Paraphrasing the late Murray Bookchin, 'if something is unaffordable for the working class, it is neither a solution nor revolutionary.' The author of The Ecology of Freedom had a point. So why exactly is it that 'organic' and 'sustainable' products are so much more expensive? To the average person in the street, it makes zero sense that the economics of protecting the planet through 'buying green' is more expensive than things made in a destructive and extractive manner. It seems that anything with the organic label is automatically marked up just by shoving a bit of green on it.
I can't remember a month since I've worked with THTC when we've not had at least one angry Facebook comment about the price of our clothing or socks. Why on earth should someone pay £15-20 for a pair of socks, let alone a t-shirt, when you could go to the fast fashion of Primark or H&M and buy 'the same thing' for cheaper? This goes especially for the time we're living in - the cost of living crisis, the supply chain crisis, the labour crisis, etc.
Many other brands have written about this and the broader issues of sustainable fashion. Often, they miss the core issue that ultimately determines the customer pays a higher price. And that, dear reader, is Capitalism.
What is Organic?
Let's start with some definitions. 'Organic' means' something derived from living matter' - as opposed to minerals or fossil fuels. It's not a generalised catch-all term like' eco-friendly'.
In the context of food and fashion, it means a product certified to meet specific 'industrial' standards of what organic means. This definition changes between economic trading areas and countries, and it is down to a manufacturer to get their products certified by a control body - a company that audits your processes.
We currently have six bodies in the UK that do Organic Certification. They will audit a company according to the legal definition of what organic means in the UK. Depending on what the variety of politicians in our country think, the legal definition of 'organic' can change, for the better or worse.
Certifications for organic clothing usually involve meeting the following standards, which vary from country to country:
- Water Use - Organic standards stipulate sustainability, which generally equates to less water
- Fair Labour - No child labour within the supply chains
- Low/Zero Pesticide Use
- Low/Zero Heavy Chemical Use - including certain dyes.
- Sustainable Energy Usage
- Emissions - demonstrate your processes don't choke the environment.
- Future Sustainability Plans
Getting certified organic can be expensive for sustainable brands and often out of reach for smaller producers. There are organisations to help ethical brands break into the fashion industry - the Fairwear Foundation, Common Objective (The Ethical Fashion Forum) - but even these organisations have limited resources.
There's even a game that must be played with the certifying bodies. You can get in trouble using certain organic logos if you've not paid the (troll) toll. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), for example, is a standard set by the world's biggest fabric producers. Many of THTC's supply partners are GOTS certified - as we use organic cotton quite liberally in our items. Their products are certified - but as soon as those boxes hit our warehouse, they magically stop being GOTS certified because we don't have the correct licence to say so. That could cost us over £100,000 per year.
The USDA Organic Certification has come under fire in the US. Similar to 'dolphin-friendly' tuna labelling, many criteria are impossible to truly enforce, and there are many workarounds. Then you have the large producers constantly pushing to redefine 'organic' to benefit their bottom line.
As you can see, many driving factors are pushing up the price.
Down on the Farm: Farming Practices, Yield and Subsidy
Organic farming practices differ from country to country, crop to crop. The general principle is reducing chemical applications, pesticides, GMO seeds etc. It seems counterintuitive that reducing your inputs would lead to more expense. After all, petroleum-based NPK fertilisers and toxic herbicides are all complex products.
But there are two things at play here - yield and subsidy.
Farmers make money by selling crops, and they'll usually be paid for biomass produced. More yield, more pay. However, crops still have to contend with pests, weeds and climate change. Therefore, many farmers are encouraged to use non-organic practices. Combined with the fact that certain fertilisers are made with enormous subsidies, and specific crops are also subsidised, the farmgate price for non-organic products begins to drop.
Harvest methods also determine yield. Looking at conventional cotton, many US cotton farmers use chemicals like Thidiazuron. Thidazuron is a defoliant, the little brother to Agent Orange. It strips cotton plants by removing mature and juvenile leaves to facilitate machine harvesting and suppress the growth of new plant leaves. Another group of chemicals known as 'desiccants' are often used too. Pyraflufen ethyl, carfentrazon, dimethipin, paraquat, and glyphosate are also used after chemical defoliation. Ethephon is also used to accelerate the opening of the cotton balls. Most of these chemicals are banned in the EU and other countries like Cuba and Vietnam due to the incredible harm they cause. Cotton clothing made in this 'conventional' manner can extract a heavy toll - yet fast fashion brands love the high margins they can tie on.
It's also interesting to note the health conditions, the occurrence of cancers and congenital disabilities in US citizens living in and around spraying areas.
Money Factory: Production Costs
Organic fabrics are more expensive to manufacture - partly due to certification but also because of the 'economies of scale'. Smaller product quantities often become more costly to clean and process, given that organic certification usually requires chemical-free specialist machinery. In the case of hemp, we need specialised looms as the fibre is much stronger than cotton. Specialised machinery requires specialised labour, which is always in short supply - at least, in an economy that isn't planned.
Many manufacturers of sustainable clothing also need to share machinery with conventional producers. Buying a factory is expensive - something that only wealthy individuals or corporations can do. Therefore, you're always at the behest of a landlord or senior production partner looking to extract wealth from you - just because they have private property.
Alternatives exist - industrial incubators and industrial cooperatives provide a platform where machinery and capabilities can be shared in the interest of a community rather than for the financial gain of the few.
Fair Wages or Surplus Value Theft?
If Primark, MissGuided etc., all sell ridiculously cheap clothing, how are they making so much money? Primark made £321 million profit in 2021, for example. The simple answer is theft - theft from their workers.
We've all heard about sweatshops in developing nations - and the backstreets of Leicester. The principle of a sweatshop is simple:
- Find a vulnerable person in dire need of cash.
- Pay them well below what they actually need to grow and survive.
- Sell what they've made or the service they provide for a ridiculous markup and pocket the difference.
- Ensure they have no other option to better their lives and rinse and repeat.
Before we go much further, you guys need to understand one of the basic exploitative concepts of Capitalism - Surplus Value Theft.
To explain this, we have a great video below by one of our heroes, Dr Richard Wolff. However, if you haven't got time for that, here's a potted version.
Any given product or service requires two things - labour (the work needed) and tools and space. You just have an empty warehouse full of tools without labour. Therefore, the total value of any product is the sum of the value of labour and the value of the 'embodied labour' - the tools and space, etc.
The capitalist/boss is responsible for buying the tools, providing the workspace etc. - the means of production. The labourer provides x hours of labour a day and gets paid a flat wage. However, production is usually carried out to benefit the capitalist - that is, to make a profit for themselves.
Like Professor Wolfe, we can reduce this to a simple equation.
Labour Value + Embodied Labour Value = Total Value
That total value is essentially what the capitalist sells a product for. Now - does the workforce get their proportion of the total value of any given product? No. The capitalist wants his return, and the investors want their return - despite not adding any value to the product, aside from owning the means of production.
That profit is then taken from the labour value. Sounds a lot like blackmail - because it is. The means of production are the non-human inputs that help create economic value, such as factories, industrial machinery, workplaces, large tracts of land, stores of raw materials, etc. The means of production are the means of life. Having a small number of people own that and effectively charge rent to everyone that requires them to survive is only a few steps away from feudalism.
Sweatshop labour was the norm throughout the world after the industrial revolution. The poor were (and still are) seen as pack animals or cash cows for the rich. Child labour was rampant. The working class could rise above it only through protest, strikes and revolution. These are all the things that the media and 'middle of the road' folk like to tell you are unnecessary.
It's still not enough to bring down the price to where it's competitive with Primark. Many of these facilities have horrific working conditions. They exploit the poorest and most desperate workers. They are paid pennies to sew long hours under appalling conditions to make cheap, inexpensive clothing that fills up the shelves.
These companies operate in 'Free Trade Zones' in countries such as Honduras, Bangladesh and India. These are places where governments have removed labour safety and human rights laws to boost industrial growth and foreign investment. Cheap clothing has big money behind it.
It's nearly ten years since the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Companies like Primark and Benetton continue to buy garments from questionable factories with exploitative practices.
If you pay your garment workers decently, then something has to change in the formula. Actual ethical companies will make the cut off the top - at THTC, our management pay structure absorbs a fair bit of that cost. Hence, Gav and I are resigned to the fact that we're never going to get rich off THTC. THTC's production partners pay their workers a living wage. Our hemp factories in China are far, far away from the sweatshops of the 'special economic zones - and they're worker-owned. All workers belong to a union and work no more than 40 hours a week. Their kids are going to college and university. They're happy.
Production and supply scale is often a significant issue in fashion. Much of the core issue comes down to 'the size of the market' - a really backward concept in this context but tied up with many moving parts.
Larger entities with much more capital and investment can purchase and sell to wholesalers and stockists - or even to themselves - at much lower prices.
H&M, Marks & Spencers, ASDA, Walmart and the other large retail chains can deliver truck loads of clothes to their stores in their contracted vehicles at significantly lower per-garment prices than it costs for a private shipper to send two boxes to a stockist. Brands with more money for short-term investment in infrastructure see more significant returns in the long run.
Internal capital also significantly affects advertising and marketing. Again, when you look at something like the London Underground, bus shelters or billboards, you'll often see massive posters from big brands. On social, your feeds will be clogged with ads about sales and new products - all of this costs a lot of money.
Small brands are also at the mercy of the big stockists and distributors who want to greenwash themselves in 'fair trade labels. These middle-men of the fashion industry often engage in price gouging, forcing producers to sell for less and less - again, pocketing the difference.
However, the bigger you are, the more muscle you have. Companies like Meta/Facebook, Google and Amazon fall over themselves to ensure the big brands spend their marketing budgets with them. In return, the platforms help the brands get the most cost-effective media packages.
Smaller brands get squeezed out of market share - don't sell as much, and eventually get choked out. It's almost perverse that we can't compete at low prices. Yet, we know that THTC provides high-quality clothing and a sustainable manufacturing process. And as we've said in last week's blog - our stuff is high quality and lasts longer.
How we build a better future
This is a tough one - because there are no easy answers. We used to say 'vote with your wallet' - but given that most of the world's commodity production is owned by a few brands, that doesn't make much sense. We believe that 'consumer activism' is a dead-end, as the people that most need to engage with it - i.e. the majority of the working class - are priced out of doing that.
Change has to come from the top, influenced heavily by grassroots work. While buying into eco-fashion may give you a few warm feelies, we need government policies that incentivise better labour and agricultural practices, better corporate ownership through mandated worker-shares, and a total ban on harmful chemicals. Rent abolition would also help massively.
THTC actively supports internationalist trade union movements such as the IWW. When garment workers in Bangladesh go on strike - support them, share their stories, and advocate for them.
A hemp t-shirt in and of itself can't change the world. When you see another person with our leaf logo on their chest, they're part of a tribe that believes in a better future for all, a fairer society that isn't run by psychopathic billionaires. And if we have enough people - then we have a movement. Then we can cause a whole bunch of trouble.