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Why is some clothing so expensive?

By Nisha Khater

When searching online for a white t-shirt, there are thousands of different options to choose from. The selection ranges from small brands to major retailers, all with detailed product pages boasting sale prices or ethically sourced materials. However, as one looks to be more intentional and mindful with their wardrobe, the choices usually decline and the prices increase. At Society of Cloth, we often get the very reasonable comment, "love your pieces, but they’re just too expensive.” With the surplus of options, it can be difficult to tell what you’re paying for and where the price differences come from. Through this article, we aim to break down the costs associated with clothing that reflects cultural craft, is produced ethically, and is made from natural materials.

Let's say a brand is selling a button-up shirt with block printing work done by artisans in Sri Lanka. The brand has certified that they pay fair living wages determined by local regulations to all of the individuals they employ. To make that shirt, the fabric first has to be block printed by hand, a process which would take an hour for one shirt. From here, the fabric has to be cut to shape, stitched together, sleeves have to be sewn on, hemming has to be done, and buttons and care tags need to be attached. Now begins the distribution process. The shirt is packaged, inventory is taken, and it is added to an e-commerce site or sent to a retailer.

For smaller brands, this chain of production is being performed by real humans who need a safe workplace environment, manageable hours, and a fair living wage. At the very minimum, it would take the block printer one hour, the seamstress another hour and a half, the embellisher another hour, and the packer and operations manager 30 minutes to work on the shirt, for a total of 4 hours. This is excluding the time and cost of materials, distribution, and business operations.

Given all the time and energy put into the production of a unique piece like that, a minimum price point of ~50 USD may allow for the business to pay out fair salaries and still maintain sustained operations off the revenue of their pieces, without even considering profit. Breaking down costs doesn’t mean we need to justify spending that much on pieces, but at least then we can gain an understanding of where the price of an item comes from.

This discussion is not at all intended to convince readers to buy higher price point pieces, but rather to explore more thoroughly what goes into making a piece of clothing. What are the fabric costs for a linen shirt? How long did it take to produce that level of detailed embroidery on a colorful jacket? Like any art form, fashion is a creative practice that takes time and skill. And just like any other industry, the effort and knowledge that goes into unique garment creation ought to be properly compensated.

**All calculations mentioned in this article are estimations based on industry research and should not be taken as fact.

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