" is a valid one: but its wider than that - if we stop all stopped buying stuff we didn't need, most economies would collapse, hurting millions.

Yet I passionately feel we need to stop buying the stuff! #dillemnas

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Anonymous commented…

The fair trade clothing thing really gets to me...I'd love to buy more fairly traded items but on all the websites I've seen the clothes aren't as fashionable or suited to my style as those I can get in other shops, and seem to be designed for a different age/style market. I don't know much about design/marketing but I think whatever TOMS did to get as popular as they have done, more companies should try that.

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