The real cost of cheap clothing


I have always been perturbed by the hidden costs of cheap clothing.

At high school my Economics class visited a local clothes factory. Seeing the mainly non-English speaking migrant women sitting in rows, sewing their little piece of the whole item (a row sewing zippers,a row sewing side seams etc) in the noisy, unfriendly environment was distressing enough. In the 80s clothes were not cheap in Australia. Our clothes were mainly locally made. So at least these women had laws to protect their safe working conditions. And, although they were as strong as now, at least there were laws and regulations to protect the environment.

Now our clothing is mainly produced in the sweat shops of Asia. Companies go off shore to “be competitive”. That is, to maintain their profits by lowering labour costs. Or to be able to sell clothes at the cheap prices Australians now expect – a few dollars for a T-shirt, less than spent on a cup of coffee.

Of course, no matter what they companies say, the quality is never the same. Wool is coarser, Cotten thinner, arms too short, clothes mis-shape after one wash. Hey! But it’s so cheap, so toss it out and buy another one. Clothes are disposable with an expected life of a few weeks.

Have you thought about the real costs?

Besides the loss of local industry and jobs, and who am I to say that workers in one country are more deserving of work than another country, there is a human cost and an environmental cost. I know it is not a clear cut issues, and although the workers in sweat shops may see the jobs as lucrative and give them a standard of living they could not afford, it doesn’t make the working conditions and manner in which the clothes are produced OK. If we were paying a reasonable cost, which means more, and thus didn’t see our clothes as disposable and bought less, their working conditions could be improved; and there would be a smaller impact on the environment in both the production and disposal. Hey! We might even see people wearing decent clothes, as opposed to cheap and nasty.

Watch the BBC documentary Blood Sweat and T-shirts. You will want to seek out clothes produced fairly and will challenge the notion of cheap disposable “fashion” items.

All this is part of the reason I am on a no-clothes-shopping year. I have always preferred to buy fewer, better quality items but, as my crowded wardrobes attest, I have not bought fewer. I do keep my clothes for years, and look after them so they last – often outlasting my changing shape and advancing years – so even buying only a few pieces a year, clothes quickly accumulate.

So here’s to a considered, worker-friendly, good quality wardrobe with clothes that suit, fit and last rather than one with clothes that quickly date, are of poor quality and exploit workers. Better still why not go on a clothing diet. Stop buying and make use of what you already have?

You can google “clothes not made in sweat shops” or “ethical clothing” or “free trade clothing” for links in your country or look here , or here, or here, or here or here.


Today’s decluttered item = a hat that I have had for over 14 years. Didn’t buy this one. It was given to me from a friend. I think that is one of the reasons I kept it – it reminds me of her. But I can think of her without a hat hidden in a bottom drawer. The hat has moved with me to three houses. I last wore it, oh, about 12 years ago. One of those things you bury in the bottom drawer and think, “What the heck, it doesn’t take up much space and everyone needs a hat, don’t they?” Clearly I don’t need this one.


And a bag of school uniform items now too small for my children. These will donated to the school’s clothing pool. As school uniforms are compulsory you are a captive market and as most parents are concerned more about getting the cheapest price, sourcing ethical suppliers are probably not on the radar.



4 thoughts on “The real cost of cheap clothing

  1. I am with you on this one. I hate the idea that I am contributing to someone else’s misery by buying sweatshop clothes. Of course, I do, because it’s hard not to, but I buy very little and treat it well. And buy secondhand, and happily accept hand me downs! I am very happy to buy school uniforms for my girls, because here in Tas, all the girls’ uniform dresses, public and private, and all the wool jumpers, are made here in Tas. It does feel good to be keeping the locals in jobs, and then also to give clothes a second life.

  2. This issue has been around for a very long time but the first time it really, really hit me was probably last year when I picked up a K-Mart catalogue and looked at the clothes in it and wondered how on earth they could offer things so cheap. That made me wonder how much the workers were getting paid. Not enough! if K-Mart is still able to make a profit on these items.
    I realise K-Mart is not the only store involved but for some reason it was them who pushed my button.

    I read an online newspaper article a few weeks back (just after the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh) and the comments underneath showed just how complicated an issue this is.
    On the one hand, people are being paid a pittance for the work they’re doing in terrible working conditions and with minimal if any entitlements.
    On the other hand, there was discussion about whether not buying the goods produced cheaply in overseas countries actually has a more crippling effect on those people as they would lose what little income they do get if there is no demand for their product.
    Then you’ve got the local vs offshore argument.
    Also, who are we snatching the food out of the mouths of if we don’t buy things? I am completely against the idea of rampant commercialism but I found the subject just got murkier and murkier the more I looked at it.

    Here is a poem on the subject by Margaret Widdemer. I first heard about it in a novel about the clothing industry. I find it apt.


    I have shut my little sister in from life and light
    (For a rose, for a ribbon, for a wreath across my hair),
    I have made her restless feet still until the night,
    Locked from sweets of summer and from wild spring air;
    I who ranged the meadowlands, free from sun to sun, 5
    Free to sing and pull the buds and watch the far wings fly,
    I have bound my sister till her playing time was done—
    Oh, my little sister, was it I? Was it I?

    I have robbed my sister of her day of maidenhood
    (For a robe, for a feather, for a trinket’s restless spark), 10
    Shut from love till dusk shall fall, how shall she know good,
    How shall she go scatheless through the sin-lit dark?
    I who could be innocent, I who could be gay,
    I who could have love and mirth before the light went by,
    I have put my sister in her mating-time away— 15
    Sister, my young sister, was it I? Was it I?

    I have robbed my sister of the lips against her breast,
    (For a coin, for the weaving of my children’s lace and lawn),
    Feet that pace beside the loom, hands that cannot rest—
    How can she know motherhood, whose strength is gone? 20
    I who took no heed of her, starved and labor-worn,
    I, against whose placid heart my sleepy gold-heads lie,
    Round my path they cry to me, little souls unborn—
    God of Life! Creator! It was I! It was I!

    • Thanks for the considered comment, Renae. I agree, it is such a complex issue.

      I avoid KMart. I think it is the King of cheap, nasty produce. The ads pander to the desire to get something at the absolute cheapest price, ignoring quality or real cost. I know others may be equally bad, but KMart just irks me.

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