Eviana Hartman, the designer behind Brooklyn-based eco-fashion label Bodkin

Why does sustainable clothing cost more than big-box brands? For the same reason that an heirloom tomato costs more than a box of McNuggets: a combination of economies of scale and economies of globalization. Unfortunately and perversely, the things that are best for you and the rest of the world are often more expensive than whatever’s fast, cheap, and easy. Clothing prices are, in many cases, artificially low because we’ve been trained to buy quantity over quality. With food, more people are willing to pay the premium because it goes into our mouths and is reflected on our waistlines. With clothing, too few shoppers make the connection.

Bodkin Autumn/Winter 2009, Eviana Hartman, Bodkin, Brooklyn, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion

Photo by Tina Tyrell

ECONOMIES OF SCALE

Proactively limiting one’s choices to eliminate pesticide use and uncertain labor practices is a very new way of approaching a business that is at odds with its existing, very opaque structure. Many of us are young, idealistic, and still small; we’re still trying to figure it out. For instance, I’ve given up on making leggings and T-shirts for now because I just can’t compete with American Apparel.

Clothing prices are, in many cases, artificially low because we’ve been trained to buy quantity over quality.

Say you’re a newish designer, and you bring a dress to the factory and ask them to make 10 dresses. They might charge you $100 apiece, whereas if you want 100, they might cost $20; that’s because figuring out how to sew a new garment together is a complicated, challenging project, and once it’s figured out, it goes by a lot more quickly. Also, it costs a lot more to produce domestically than in China—which, you guessed it, is easier to do when you’re a big corporation.

Bodkin Autumn/Winter 2009, Eviana Hartman, Bodkin, Brooklyn, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion

Photo by Tina Tyrell

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

Then there’s the fabric, of course. The good and bad news is that demand for organic cotton these days far outstrips supply. Which, of course, makes it more expensive. While a more holistic approach to agriculture can eventually increase crop yields and strengthen communities and their economies, for now, factory-farmed, cyanide-spritzed cotton is cheaper. And if you’re ordering a small quantity of fabric, the price often doubles.

Unfortunately and perversely, the things that are best for you and the rest of the world are often more expensive than whatever’s fast, cheap, and easy.

Then, there’s the retail markup. If designers aren’t selling through their own stores or catalogs, they have to keep in mind that stores more than double the wholesale price. So if I sell something for $100, the boutique, having its own costs and risk to cover, will sell it for $230. It’s extremely easy to hit $100 when you’re talking about a sewer’s time, a pattern maker’s time, your own overhead, and a couple of yards of nice fabric that hasn’t been produced with chemicals.

Bodkin Autumn/Winter 2009

Photo by Tina Tyrell

THE SNOB FACTOR

I get upset when people seem offended by how much clothes cost. Some politically outspoken people I’ve met act as if buying basics from cheap chains confers authenticity and down-to-earthness, whereas appreciating beautiful things made with care and detail by skilled people—because they are “designer clothes”—makes you a snob. Sometimes it’s nice to support the little guy; you may even get to know that little guy personally. Then maybe you can get a discount.

+ Bodkin