The High Cost of Cheap Clothing

Understanding the True Cost of Clothes

Americans, it turns out, love to buy clothes.  The reason has many moving components, but a major one is that we get a little rush of dopamine when we go out wearing something fashionable and new.  That’s the same “drug” we get when we hear a funny joke, see a good looking person, have an “ah-ha” moment, or win an unexpected prize.  It’s powerful and motivating.  The fact that we can snag a new outfit for under $50 at most retailers around the country makes it all that much easier to splurge on new clothes despite the fact that we have perfectly good clothing in the closet.

Even though our costs at the register are low, the true cost of those cheap clothes comes via other means.  We aren’t paying with our dollars.  And often we ourselves don’t bear the brunt of it.  Cheap clothes are made overseas where we pass the burden on people we have never met.  And in some cases, it costs them their lives.

Cheap Clothing Hurts Families

How much do you make per day?  If it’s just you, and you make less than $48/day, the US Government says that you’re below the poverty line.

Most factory workers in China and Bangladesh, where 75 million garment workers live, make less than $3 per day.  And that is after wages have gone up in recent years.  They start working when they’re about the age of 12; old enough to operate a sewing machine.  Sitting in poorly ventilated rooms without windows, that are sweltering hot, they sew garments together as quickly as they can.  If they can’t meet quota, they’re fired.  If they need a day off, they’re fired.  If they are insubordinate, they’re fired.  We remember hearing about children working in sweat shops 20 or 30 years ago; not much has changed since that time.

Cranking out hundreds of garments every day to earn a couple of dollars is physically demanding.  Young children have to go to work just so the family can afford to put food on the table.  And often they are literally worked to death.

Taslima Aktar, a 23-year-old garment manufacturer in Bangladesh needed her job.  When the deadly chemicals used to dye the clothing caused her headaches that eventually led to a persistent fever, she asked for a day off to go see a doctor.  Her request was denied.  A few weeks later, her symptoms worsened, and she passed out while working.  Coming to, she was told to get back to work where the stress and illness caused her heart to stop and she died (full story on

Those jeans with a price tag of $5.95 come at a much higher cost than a few bucks.

Flannel clothing Billings
Opt for quality, it costs less in the long run

Cheap Clothing Hurts the Environment

If the undervaluing of human lives isn’t enough, cheap clothes are doing a number on our planet.  In an age of heightened environmental awareness, it seems that disconnecting from our clothing sources is an easy way to ignore issues of pollution.

Chemical Pollution – Many clothing dyes are not environmentally safe.  Some of the cheaper ones are toxic, and cannot be used in the USA.  But there are no restrictions in some of the countries where these clothes are made, and there are no restrictions on importing clothes that have used them.

Carbon Emissions – Transporting freight loads of goods around the world can be done relatively cheaply when all that is accounted for are dollars.  As Upfront shows, there is a large footprint left behind by the clothing industry.

Water and Pesticides – Cotton is used in the majority of clothing.  But to produce enough cotton to make one pair of jeans, the plants require 1,800 gallons of water.  That’s not including water used to cool machinery, dye the clothing, and more.  While cotton farming is big business in the USA, the industry accounts for nearly 25% of all the pesticides used in the USA.  Then nearly 75% of the cotton is shipped overseas.

Landfill Waste – The average American will throw out 76 pounds of clothing this year.  Next year it will be just as much.  With over 325 million citizens, that comes out to more than 24.7 billion pounds of clothing headed to the landfills.  Much of that clothing is simply unwanted: they’re not torn, stained, or ruined.  The owner simply doesn’t want them anymore.  Some of the clothing that is made with synthetic fabric will still be in the landfill 150 years from now.

High quality Montana clothing
Keep clothes longer and out of landfills

Cheap Clothing Hurts our Economy

When the global economy was picking up, manufacturing largely left the USA.  By 1990, half of our clothes were made overseas.  Today, it’s closer to 98%.  Fortunately, it’s starting a migration back as people are more and more aware of the true cost of cheap clothes.

Cheap clothing causes our economy to decline.  Yes, we can claim that we have more money in our pockets to buy other goods, and the stores are making money selling cheap clothing.  But how much more would we have if we kept the jobs here and bought clothes that are made to last, all while reducing negative impacts on families around the world and minimizing the destruction of our planet?

Aspinwall Mountain Wear is Quality

Aspinwall sells clothes that are made in the USA.  Those stitching them together are paid livable wages.  The higher job satisfaction means that you get a higher quality product that will last many times longer than the $3 t-shirt with a funny slogan printed on it.

The next time you are tempted to go clothes shopping, keep in mind the high costs of cheap clothes.

Cheap Clothing