Transparency and reality: why a garment costs what it does

By far the most exciting thing I saw last week during the couture in Paris wasn’t couture at all [...] it is the most subversive etail initiative I have seen. I think it has the power to transform the fashion industry. Really. You know I don’t say these things lightly.

It’s true, Vanessa Friedman really doesn’t say those things lightly. Reading the first paragraph of her Financial Times blog article, my mind was puzzling away, trying to figure out as I was reading what could possibly be that exciting or transformative.

Turns out, it’s something that should have been the case from the get-go: clothes that allow you to know exactly what went into making them. It’s an initiative called Honest by Bruno Pieters, Pieters being a Belgian designer, previous art director of Hugo by Hugo Boss, and creative director of the oldest leathergoods company in Europe, Delvaux.

Pieters’s initiative means you can finally know the full fleet of information about the garment’s production, cost and impact.

You can know sufficiently detailed information about the exact location of the garment’s manufacture, rather than just making do with a “Made in X” line on the tag – a notoriously useless bit of information, since there can be factories in China with good ethical records, there can be factories in Italy that take advantage of immigrants and submit them to sweatshop labour conditions, or a garment might be made in a country where sweatshop labour for clothes production is rife but then the garment is finished off in France and a “Made in France” tag obscures its more problematic origin.

You can also know the source of all the different the materials used to make the garment – a genuinely critical piece of information, since the fabrics and components themselves can also potentially come from unethical or unsustainable sources (for example, cotton harvested by children in forced labour in Uzbekistan, or cashmere from goat herds in Mongolia and China that have exceeded in size what the natural environment can handle and are now destroying the ecosystem).

You can check out the certification of the garment to see what criteria of ethics and sustainability it was subjected to. You can see a breakdown of the time it took to make one garment. You can find out the garment’s carbon footprint (and potentially you could buy carbon credits to offset this if you wanted).

And you can understand the actual cost of a good quality garment – something that probably very few people outside of the fashion and garment production industry know. It’s a unprecedented (to my knowledge) level of transparency – the cost of the fabric per metre, the cost of each button on a shirt, even the cost of the hang-tag. It mentions the cost of such things as development and transport. And it also notes the wholesale mark-up and the retail mark-up and the reasons for those. I’m honestly stunned by how interesting and informative and honest this is.

But… that’s a bad thing, that I’m stunned, right? Because this is the sort of information consumers need access to in order to make informed choices, and this is the information that has been systematically concealed or withheld for a very long time. We should expect this information by default. For many brands, exposing that sort of information would mean a lot of disillusionment and disappointment in consumers, and customers who could afford to buy from brands with more sustainable and ethical production lines would presumably choose to do so.

I don’t know if this standard of transparency and honesty would ever become the norm, unless it was officially legislated (which seems improbable) or unless consumer demand and pressure was sufficient that the brands and their manufacturers acquiesced (slightly more probable, but still a huge expectation, given the potential costs – both in lost profits for brands with sketchy production lines and in the price of enforcing and regulating sustainable sources and ethical production lines for the brands that choose to make the effort).

Whatever happens, in the meantime, I’m finding this price break-down seriously educational. Everyone has different price ranges that they consider reasonable for a given garment, and for me my ranges are based on little more than the brand’s image (generally a bad thing to base judgment on, I know), not-very-informed guesses about quality, how much I like the garment, and my personal income. The Honest by Bruno Pieters prices are a bit on the expensive side for me (and probably the vast majority of people), but keep in mind that the production scale is small at the moment, and if the initiative is successful and expands further, the prices might come down. Whether the prices do come down or whether they stay the same, we still have to acknowledge that this is what an ethically and sustainably produced garment costs. This is what it costs to produce a garment of high quality and to cut no corners and to not take advantage of any person or environment in the production line… with a bit of mark-up added on to make the endeavour worthwhile for the instigators.

Very interesting information.

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