/ Money, Shopping

I won’t be mourning the death of cheap fashion

Stack of jeans

Rising cotton prices may mean the end of £4 t-shirts and £10 pairs of jeans – but would it really be so bad if we had to start spending more on our wardrobe collection?

Cheap fashion retailers benefited massively from the consumer spending boom that ended with the implosion of the banking system. But, arguably, they’ve benefited just as much from the fallout of the financial crisis, selling clothes at discount prices to people on tight budgets.

But the era of super-cheap threads might finally be about to end. Retailers are now warning that rising cotton prices and the impending VAT hike could affect the cost of our clothes. If the experts are right, tops, dresses and trousers costing as little as £5 a pop may become a rarity on Britain’s high streets.

Clothes haven’t always been cheap

People who rely on low-cost retailers for all their clothes are likely to feel the pinch if prices rise. But I think it’s worth remembering that, although we’ve grown used to the availability of very cheap clothing, it was not ever thus.

High street fashion actually seems to have been immune to inflation for most of my adult life. I can remember paying 35p for a can of Coke when I was younger – whereas the price of a t-shirt has barely increased since I was in my teens. In fact, it’s now possible to buy more stuff for less money than it was 10 years ago.

There’s also been much controversy over low-cost retailers’ production methods. The need to produce clothes as quickly and cheaply as possible, and in huge volumes, has a negative impact on the environment. And according to critics of fast, cheap fashion, it can also lead to the exploitation of overseas factory workers, according to critics of fast, cheap fashion.

The waste of bulk buying

In addition, cheap fashion arguably contributes to a ‘throwaway’ mentality. If an item only cost you a couple of quid, perhaps you won’t bother to repair it when it gets damaged. And in an age of austerity, can anyone justify this kind of waste?

What’s more, there’s often a strong temptation to bulk-buy clothes when they’re so cheap. When a jacket or skirt only costs a few pounds, there’s always the urge to chuck it in your shopping basket – even if you don’t need it and might never wear it.

Is this good for the planet? Obviously not. But it’s equally bad for your bank balance to spend what feels like small change on tat you have no use for.

Despite my taste for shopping and my love of bargain-hunting, I wouldn’t mourn the end of the cheap fashion era. I’d sooner buy fewer, better-quality items and look after them lovingly, than have a wardrobe bursting with cheap stuff.

And what about vintage shopping, clothes swapping or recycling old garments so they get a whole new lease of life? Not only can this kind of thrift provide hours of fun – it’s kinder to the environment, as well as the pound in your pocket.

Headache5678 says:
28 September 2010

Do you know if its true that with so much over-production of cheap jeans in the Indian Sub-continent, it will take years before stocks are used up ?

I think that clothes, like food, have been held artificially too low for too long. The reason is, that for all of the low cost T-Shirts and jeans (it was probably about 5 or 6 years ago that Tesco had the £4 pair of jeans) that you can buy, someone is getting squeezed to allow us to have the cost so low. Who is it that gets the dirty end of the stick? Not the retailers as they will still have 100% mark up on items, is it the distributors? No because their costs have gone up in the last few years due to fuel costs rocketing. The factory owners? No, they are too busy making money. The answer is the machinists and factory workers. Retailers have told us that a) they don’t use exploited staff or b) we wouldn’t be prepared to pay the extra money for the clothes so that the workers would earn more money. Now we will have to pay more money for clothes anyway. So will we stop buying clothes? I really don’t think so.

Although I agree with your comments Carl, I do think there needs to be more clarity about exploitation in the fashion industry. I don’t think that buying from more expensive shops can definitely ensure no exploitation has taken place. It’s just so difficult to buy with a clear conscience as the supply chain is so long and complicated.

The era of throwaway fashion has to come to an end. People need to stop and think more about their purchases and whether they really need them and will use them. I get so frustrated at all the clothes in charity shops from these cheap shops – it’s obvious that people didn’t really want them to begin with. I’m not perfect, I do buy cheap clothes from time to time, but I try and make sure they are items I’ll definitely wear a lot rather than fast fashion that I’ll get bored with and chuck away.

I think there’s a case for saying that the price of clothing in charity shops is dragging down the prices in regular stores with consequences for workers and the environment. Good quality clothing is routinely flogged off for a pittance in the charity shops near us [and they’re competing against each other of course]. We feel this is an insult to the generous donors who expect their goods to be sold for a good price to boost the charity’s income. It also undermines the retail trade generally.

It’s a really complicated situation.

Firstly, most retailers don’t own the factories their clothes are produced in, so it’s difficult for them to set the standards for working practices. Because fashion moves so fast, it’s too much of a risk for a company to put all its eggs in one basket in case something happens that impacts on production (civil unrest, natural disasters etc.). So they spread the risk – producing some clothes in one country, some clothes in another. The upshot is that many factories will be producing garments for more than one retailer, and these retailers are often competitors in their own markets. You will rarely find a factory where one retailer has overall control and can demand improvements of the factory owner.

The solution is complicated. Retailers could work together and demand minimum standards for workers. It sounds simple in theory, but getting any business to work with its competitors is difficult. Even if a few of them came together and did this, there’s always the risk that one or two wouldn’t sign up and gain a price advantage through continuing to make clothes at rock bottom prices, and then the whole thing would fall apart (unfortunately there isn’t the evidence that a majority of consumers care about working practices).

The other answer is not to look at the retailers but to the governments of the countries they produce in. Some might say its the responsibility of governments to legislate for decent standards, but unfortunately the drive for political legitimacy through economic growth comes first – just like in the example of the retailers, in a global economy countries compete with each other for inward investment, which results in a so-called ‘race to the bottom’, with the countries with the lowest costs (and, usually, also the lowest standards) winning out.

Don’t know about cheap fashion – But I have a Tartan Shirt I bought for 3/6d (17.5p) on a market stall in 1947 in London and still wear it – It is faded a little but still has the same buttons!

I still have my original Boy Scout Uniform (1941) – I continued to wear this at school “fancy dress” days before I retired. The only reason I don’t wear this is because the badges are fragile and irreplaceable.

Equally I can’t remember throwing any clothing away if it is still wearable. I have paid up to £100 and down to 3/6d for a shirt But I was taught to take care of my clothes.

I refuse to pay £100 for a pair of shoes – if I can buy superb working boots for £15.

I’d rather the fashion industry collapses and I could continue to wear £5 shorts and £3 T-shirts with flip-flops.