The High Cost of Cheap Clothes

By Emily Guy Birken on 1 March 2016 5 comments

The world of fashion has changed a great deal over the past few decades. Fashionistas in the 1980s sported neon colors, power suits with shoulder pads, and fingerless gloves. My fashion heyday of the 1990s featured Doc Marten boots, butterfly hair clips, and babydoll dresses. The early 2000s brought us low-rise pants, blazers, and the first incarnation of the skinny jeans phenomenon.

Another major change in the world of fashion is the price point. Specifically, clothes have gotten much cheaper with the rise of "fast fashion," and trends last weeks rather than years. Now, anyone can chase trends, even on a budget.

And boy, oh boy, do we chase those fashion trends. According to journalist Elizabeth L. Cline, author of the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, "Americans buy roughly 20 billion garments per year — about 64 items per person." That works out to more than one new garment per week.

But the ability to buy such low-cost clothing is not necessarily a good thing. Here are three reasons why $14 jeans and $25 dresses cost more than you think. (See also: 15 Things in Your Closet You Can Throw Out Today)

1. The Tragic Human Costs

The rapid turnover of stock in major clothing stores like H&M, Zara, and Gap requires an incredible manufacturing output. To meet that need, it's much cheaper for clothing retailers to have their garments manufactured overseas. Currently only 2% of clothing for sale in America was made at home. (As recently as 1990, 50% of our clothing was manufactured in America.)

Having goods manufactured overseas is a simple exercise in economics. If factories in Bangladesh or China can make clothes for less money than factories in America, it makes sense for clothing companies to use them. However, unsafe and unethical labor practices are major reasons for the cheapness of foreign manufacturing.

If you're old enough to remember wearing a 1990s Blossom-esque floppy hat adorned with a giant flower, then you might recall the huge public backlash when news broke that many major clothing manufacturers used child labor in foreign sweatshops. In the wake of the scandal, many clothing retailers worked to improve the conditions in their overseas factories.

However, even with regular improvements, there has not been sufficient supply chain management to ensure that overseas garment workers are not exploited or working in unsafe conditions. The April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,000 people, was partially attributed to the pressure placed on the factories housed in the building to complete garment orders on time. Though Rana Plaza had been evacuated the day before the collapse when alarming cracks had appeared in the building, managers ordered factory workers to return to work the next day or lose a month's pay — with tragic results.

The fashion industry came together to improve safety for garment workers in Bangladesh — but such an accord will not do nearly as much as changes in consumer behavior will do.

2. The Environmental Costs

The insatiable appetite for cheap duds puts a strain on our environment. Elizabeth L. Cline writes in Overdressed about traveling to the Guangdong Province in China, where the textile manufacturing takes place: "The air pollution was so thick I couldn't photograph anything a quarter-mile off the highway — it was lost in the smog."

In addition, even though cotton and wool are renewable resources, they are finite. Polyester is already the world's dominant clothing textile, according to Cline, and that trend can only continue while we treat clothing as disposable.

It may seem as though there is an easy way to have your fast fashion and ease your environmental guilt, too — just donate your cast offs to charity. However, Cline refers to this as "the clothing deficit myth." She writes, "charities long ago stopped being able to sell all of our wearable used clothes." According to a Salvation Army distribution center in New York City, the center processes "an average of five tons of garments every day and only chooses 11,200 [pieces] to send out to stores."

The long and short of it is that fast fashion strains our resources, and it often ends up in a landfill.

3. The Cost of Lowered Standards

Fast fashion makes its money through rapid turnover. H&M's CEO has bragged that they have new garments coming into the stores almost every day. Once a look premieres on the runway, a fast fashion manufacturer like H&M or Zara can design and produce a knockoff and have it on display in stores worldwide within a few weeks.

This may be great for the fashionista on a budget, but it's tough on the high-end clothing designers and fashion houses. Before you tell me you're not going to shed a tear for the plight of poor Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger, remember that the high-end labels are one of the few places where consumers could buy well-constructed garments that are both attractive and made to last. If the high-end manufacturers have to speed up their process — generally, there is a six month lag-time between a garment's appearance on the runway and its availability for purchase — it is inevitable that they will have to lower their standards in order to do so.

This affects regular consumers when it becomes impossible to find a dress or slacks that can be hemmed or altered without being destroyed. When all of the ubiquitous clothing choices are disposable, even the high-end ones, then the clothing line in your budget gets bigger, even if individual items are cheap to buy.

How to Make the Best Clothing Choices

Unfortunately, unless you live and work in a remarkably open-minded area, clothing is not optional. So how do you avoid these unseen costs? There are several ways to make great clothing choices that don't overload your budget or your conscience.

Wear What You Buy

There are two sides to this advice. The first is on the supply side. When you do your clothes shopping, even if it is in a fast fashion store, look for the items you can wear for the long term. Just because the retailer views your new blouse as disposable does mean you have to.

On the other side, shop your closet. Most people have a treasure trove of clothes they don't wear in closets and dressers. Even if it has stayed on the hanger because the fit isn't quite right or a seam has ripped, it's always possible to have unworn clothes altered or mended to return them to regular rotation.

Become a Laundry and Mending Master

It's time to relearn some of the garment-care skills that were second nature to our parents and grandparents — starting with proper laundry care.

For instance, I am often in the line of fire when either of my sons spill something or otherwise make a mess — and I usually just throw the spilled-on clothes right into the hamper instead of pre-treating the potential stain. Because of this, I'm regularly getting rid of otherwise perfectly good items that are covered with stains.

Also, even though I count quilting among my hobbies and know my way around a needle and thread, I often just stop wearing, and eventually get rid of, any garments that need to be mended.

In both of these cases, I am treating my clothes as disposable, rather than as an important investment that can keep me looking good for years if I take care of them.

Invest in High Quality Clothing

Business and finance writer (and Wise Bread contributor) Alaina Tweddale learned early on that money spent on high quality clothing was a better investment: "When I was a teenager, I started tracking the cost per wear for each item of clothing I purchased. I quickly discovered it was cheaper to buy higher quality textiles in classic silhouettes. Better construction leads to a longer clothing lifespan."

It can be difficult for most of us to recognize high quality construction, but there are several clues that you can look for, even in general department stores. For instance, after looking over the tag to see what the garment is made of and where it was manufactured, check the seams to make sure they are perfectly straight and that the stitches are small and even.

Swap Clothes with Friends

Clothing made in the 1940s and 1950s often included invisible hems and additional fabric sewn into the seams to allow for alterations. Modern clothing often does not have such leeway, which means any change in weight might require a new wardrobe.

A great way to handle this — as well as the issue of changing tastes — is to regularly hold clothing swaps with friends. Everyone can bring clothes they do not wear anymore and go home with new items that fit and look great that would have otherwise mildewed in someone else's closet.

Don't Overspend on Cheap Clothes

Even if your cheap clothing purchases don't hurt your budget in the short term, the long-term costs of fast fashion can be far too expensive.

Do you opt for fast fashion on a budget, or quality over quantity? Share with us in the comments!

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5 discussions

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Guest's picture
Area Man

Even expensive designer brand clothing is made in 3rd world countries....What to do?

Guest's picture

Thank you for this article! I have been researching ethical clothing but it can be difficult to find ethical places to shop in my budget and also to explain to friends why I am uncomfortable shopping at certain stores. Would love to see more on this in the future.

Guest's picture

Another way to fight clothing costs is to learn to sew your own.

Guest's picture
Isabella Tugman

My mom is a tailor, and she taught me about clothing quality and cost-per-wear. It truly does make a difference!

Yes, it can be hard to find clothing manufactured in the USA, but it's out there! One brand that comes to mind is American Apparel - everything from the brand is designed, cut, and sewn in the USA.

Max Wong's picture

I have two suggestions:

1. Buy used clothes! In addition to costing less than new, buying used keeps money in your local community. Also, fast fashion falls apart quickly. If you buy used clothes you know what you are getting--everything is already preshrunk, you can see how the fabric wears, etc...

2. Wear play clothes. My work clothes are for just that, work. The second I get home I change out of my work clothes and into my play clothes, even if I plan to spend the evening reading a book on the sofa. This habit reduces the amount of wear and tear to my work clothes.

Guest's picture

Another tip for checking out the quality of clothing: Look to see how well the buttons are sewn on. Are there many threads or just a few? Are there threads hanging from them? If only a few and/or threads are hanging, the buttons are likely to come off within a few rounds in the wash.