The True Cost of the Clothes on Our Backs

Leslie Garrett by Leslie Garrett | November 25th, 2013 | 2 Comments
topic: Giving Back, Green Living

Fair Trade Clothing

I can trace my path to eco-awareness from a desire for undershirts. Baby undershirts, to be exact.

I was a new mom, and my daughter needed those tiny undershirts that keep infants’ round bellies warm in winter. I headed to a well-known department store that was famous for its low prices. I found the undershirts, but — though we didn’t have much money to spend — I was disturbed by just how cheap the undershirts were. I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to purchase the cotton and thread for that price, let alone pay for someone to make the shirts, package them, and ship them.

In that instant, even accounting for economies of scale, I knew that someone or a lot of someones were being exploited so that I could get cheap baby undershirts.

As a new mom, I wondered about moms in countries far away. Were they sewing these clothes? Were their children?

Cheap clothing, steep price tag

I began to research how and where our clothes are made. Then I began to ask deeper questions about other items. What about the rug I’d bought for our living room? What about the chicken I’d cooked for dinner the night before? How about the deodorant I’d put on that morning? The stuffed animal my daughter had received as a gift? And on. And on.

The answers, though complicated, had their roots in a basic truth: Companies that care little about the environmental impact of their products are generally equally cavalier about the people who produce them.

So … back to the undershirts. And the larger clothing industry.

Despite fairly large gains in many industries toward fair trade, local and organic, the garment industry remains largely unmoved. Devastating events like the Bangladeshi factory collapse last year shine a nasty glare on sweatshops, reminding us that our purchases, no matter how small, impact the lives of those far away. They remind us that we have an obligation to ensure that we’re not complicit in another’s suffering. And they encourage us to take our concerns to retailers. To insist that we want clothing that is made under safe conditions and by someone earning a living wage.

The wages in many of these countries where clothes are frequently made — Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, China, Vietnam, Thailand — sound staggeringly low. Bangladesh, for example, has one of the lowest minimum wage standards in the world, at US $38/month.

The answer seems simple. Stop buying clothes made in Bangladesh. And Cambodia. And Indonesia. And that’s certainly an option.

The more nationalistic among us urge us to purchase clothing made right here in North America (though if we think sweatshops don’t exist here, we’re kidding ourselves).

Sweatshops vs. fair trade

Others, however, point out that a generation ago we were buying many of our clothes from Taiwan and South Korea, two countries whose economies are now booming and whose people are better off. It has been argued that sweatshops are a stop along the way to prosperity.

I prefer, however, to support companies that might be helping those in developing countries get a leg up by offering them a fair wage for their labor. And if it’s also eco-friendly? So much the better!

More companies are making the switch to fair trade production all the time, spurred on by consumer demand for clothes we can feel good about wearing. True, these goods aren’t as cheap as most of our fast-fashion, but, in my experience, they last far longer. And they not only look good — they’re also doing good.

fair trade clothing

Gaiam fair trade clothingBrowse Gaiam’s fair trade clothing

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Gaiam fair trade comforterBrowse Gaiam’s fair trade home goods and decor

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Related Articles:

5 Fair Trade FAQs

Video: Fair Trade Paves a Way Out of Human Trafficking in Cambodia

From Living on the Street to Earning a Living Wage: Fair Trade at Work in Hanoi

5 Lives We’ve Lifted Up Together: Fair Trade Artisans Say Thank You

fair trade clothing


  1. Great blog, lengthy but good, I needed some tips anyways so I guess yours has just motivated me.

    Amazon Assassins Creed | November 27th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. Did you research to see what cost of living was in Bangladesh? Maybe $38/ month is enough to live in Bangladesh…

    As far as I’m concerned the US is giving them more jobs and helping their economic become better (why do you think ours is going down the drain??) by placing these factories over there. The country alone has it’s own control over it’s labor laws, not us. If a country felt their labor laws were wrong then they would have to change it, not the US. It’s not our responsibility.

    You also got to remember that this is a different country with different morals and a different culture. Having young kids work maybe the norm there. Having kids work in factories in the US was a norm for a while too.

    And not all cheap things have short life spans either. I have had “hand-made” or “home-made” that fall apart faster than some of the cheap stuff I buy. So It all depends. Don’t let advertisement fool ya…

    Just a thought..

    Kim | December 5th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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