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Can a $5 T-shirt be Ethical?

It’s what we buy when our previous one wears out, maybe it was two for one at H&M or maybe it even came free in the back of a magazine. At the end of the day, there’s not much to think about when a t-shirt costs the same as a morning coffee. That’s so cheap.

I often find myself saying just that when shopping with friends, wondering how brands even make a profit on a $5 t-shirt. I’m sure most of us can assume how fast fashion brands turn a profit, as uncomfortable a reality as it is. But I got curious, how much should a basic t-shirt cost if you want to ensure it was made ethically?

One thing’s for sure, we all love shopping – especially for a bargain. In the US alone, more than US $20 billion is spent every year just on t-shirts. In light of the world’s evident t-shirt addiction, I did a quick online scout for the cheapest white t-shirt I could find.

Here’s the verdict: Kmart sells one for $10, Target has one for $7, Cotton On for $15, Asos’ $12, H&M’s basic t-shirt goes for $8, and the ‘winner’ went to Uniqlo’s t-shirt for a the bargain price of $5.90.

In order to be sitting on the sale rack, Uniqlo’s simple cotton t-shirt has undergone at least the following processes: growing and harvesting the cotton, weaving, dying, designing, sampling, cutting, sewing, labelling, packaging, shipping and presenting beautifully in store.

While it can be difficult to track how many hands your t-shirt has passed through before it lands in your wardrobe, there’s one thing you can safely assume – that t-shirt is worth far more than $5.90.

So, What Should a T-Shirt Cost?

A 2011 report by O’Rourke Group Partners found that a $14 shirt sold in Canada and made in Bangladesh costs the retailer $5.67.

For the price to remain that low (let alone $5) workers would receive about 12 cents per garment – 2 percent of the retail price. This is one of the lowest costs in the production of a garment, with factory margins taking 58 cents, freight and shipping around $1.03 and materials costing the most at $3.69.

It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of what we pay does not end up in the workers pocket; however, it is becoming increasingly important to the everyday consumer that workers are at least paid a fair and living wage.

So as fast fashion chains place downward pressure on the wholesale prices they are willing to pay, it’s no secret where unethical manufacturers will begin to cut costs.

According to Toronto-based labour rights activist Kevin Thomas “wages ultimately get squeezed most because businesses can easily control them, unlike the price of cotton or shipping”.

The question of how much money will provide a worker with enough to live is a complex one to answer. According to Labour Behind the Label, Bangladeshi workers’ minimum wage is just 18% of what is considered a living wage.

Sadly, it doesn’t stop at a lack of support from their own governments. The opaqueness of companies employing these workers guarantees many of them aren’t even receiving that 18%.

What Can Consumers Do?

This brings me back to a question that gets asked without fail when the topic of ethical consumption arises. How can I, as a consumer, ensure that my t-shirt was made ethically?

Demand Transparency

The most direct action a consumer can take is to demand transparency from brands. By ‘demand’, I mean changing our buying habits to support the brands who aren’t opaque in their supply chains.

If there’s one thing a fashion brand will respond to, and fast, it’s the spending habits of their treasured consumer base.

Vote With Your Wallet

Let’s come back to Uniqlo’s $5.90 t-shirt. Each time you buy that t-shirt (or any clothing item for that matter) at a price that amazingly low, you’re letting all fashion retailers know what’s important to you – cheap clothes. The same goes if you support an ethical label like Zady’s $36 white t-shirt. You’re letting all fashion retailers know that transparency and ethical manufacturing is more important to you than saving.

It’s important to remember as a consumer that every purchase we make it tracked, studied and analysed by fashion brands, particularly in the cut throat industry of fashion fashion. Zara has it’s own ‘data tracking centre’ dedicated to monitoring what their buyers want and like.

In other words, you are powerful. There is no doubt that consumers’ shopping habits directly influence brand behaviour.

The time for conscious and thoughtful consumption has never been more important or exciting. Ethical fashion labels are on the rise, and with our help they will soon be giving fast fashion a run for its money.

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