We occasionally receive emails and calls from people who are confused, concerned, dismayed, and even irritated about the cost of organic and natural clothing. This is a touchy point that often comes up in the organic industry – clothing and also vegetables, fruit, skin care, and everything that can bear an organic label. We truly do understand people’s concern and irritation at the perceived high cost of some organic and natural clothing.
Like most new and emerging industries, small companies and “mom and pop” stores are working hard to build the organic and sustainable clothing market. Small companies lack the size and buying muscle to achieve economies of scale that drive prices lower. But the organic and sustainable clothing industry is about more than achieving Wal-Mart’s “always low prices”; it is also about ethics and sustainability and doing what is right for workers, consumers and the planet.
But all the fuzzy feel good issues aside, how can Wal-Mart charge only $3 for a conventionally-grown, manufactured and hand-sewn women’s cotton tank top while LotusOrganics.com charges $24? The reasons are many, complex, and vary according to a large shopping bag of factors. Let’s examine some of the most common and significant factors that affect the price of organic clothing. These are not in any particular order.
- Organic cotton is more expensive to grow than conventional, chemically drenched and unsustainable cotton. At first blush, you might think that organic should be less expensive to grow because organic doesn’t use expensive GMO seeds, expensive petroleum-based fertilizers, or expensive toxic herbicides and pesticides like conventionally grown crops and cottons. But organically grown crops still must contend with weeds and fight devouring insects and this all costs money … actually more money than conventional chemical methods which is why conventional methods use all those toxic and deadly chemicals.
- Organic cotton is more expensive to harvest. To reduce harvesting costs and improve cotton yields, conventional cotton harvesting uses a variety of harvest-aids such as spraying cotton fields with chemicals like thidiazuron to defoliate cotton plants by removing mature and juvenile leaves to facilitate machine harvesting, suppress growth of new plant leaves, desiccants containing pyraflufen ethyl, carfentrazon, dimethipin, paraquat, and glyphosate to kill and dry leaves remaining on the cotton plants and weeds after chemical defoliation, and chemicals containing the active ingredient ethephon to accelerate the opening of the cotton bolls. Organic cotton harvesting is done without the use of these chemical harvest-aids and is more labor intensive resulting in higher harvest costs.
- Organic fabrics are more expensive to manufacture. Because of the relatively small quantities of cotton involved, it is more expensive to gin, clean and manufacture organic cotton fabric. Almost all organic cotton fabric is manufactured in facilities that also process and manufacture conventional cotton fabrics from conventionally grown chemical cotton. But, before the organic cotton can be processed in these facilities, all the cotton gins and weaving and knitting machines must be cleaned of all residues from the processing of the conventional cotton. Of course, the facility owners add the additional costs for this cleaning and equipment downtime to the production costs for the organic fabrics. This all contributes to driving up the costs for producing organic cotton fabrics.
- Organic garments are more expensive to manufacture for many reasons. Some of them relate to the relatively small size of the organic clothing market and the need to frequently share manufacturing facilities with conventional clothing. Like the manufacturing process, all sewing machines and work areas must be cleaned of conventional garments and contaminants before being used for sewing organic garments.
But there is another more significant factor why much conventional clothing is so inexpensive – cheap labor that often borders near being sweatshop or indentured. We have written several articles on the social pollution of sweatshops in the garment industry. Basically, most large clothing retailers contract with many dozens of clothing manufacturing facilities scattered in developing countries around the world. Many of these facilities exploit the poorest and most desperate workers and pay pennies a day to workers who sew long hours under appalling conditions to make those cheap, inexpensive shirts, pants and undergarments that fill the large, mega stores in our home towns and shopping malls.
Faded Glory, who manufactures those $3 rib knit cotton tank tops for Wal-Mart, has been implicated by the National Labor Committee of using desperately poor women and child labor working as much as 13 hours per day and 7 days per week at a base wage of 13 cents per hour in sweatshops in Nicaragua and other poor countries. Think about it! How can a company buy the fabric and materials, hire workers to sew the garments with a scoop neck accented by a satin bow and with ribbon-woven crochet trim around the neckline and armholes and a frill edge hem, ship them to a U.S. port, truck them to stores across the country, pay retail workers and building expenses, have a little profit for Wall Street, and only charge $3 for a tank top? You can be sure that very little of that $3 is going to the garment workers who did the sewing. And how many can a garment worker cut and sew in an hour for a few pennies each?
Fair trade and fair pay for workers are important cornerstones of the organic and natural clothing industry and significantly add to the cost of organic and fair trade apparel. Also, natural clothing companies such as Earth Creationsand Blue Canoe manufacture in the U.S. and pay fair wages plus benefits in an attempt to revive the deceased U.S. garment manufacturing industry.
- Organic garments are more expensive to ship to distributors, retailers and customer. This isn’t because they are organic, but because the market size is so much smaller. Wal-Mart, Gap, J.Crew and the other large retail chains can deliver a large trailer load of clothes to their stores at significantly lower per-garment prices than it costs to FedEx a box or two of organic clothes to your local organic clothing store.
- Organic clothing retailers find it more expensive to advertise and market. The huge retail chains can use their enormous marketing budgets and muscle to get the most cost-effective advertising. This, also, is really a small store vs. enormous chain store issue but it figures into the perception of organic clothing being more expensive than conventional clothing.
- Organic growers, manufacturers and retailers lack the mass buying power and the economies of scale found in the large retail chains. Trade organizations such as Co-op America, Organic Trade Association, Soil Association, Green People, and a growing number of non-profit organizations are helping promote, expand, advertise and market organic and sustainable clothing and apparel. Their help is hugely appreciated.
Although we have frequently mentioned cotton, the same factors are generally also true for other natural fibers such as hemp, bamboo, wool, soya, corn and the growing number of other natural fibers being used to manufacture natural and healthy fabrics.
An inconvenient truth is that organic and all-natural clothing will always be more expensive than conventional, chemical clothing. The good news is that the price gap will continue to shrink as the market size of organic clothing grows and the economies of scale improve. Doing what is right is not always easy … or cheap, sometimes. But, as Dumbledore counseled Harry Potter, “It’s not our abilities, but our choices that define who we are.”
Don’t worry. No one is growing fat or wealthy from selling organic and all natural clothing. We all wish that everyone could easily afford all the organic, sustainable and healthy clothing that they need and we are working toward that end. But it will only happen by all us working together and supporting each other. The blog Organicasm has posted "How to Get Great Deals on Organic Clothing" to help consumers make the best use of their eco-dollars. Check it out.