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.

Bothersome biases of the brain: confirmation bias

The human brain is pretty fancy. A lump of tissue – 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses – with the job of keeping you alive, generating your consciousness, allowing you to perceive and interact with the environment, allowing you to communicate in incredibly complex ways, allowing you to interpret a complex world and the other people in it. So you have to cut it some slack if, sometimes, it uses shortcuts. It uses shortcuts, and it relies on assumptions, and it likes to fit things into neat classifications in order to understand them quickly and effectively. And that can be a little bit of a problem.

The brain is prone to a lot of biases that are the result of the fact that, somehow, in some situations, they are (or were) advantageous. The ability to react quickly to your surroundings and to understand and gauge things efficiently are obviously of use from an evolutionary perspective. But applied to more rarefied, sophisticated contexts, such as complex decision-making in modern society, our brains can be a bit oafish.

One of these biases is confirmation bias – the tendency to only look for, or to over-emphasise, the information that confirms an opinion you already hold, or that you wish to hold. Confirmation bias can bias the way you search for information (like if you’re looking at reviews of a product you’re thinking about buying but you tend to skim over the negative reviews, or you read a couple of positive reviews then stop looking for further reviews) or it can bias the way you interpret information (so if a review of a product was neutral or vague, you might somehow manage to convince yourself that it was actually a little bit positive, or you might read a negative review but then decide, for whatever reason, that the author is probably actually a raving idiot).

Obviously, confirmation bias can effect your decision-making process when it comes to purchases. Consuming responsibly means (to me, at least) trying to make good decisions about purchases in an effort to minimise wastefulness and redundancy and to maximise use and longevity. The first step in minimising the effect of confirmation bias on a decision involves being aware that confirmation bias exists – so that’s accomplished now. It requires effort, but you really can force yourself to evaluate information more objectively – not purely objectively (that is simply not possible) – and improving your ability to be objective, by however much, can only be a good thing.

  • Make yourself read those negative reviews rather than ignoring them or only giving them a cursory glance. Read that contrary information and try to give it due consideration.
  • Pay attention and learn about your own tendencies and then try to navigate them (for example, I have a tendency to ignore information contrary to my beliefs if it’s poorly written or contains bad spelling, because I’ll think something like “Oh, this person can’t even spell ‘burgundy’, why should I listen to anyone who spells it ‘burgandy’?” but really what I’m doing is letting a cognitive bias skew my thinking).
  • Keep asking yourself whether the conclusion you keep coming to is just a bit too convenient, given that it was the conclusion you wanted to come to.
  • Discuss it with an uninvested party (friends, family members, people on an internet forum – whoever might be more impartial than you).
  • Just just keep thinking about your thinking. Do some meta-thinking. You can really learn a lot from it.

More on other cognitive biases in future posts.

Hello

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.

These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power tools and the whole “do-it-yourself” movement are excellent examples of “expensive” consumption.

The now famous words of Victor Lebow, an economist and retail analyst, first describing in 1955 the emergence of a society of people who want to broadcast their status and beliefs through purchased products.

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I see a behaviour of mine characterised in words by a professional researcher of such behaviours, I kind of feel guilty that my behaviour is so textbook and predictable (although I really shouldn’t, because these are behaviours that are common to huge swathes of the human species). It happened multiple times in my undergrad degree when lecturers in my psychology courses described various cognitive biases or social norms, e.g. the bystander effect, in which a person does not go to the aid of another person in need because they kind of assume that someone else will do it, thereby diffusing the sense of responsibility. But even if something is a common, well documented human behaviour, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should keep on blithely doing it without stopping to think. I’m trying to make myself do a bit of that sort of stopping and thinking with this blog.