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Fast fashion’s exploitation and hidden supply chains aren’t new revelations, but when we talk about the mistreated workers or the environmental impact of disposable clothes, we’re ignoring a third impact on the consumer. The “race to the bottom” has totally ruined our perception of value; we literally have no idea what our clothes (or food, or anything else) should cost, and low prices have become so normalized that we don’t even second-guess them. In fact, despite statistics that suggest millennial and Gen Z shoppers care deeply about sustainability, the fast fashion market is actually growing�and the clothes are getting cheaper. It doesn’t help that luxury is getting more expensive in tandem. The widening valley between the two is compounding our confusion: If a T-shirt shouldn’t be $5, then it probably shouldn’t be $500, either. But where’s the middle ground. What’s the “right” price for fashion.
It would be reckless to claim that every low-priced good was made by an underpaid laborer, but it’s also just simple math. “It really blows my mind,” Ryan Roche said on a recent call. “I can crunch the numbers, and even with the cheapest fabrics, I don’t understand how it’s possible. Someone is sewing that T-shirt, and they’re being paid pennies.” Maria Stanley, an independent, sustainably-minded designer based in Minneapolis, recalls her own experience working for a fast fashion label a decade ago in Los Angeles: “Retailers would tell us, �We want 1,000 of this item for $21 a piece,’ and the factory would quote us $40,” she says. “But eventually, they’d come down to $21. How do you get there. Who is losing out. The fabric is a steady cost, so it’s the workers [losing out].”
Fabric, pattern-making, sampling, trims, sewing, handwork, packaging, duties, shipping: This is an incomplete list of what you’re paying for when you buy a new T-shirt. And that’s before a wholesale markup (i.e., the profit a brand makes on the item) or the additional retail markup if you’re buying it in a store. Read that again, and the idea of a T-shirt being “worth” $5 might seem preposterous, if not criminal. How is it possible that all of those materials, logistics, and people amount to just dollars or cents. Many of those costs are fixed; the price of cotton isn’t negotiable, even at scale. The person who made the T-shirt, on the other hand, is a lot easier to exploit.
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