Does ethical fashion = expensive?

Cheap fashion, we are told, is to blame for the appalling standards of workers in factories, and for environmental devastation. This is a story we are told over and over again – with the implication that we should be paying more for our clothes, and perhaps if we were all prepared to pay just a bit more, this problem would simply go away.

I decided to put this theory to the test: Are cheaper clothes necessarily less ethical? And are more ethical clothes necessarily more expensive?

Take a look at these t-shirts.

Four black and four red shirts

Can you tell which one is the most expensive? The least? The most ethically produced? The least? What brands they are from?

What do we mean by ethical?

To figure out whether ethical fashion is expensive, we first have to ask what we mean by ‘ethical’.

Baptist World Aid Australia, in collaboration with tearfund NZ, has produced a hugely useful document – the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report which helpfully ranks companies according to a number of measures, including policies, transparency and traceability, auditing and supplier relations, worker empowerment, and environmental management. I took a look at how some of the biggest brands we buy – the companies included in this report – stack up:

Graph of companies by overall score - shows a bell curve type pattern for grades A+ to D-, and then a large number for F.

As we might expect, there is a sort of bell-curve effect going on, with most grouped around the morally-dubious ethical grey zone of the Bs and Cs (more than half of companies fall between C- and B+). But that pattern only holds so long as we ignore that towering column on the right-hand side of my graph – the one representing all the companies that Baptist Worl Aid and tearfund awarded an ‘F’ overall.

Companies with an overall F constitute the single largest category on the graph, with more than twice as many companies placing in this category as made it to the highest A+ ranking.

Worker empowerment

Even more worryingly, if we are most concerned about what the companies actually do rather than what they say, or how easy it is for us to uncover their dealings (ethical or not), there are two measures that are of particular importance: worker empowerment and environmental management. And as it turns out, when we look at these scores only, the picture is considerably worse.

Graph of companies ranked according to worker empowerment. Shows a pattern of low numbers of companies in the high-ranked categories and high numbers in the low-ranked categories.

Almost one-third of companies on the list received an ‘F’ for worker empowerment. By comparison, fewer than 4% achieved an A+ rating in this area.

What does ‘worker empowerment’ mean?

It’s not just some fuzzy, feel-good terminology. Companies’ scores in this category indicates whether they have a commitment to calculating and paying their employees a livable wage, whether they allow employees to voice any grievances, and whether they actively deal with issues such as child labour and forced labour (slavery).

What the rankings mean

When you see an A+ company on this list, don’t confuse it with what we might consider an A+ company for workers in wealthier countries. These factory workers are merely enjoying some of the absolute minimum rights (enough to live, the right to speak, freedom from slavery). Not daily yoga sessions and a fantastic annual bonus and barista quality coffee machines in the break room and any of the other perks large companies might dole out to their corporate employees.

Nor should a company hovering around a C be considered passable. It is possible for a company to achieve a C rank or higher while still not having any policies or practices in place to address forced labour or child labour, which I doubt many of us would consider acceptable.

Environmental management

Examining the 130 companies’ environmental management ranking is also revealing. It appears that while fashion brands may care more about their environmental impact (or at least, how they appear to be managing their environmental impact), with close to 15% of companies receiving the highest ranking in this area, there is still more than a quarter of companies that are at the very bottom of the scale, with an ‘F’ ranking.

Companies ranked according to environmental management. Shows a U-shaped curve, with more companies in A+ or F than in any of the middle categories.

What makes things even more difficult for the consumer is that a good ranking in one area does not mean that a brand is ethical in another. This is especially true when we examine some of the companies with superb environmental records, but turn out to treat their workers dismally. Nike and Levi, both of which have A+ environmental rankings, are two of the most egregious examples of this – both companies received a D- (the second lowest ranking) for worker empowerment. Uniqlo, M&S and Aldi’s scores were almost as disparate.

So if we can’t rely on a company’s claims of ‘sustainability’ to tell us that their clothing is ethically produced, what can we rely on?

Price would seem to be one indicator. It’s often said that ‘cheap’ fashion is only possible due to slave labour and dubious environmental practices, and this may well be true. But does expensive necessarily equal more ethical?

How much does the average t-shirt or pair of sneakers cost?

If we want to know whether ethical fashion is “expensive”, first we have to define the average.

As it turns out, the cost of something as simple as a basic t-shirt or a pair of simple sneakers varies. A lot.

To work out the price of the average t-shirt, I searched for basic tees, in either black or white where available, with a logo or simple printed design, from the 130 companies listed in the Ethical Fashion Report. (These 130 companies sell over 300 brands, so I simply selected the most prominent one from their site, but you can find details of all their brands in the report) The average shirt of this description (or as close as I could find!) cost just under $60. But there was enormous variation: the most expensive shirt cost almost $300, the cheapest, just $3. That is, around 1% the price of the most expensive shirt.

Graph of the price of a basic logo tee. Shows a peak at around $250 and a long tail.

The cost of shoes

To work out the price of the average pair of sneakers, I searched for simple sneakers, in either black or white, lace ups where available, from the same 130 companies. The average pair of sneakers of this description cost just over $120 – around twice the price of the average shirt (which makes sense, given their additional materials and complexity involved in designing, making and shipping). Yet, again, there was enormous variation. The most expensive shoes I could find cost close to $600, the cheapest, just $6. That is, once again, the most expensive option cost 100x the cheapest.

Graph of the price of simple sneakers. Shows a peak at close to $600 and a long tail.

For the purposes of analysis, I’m going to call any tee over $60 ‘more expensive than average’ and anything less ‘cheaper than average’. Likewise, I’ll call any pair of sneakers over $120 ‘more expensive than average’ and anything less ‘cheaper than average’.

‘Cheap’ and ‘expensive’

Naturally, what you consider ‘expensive’ or ‘cheap’ will have a lot to do with your tastes and how much money you have to spend (or are prepared to spend!). But having determined the range, we can say with certainty that, within this sample anyway, a $3 shirt represents a cheap option, while a $300 one is expensive. A $6 pair of shoes is cheap, while a $600 pair is expensive.

But is a $300 shirt really 100x better than a $3 one? Or a $600 pair of shoes really 100x better than a $6 pair?

And most important for our question today – are these expensive items more ethical than their cheap counterparts?

An expensive shirt

The most expensive shirt on the list came from high-end brand Anthea Crawford, checking in at $269. For this price, we might expect a perfect A+ rating on all measures. But the reality is rather disappointing. Anthea Crawford scored a pretty mediocre ‘C’ rating overall. Even worse, the only reason the company received such a ‘high’ score is because of its policies, which did receive that A+ rating. Of course, having policies means very little if they aren’t implemented in practice, and the company has a rather disturbing C- rating for worker empowerment, and an F for its environmental management practices.

vs. a cheap shirt

By contrast, the most inexpensive shirt on the list came from Big W, at $3. For this price, we might expect a pretty terrible record. And certainly, Big W’s scores aren’t glowing. But they are a heck of a lot better than Anthea Crawford’s. The discount store received a B- overall score, with a D+ for worker empowerment (slightly below Anthea Crawford) and a considerably better C- for its environmental management practices.

What about expensive shoes?

The most expensive shoes on the list were from RM Williams, at $595. Admittedly, these are not sneakers, but a simple leather shoe, though they are comparable in materials and complexity to some of the other more expensive shoes on this list. (If you wanted to buy a pair of shoes from RM Williams, this would seem to be your cheapest option.)

Once more, the company’s record is not quite as rosy as we might hope. While RM Williams’ overall score is a fairly respectable B-, like Anthea Crawford, this score appears largely due to the company’s ability to ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to policies. In fact, the overall score masks a pretty horrific record for worker empowerment (a D-, the second lowest possible score) and an almost equally dismal environmental record (a D).

vs. some cheap shoes

On the other hand, the cheapest shoes came from Target. The discount retailer has a pretty comparable overall score, being awarded a B. But importantly, it outperforms RM Williams in both worker empowerment and environmental management measures. While Target’s scores in these fields aren’t exactly a glowing endorsement (the company received a C- in both areas), it is obvious that more expensive does not necessarily equal more ethical.

What about overall?

Those were some extreme examples. But is there a relationship between price and, say, worker empowerment, overall?

If it were true that ethical = expensive, and cheap = unethical, we’d expect to see a linear relationship between price and ranking. As price ascended, the ethical ranking would too, and vice-versa.

Unfortunately, the answer is much more complex. The graph goes up and down like a jack-in-the-box. (The same was true of the shoes, but seeing as there were much fewer shoe brands included in the data set, I’ve chosen to focus on t-shirts here)

What this up-and-down pattern means is that we can’t simply buy the most expensive option and assume that it will be ethically produced.

In fact, out of the twelve categories, the least ethical t-shirts were the fourth most expensive.

The category with the most expensive t-shirts on average was A-, clocking in at almost $95. But the average t-shirt in the more ethical A+ category was considerably cheaper, at just over $30. That is, around half the cost of an average t-shirt of any category. The only category with a lower average-priced t-shirt was C+, at around $25. By contrast, the average t-shirt in the least ethical F-ranked category cost almost $70 – that is, not only more expensive than average, but over twice the cost of the average A+ ranked t-shirt.

What’s going on?

All of the companies that scored A+ appear primarily concerned with producing ethical clothing. And, it seems, they’ve also aimed at making it more affordable. Interestingly, many of these brands are quite new – all the companies I could find dates for were established within the last two decades.

At the other end of the scale, if we exclude the slightly cheaper baby clothing, the F ranked companies run the gamut from just over $10 to almost $200. Trelise Cooper sells a printed black t-shirt for $174.30, and WORLD has similarly basic tees retailing at $159 – yet both brands clocked in at an F. The companies in this category include many well-established brands such as Lacoste, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Ralph Lauren – overseas brands established well over half a century ago (or in the case of A&F, more than a century ago).

The cost of ‘quality’ and ‘prestige’

In contrast to those companies which exclusively inhabit the A+ category, set up to provide ethical fashion, quite a few of the companies in the F category have long-established reputations for ‘quality’ and ‘prestige’. As humans we tend to associate the ‘known’ with ‘safety’ and ‘reliability’. From birth, we learn to trust family and be wary of strangers. And brands, unwittingly or not, use this evolutionary tendency to their advantage. Once a company has an established good image, they don’t need to work as hard to keep your business. And that includes empowering workers. Other than a sense of morality (which I think we can safely assume is somewhat absent from those companies in the F category), there is nothing to motivate companies to do the right thing in the absence of consumer pressure. And that is why we shouldn’t be surprised to find companies with ‘good’ reputations inhabiting the lowest ranking with such frequency.

Middle of the road

Finally, the centre of the graph provides some more interesting food-for-thought. Here we have the middle-ground – brands like Sussan and City Chic that are well-known, but not considered particularly prestigious. These companies are prominent enough (and perhaps scrutinised enough) to make some efforts towards worker empowerment, even though their clothing retails at far lower prices than the likes of A&F or Ralph Lauren. In fact, the average tee from companies with a C+ ranking came in at just over $20 – inexpensive in comparison with not only the likes of Trelise Cooper and WORLD and Ralph Lauren’s $99 tees, but also in comparison with the average of $60.

And this is an extremely important message. The most ethical t-shirts are the second most affordable, and the least ethical t-shirts are the fourth least affordable.

What should I buy?

Even more promising is the fact that within any given price category you can still make more ethical choices.

Although the average price of a basic t-shirt in this sample was around $60, this figure is skewed high because of the really exorbitant prices at the high end of the scale. The median price of a basic t-shirt was just under $40.

So let’s take a look at what you can get for your money:

less than $10

At this price point, the average overall score doesn’t seem too bad – coming in at around a C+. But while the environmental management score is on average only a little lower at around a C, the average worker empowerment score is a pretty pitiful D.

Gildan Activewear, with overall and environmental scores of A-, and a higher-than-average worker empowerment score of C+, is a notable exception, proving that even the cheaper end of the spectrum can be relatively responsible, even though far from perfect. H&M and KMart come in second, with overall scores of B+.

up to $20

In the $10-$19.99 bracket, we have double the options, but surprisingly, they are, overall, worse. The average overall score in this price bracket is a C-, which is also the average environmental score. But the worker empowerment score is again on average just scraping in at a D.

Cotton On, which has an overall score of A-, and a B+ and B in the environment and empowerment categories respectively, appears the best in this price bracket. Hallensteins, Uniqlo and M&S come in second, with overall scores of B+. However, it’s important to note that both Uniqlo and M&S have extremely uneven scores – while both scored an A+ on environmental management, M&S was awarded a D+ and Uniqlo a D (the third lowest ranking) for worker empowerment, making the cheaper Gildan, H&M and Kmart potentially better options for those concerned about workers’ rights.

up to $30

We see a real jump in scores in the up to $30 bracket. The average overall score is a high B-, the average environment score also a B-, and the average empowerment score a still low, but much more promising, C. But if you have $30 to spend on a tee or tank, then there are three clear winners: Freeset Tshirts, Liminal Apparel, and Mighty Good Group all have perfect A+ scores on every category.

Of these three, Liminal Apparel would be my pick for t-shirts, unless you’re looking to create your own (which is Freeset’s specialty), as Mighty Good’s range appears focused on underwear. Inditex comes in a close second, with an overall score of A.

up to $40

This is the single largest price bracket, but it provides no better alternatives to those we’ve already seen. The average scores in this category are overall C+, environmental C, and a disturbing D+ for worker’s rights.

Adidas, RREPP, and Hansen have the best overall scores in the $30-$39.99 group, all coming in with an A. However, none of them are as good as the three brands mentioned above, especially when it comes to worker empowerment (scoring between B- and B+ on this measure). In fact, there are no brands which exceed B+ for worker empowerment at this price point. But if you’ve got up to $40 to spend on a t-shirt, I’d recommend checking out Liminal Apparel’s range.

up to $50

Things take a turn for the even worse at this price point, with an average overall score of just C for those tees priced between $40 and $49.99, an average environmental management score of the same, and the worst average worker empowerment ranking yet, at a D.

Country Road has the highest overall score of this group, coming in with an A- (a B+ for environment and a B for empowerment). Yet again, if you’ve got up to $50 to spend, I’d recommend Liminal Apparel’s range.

up to $60

Once more, increasing our budget doesn’t help, with the average overall rating of companies producing tees priced between $50 and $59.99 coming in at a C once more. While these companies have a slightly higher average worker’s empowerment score (C-) they have a worse environmental record (D+).

That being said, there is one shining light – Etiko has obtained A+ scores in all three of these categories, and sells tees from just $50. Kathmandu, with an overall score of A, is a close second, but scores only a B+ on environmental management and worker empowerment.

up to $70

The average scores in this category are slightly better – a B- overall, C+ for environment, and C- for empowerment.

While Patagonia comes close to the likes of Etiko and Liminal with an overall score of A, and an A+ for environment, their worker’s empowerment score is only a B. I’d consider the other companies first for a more ethical (and cheaper) buy.

up to $80

And here we go back down again – an overall score just scraping in at C, environment at a C-, and worker’s empowerment at a pretty despicable D.

Rodd and Gunn is the best in this category, with overall and environmental scores of A-, although with a B- for empowerment. Once again, you’re probably better off looking at Etiko or Liminal at this price point.

up to $90

This category is inhabited by relatively ethical companies, with an average overall score and environmental management score of A-. Once again, it is human rights that most companies are lagging in – with a B- average score.

Kowtow is the clear winner in this category, with perfect A+ scores both overall and in the environmental category, with a slightly lower A- score in worker empowerment. Once more, you may as well buy from Etiko or Liminal and get a cheaper, more ethical buy for the same environmental responsibility.

up to $100

For some reason, almost every company who prices their tees and blouses around $90-99.99 has some serious oversights. The average overall score dips down to a C- at this price point, the environmental management an even worse D+, and their worker’s empowerment a dismal D.

There is one stand-out – Icebreaker, which has perfect A+ scores both overall and on environmental measures, and an A- for worker empowerment. Again, for these scores though, you might as well save $10 and shop at Kowtow, or save even more and get more ethical clothing from Etiko or Liminal.

up to $150

The selections start to thin out here, so we’ll start looking at $50 chunks. The options in this price bracket are pretty abysmal. The overall score for tees priced between $100 and $149.99 is a D+, as is the environmental score. But the average worker empowerment ranking is the lowest of any price category – a horrific D-. A full six of the nine companies in this price bracket received an ‘F’ for their treatment of workers.

The best company in this category is APG, which sells brands like Sportscraft, with an average overall rating of A-, an environmental score of B, and a worker empowerment score of B-. Seafolly comes in second, with an overall score of B, and an A in environment, but a B- in empowerment. The rest all score below a C on every measure and are not worth considering. These brands are expensive and clearly do not reinvest the money they make into the people who actually make your clothes or the earth that produces the resources required.

up to $200

Here we have our worst category yet – the average overall score for tees or shirts priced between $150 and $199.99 is an underwhelming C. These companies score on average a D- on both environment and empowerment. Fully three-quarters of the brands in this category received an ‘F’ for environmental management, and half received an F for worker empowerment.

The only company with a half-decent score at this price point is Karen Walker, where you’ll shell out $190 for a top. In exchange for that chunk of change, you’ll be buying apparel from a company with an overall B score, a B- for environment, and a C- for worker empowerment. You could get a better scoring tshirt on every measure from Gildan or H&M for less than $10. In other words, if you’ve got this much to blow, save your money and support a company like Etiko ($50, A+) or Liminal ($25, A+) instead. You could get seven or eight t-shirts for the same price, and a from a much more ethical company. Better yet, save the environment too, buy just one shirt, and reinvest the rest in ethical charities.

$200+

If you’re spending over $200 on a t-shirt or blouse, frankly, you’re wasting your money! The companies in this category have overall scores of just a C, and the most expensive brand, Anthea Crawford, received an F for environment. Ruby is not much better, scoring a D+ on worker empowerment.

Rankings by cost

Graph of overall, worker empowerment, and environmental rankings by cost of shirt
Overall, worker empowerment, and environmental rankings by cost

There is no company in the top price range worth wasting your precious dough on. Get yourself something from Etiko or Liminal, and if you feel the need to spend more, consider donating to charity. Imagine what your $175+ extra could do.

As we’d expect based on the previous data we looked at, the average worker, environment, and overall scores for each price category is pretty up-and-down.

There are no shortcuts…

It’s important to remember though that extreme variety occurs not only across categories, but within them. Simply because the $80-$89.99 category has the highest average doesn’t mean that the best options will be found in this category. In fact, none of the brands which received perfect scores on all three categories can be found in this price range.

Likewise, just because a shirt is priced in a category with a low average score doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. Icebreaker, for instance, has very high scores, yet is priced in one of the lowest-scoring categories.

And consider the $50 to $59.99 price range – it includes both Etiko (which has an A+ in all three areas), and Bloch (which has an F in all three). Clearly, price tells us nothing.

Ethical fashion is not necessarily expensive

In fact, all of the companies which received an A+ on all three measures focused on here cost less than both the average and median shirts in this sample. (Outland Denim also has perfect scores, but doesn’t seem to have any t-shirts, tanks, shirts, blouses or any other comparable apparel in stock currently).

While nine of the companies that received an F on all three measures focused on here sell shirts costing less than the average ($60), eight cost more than average. And while eight of the F ranked companies sell cheaper than median shirts ($40), nine sell more expensive than the median shirts. In other words, bad practices are pretty much split across the board.

Expensive fashion is not necessarily ethical

The more expensive brands are particularly bad when it comes to human rights. While twenty of the companies that received an F in this regard sell shirts costing less than average, and fifteen cost less than the median, twenty-three cost more than the median.

In fact, cheaper than the median shirts (less than $40) had an average worker empowerment rank of 3.19 when the letter scores are converted to numbers (slightly above a D+).

More expensive than median shirts (over $40) had an average worker empowerment rank when converted to number scores of 2.96 (a high D, almost D+).

… sometimes, they’re worse

Not only are the more expensive brands not better for workers, they are actually often worse. Given what we know about money and empathy, perhaps it is unsurprising that the owners and consumers of some of the world’s most expensive brands demonstrate limited empathy and respect for workers.

Branding is a story

Brands encourage us to tell others about ourselves by consuming them. We are what (or who) we wear. We judge ourselves and one another by the labels we wear. And some brand names have done an incredible job of convincing us they are ethical. WORLD and Calvin Klein, for instance, showcase LGBT and even ‘nuclear free’ fashion, which might lead us to think they have a broader social conscience. Yet according to the latest Ethical Fashion Report, these companies rank close to rock bottom when it comes to worker empowerment.

The edit.

The Iconic allows shoppers to filter by eco production or the use of sustainable materials, in which brands such as Nike, Bec & Bridge, RM Williams, adidas and Timberland pop up. But do their environmental concerns translate into more ethical production overall? Again, it appears not – while Nike, adidas and the owners of Timberland may have laudable environmental programs, there is a sizable gap between their environmental scores (all received an A or A+) and their social scores (which ranged from a D- to a B-). Additionally, there appears to be a gap between what The Iconic accepts as eco-friendly and what the Ethical Fashion Report does – Bec & Bridge and RM Williams may have some products that fit this category, but overall, these companies received abysmal environmental scores (ranging from an F to a D).

Price is a story

Price, explains Seth Godin, in ‘This is Marketing’, is another way brands encourage us to identify with them. We are the ‘kinds’ of people who buy clothes that cost this much. We might be a ‘cheap’ person who buys a $3 shirt, or someone who values ‘luxury’ and will shell out $300 for something with the same functionality. Or we’re a ‘middle class’ person who shops somewhere in between.

The narrative that spending less equals slavery and environmental degradation, and, by implication, that spending more equals better treatment of people and the earth serves one group: wealthy executives and investors.

You can be cheap and nasty, and expensive and nasty

While cheap can certainly mean nasty (The Baby Factory, Lowes, Ally Fashion, Baby City, Pavement United, Showpo and Merric Apparel are all cheap and low-scoring), expensive can mean nasty, too (Trelise Cooper, Camilla and Marc, 3Wise Men, Wish Designs, Hot Springs, Bec and Bridge, Voyager, Farmers and Bloch are some of the worst offenders).

This isn’t a problem we can fix simply by throwing money at it

The notion that cheap fashion and consumers’ unwillingness to pay higher prices has caused unethical practices appears unsubstantiated. Look at Camilla and Marc, for instance, which received a score of F overall, and yet charges $120 for basic t-shirts. ‘But what about the intellectual property of the designer?’ you might object. Please. The plain white shirt merely has C&M written on it in black Times New Roman font. If that isn’t the epitome of unoriginal, uninspired, lazy design, I don’t know what is.

Get the report.

To date, there is no easy way to tell how ethical something is simply by looking at the price tag. This analysis demonstrates just how valuable the Ethical Fashion Report is. We can’t rely on cost to tell us the whole story when it comes to sustainability and ethics.

While it may be disappointing that price isn’t an easy indicator, and that profits aren’t fairly shared with workers, I believe there is a very positive message here: Despite the myth, ethical fashion can be affordable. Hopefully you have discovered some new options to consider, and can make more informed choices in future – for yourself, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet.

The answer…

In case you’re wondering, here are the scores – price wise and overall ethical production scores – for the shirts shown in the first image. Yes, some of the fabrics and styles are slightly different (I chose as close as possible) but at the end of the day, these shirts all perform the same basic functions: keeping you clothed, warm, protected. It’s just that some do this at a reasonable price while respecting human rights and the environment, some have a mix, and others do it at an exorbitant financial, human, and environmental cost.

The answers: $269, C; $25, A+, $3, B-; $50, A+; $50, A+, $5 B-, $229, C; $25, A+.

Next time on Enrichmentality: we take a look at baby and kid’s clothes and ask why it’s so much WORSE.

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