Sustainable Fashion: The price is right… or is it?

Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what clothing retail is doing to address the issues in its industry. It’s exciting times for anyone involved in this area as technology and retailers try to keep up with customers’ demand for all things ethical. From fur farms to fast fashion – this is where the real action is.

This month’s column focuses on the dichotomies around the pricing of sustainable fashion and is brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

In October food brand Felix launched a world first – a shop where customers pay with a currency called CO2e and where products are priced based on their carbon dioxide emissions. The so-called Climate Store in Sweden – where else – even has its own bank notes. Consumers start with a weekly allowance to spend in the shop of 18.9kgs of carbon dioxide emissions, which is what is required for the world to halve its climate impact and cannot go over that.

The CO2e notes in action

But can this food shop’s actions be replicated in the wider world generally and in the field of fashion specifically? Essentially, it turns on its head the current economic pricing model that takes only the tangible costs of production into account. The pricing model we are all used to means, of course, that the item that has cost the least amount of money to produce is then priced at the cheapest rate to the consumer.

In the Climate Store the bargain products are the ones that would have some of the highest monetary costs of production while the items that will soonest burn a hole in your wad of CO2e notes are the ones where the environmental impact is normally left out of the equation entirely.

Translated to fashion terms this is the equivalent of walking into a clothing boutique and finding the dress priced at £60 while the PeopleTree equivalent is only £10. Until the consumer is willing or educated enough to include the abstract notions of climate damage and resource wastage into the final product pricing it appears merely ridiculous.

That is why the currency idea being trialled in Sweden is so interesting. People are given the opportunity to physically equate the real cost of their food choices on the planet with the currency in their hands.

Unfortunately, for fashion most research indicates overwhelmingly that while people talk the talk they are unlikely to walk the walk. Over and over again respondents say they want more sustainable clothing and in the same survey say they will not pay more for it, which doesn’t really give brands any impetus to try to be better.

Other surveys show that 45% of UK adults spend no time at all on researching the sustainability of garments they buy. And if people do have an idea of what matters around sustainable fashion it usually centres on working conditions and wages in sweat shops. The overwhelming takeaway message from survey responses is that brands really shouldn’t outsource ethical decision making to consumers.

Sustainability in fashion is about more than working conditions

Perhaps it is time to level up the playing field on fashion and turn, for example, water used in the production process into pounds added onto the cost price.  And if consumers won’t do the research for themselves then a bit of exposure to some physical pop-ups where we are forced to recalibrate what we mean by value – whether it is through QR codes containing provenance information or currency that measures carbon emissions – might be just the answer.

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