Why do sustainable products cost more?
As consumers, it is easy to overlook the intermediate steps in the supply chain - we don’t see what happens before the product arrives in stores or on our doorstep. In this article, we break down the real cost behind sustainability, taking the example of fashion. For clarity purposes, we’ll break down the fashion supply chain into four stages: Sourcing, Manufacturing, Packaging and Distribution.
Did you know that synthetic fibres contribute to 68.2% of global fibre production in 2020? Synthetic fibres used in clothes are made from fossil fuel, and its production results in greenhouse gas emissions and micro plastic pollution. Sustainable fashion utilises a majority of plant-based fibres or recycled materials, in which both options have a much lower impact on the environment. Let’s use the law of supply to understand why plant-based fibres and recycled materials tend to be pricier to manufacture as compared to synthetic fibres:
- Processing: Plant-based fibres and recycled materials go through intensive processes that result in a lower yield, making it more costly to produce
- Certifications: To ensure credibility and transparency, sustainable brands often use certified organic textiles, such as GOTS certified textiles. These official certifications have costly application and license fees, which further raise the production cost of sustainable fashion
- Low impact dyes: Clothes come in a multitude of colours, but this doesn’t happen without a cost. Fabric dyeing is typically a chemical intensive process, which consumes a large amount of water and energy throughout the process. Poor regulation of waste disposal in the rural parts of China and Bangladesh - where the majority of fast fashion brands outsource their manufacturing, has led to toxic water pollution, with devastating impacts on local communities. Sustainable fashion uses low-impact or natural dyes that are devoid of chemicals. Once again, certifications for low-impact dyes are expensive due to the raw materials and lengthy time taken to convert these raw materials into dyes
Now that we have covered the origins of our clothing, what’s next in the process?
The manufacturing process is when textiles are transformed into wearable garments. Quality clothing is not only defined by its material, it also requires additional time and effort.
Sustainable pieces of clothing usually go through lengthy rounds of sampling and quality checks, resulting in longer production time. This is unlike fast fashion companies that often push out new collections every few weeks to drive sales.
It is also important to keep in mind that sustainable fashion goes hand in hand with ethical practices, ensuring fair living wages and safe working conditions. These costs are factored into clothing prices.
Many fast fashion companies still continue to utilize forced labour with shockingly low salaries and working conditions. The International Labour Organisation estimated 24.9 million people in forced labour at any point of time in 2016.
The presentation of any product is integral in appealing to consumers. Likewise in the fashion industry, both online or in-store packaging is crucial to its marketability. From poly mailers for online orders to plastic bags in retail stores, most fast fashion packaging eventually ends up in landfills. Tons of plastic waste is then incinerated, generating greenhouse gases that pollute the air and waterways.
Sustainable fashion incorporates sustainability into its packaging through biodegradable, compostable or recycled packaging. Some sustainable brands even further reduce their environmental impact by eliminating packaging as a whole.
Biodegradable and compostable packaging tend to be less cost-efficient than plastic packaging as it requires more complex resources to produce. In the same logic, some recycled materials can cost more to be recycled than it does to be produced new. If sustainable brands choose such methods, these higher costs will naturally be translated into higher prices.
Delivery and distribution
The last step of the process is Delivery and Distribution. It is rather inevitable for companies, whether sustainable or not, to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Truly sustainable companies choose to lower their impact as much as they can by producing locally. They might also contract greener delivery options such as DHL Green Program, or offset their carbon footprint through tree-planting programs such as EcoMatcher’s ecommerce integration. These programs incur fees for sustainable companies, which usually reflect in higher product prices.
To end this post off, here’s some food for thought. Though this isn’t a part of the fashion supply chain, the lower demand for sustainable fashion when compared to fast fashion - perhaps due to consumer skepticism over greenwashing or lack of exposure of sustainable brands, also contributes to the higher cost of sustainable fashion. When given the choice, support your local sustainable brands. They are doing their best for the planet, and will only be able to lower their prices once demand grows!