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Is slave-free more expensive?: The true costs of the products we buy

Is slave-free more expensive?: The true costs of the products we buy

Putting the assumption to the test

Many consumers assume that slave-free products are too costly and out of their reach, but this is not necessarily the case. Social sustainability does not automatically equate to higher prices, and the reverse is true: a high price does not mean that an item has been ethically-produced. A KnowTheChain report found that several mainstream apparel brands, such as Nike and Gap Inc., fared better than luxury brands with regards to workers’ treatment, because the better-performing companies had previously faced greater consumer pressure to address labour issues.

As consumers then, we have an active, pivotal role in reducing modern slavery, by demanding more accountability from companies on what actually goes in their supply chains, and by supporting those who do make the effort to implement ethical labour practices. How else can consumers play a part? Informing ourselves about the true costs behind each purchase that we make helps. In the short term, slave-free products may appear expensive, but in the long run, it’s a very different story.

Let’s take a closer look at the fashion industry. Much more goes into an ethical slave-free price tag than the mere value of the fabric.  Meanwhile, while mass-produced clothing might appear to be more affordable, they actually come at a higher human and environmental cost. By understanding these costs, consumers will be able to re-evaluate their attitudes to consumption, and make better purchasing decisions.

Breaking down the true costs of our purchases

  • Cost of sustainable materials.

Ethical clothing is also often made with more sustainable materials like organic cotton, which, not leaving a trail of ecological destruction in its wake, is more expensive  to produce. Without the cost-cutting use of harmful chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, more time and effort must be invested in the planting, growing, harvesting and processing of that cotton.

  • Cost of paying a living wage.

The outsourcing of labour to developing nations where workers receive pitifully low wages is a common trait of fast fashion and mass production, which enables the fast fashion brand to sell its goods at absurdly low prices. Without access to a living wage, workers and their families are entrapped in the poverty cycle.

Only in the last twenty years has the price of clothing plummeted. Fashion Revolution says, “… when garments are priced as cheaply as single-use items, it implies that our clothing is disposable. And if we buy that message, we are buying into a very ugly side of fashion.”

But by giving garment workers a decent living wage and basic workers’ rights, the price of slave-free clothing inevitably rises to a more realistic level.

  • Slow  fashion beats fast

The “true cost” of fast fashion includes the poor and unsafe working conditions endured by thousands of garment workers receiving extremely low wages, the pollution of water systems when producing chemically-intensive cheap synthetic fabrics, the increase in textile waste that is mostly non-biodegradable, and the list goes on. The impact is far-reaching and contributes to an overall negative effect on humans and the environment. Thus, slow fashion is better for everyone and the planet.

  • False economy

With the march of globalisation and high-population driven consumer demand, factories started pumping out cheaply made clothing that was only expected to last a few wears; a trend that sadly continues today.

However, “Cost per wear” (CPW) is a calculation used by those seeking an ethical wardrobe overhaul. This considers how many uses (or “wears”) you can get per item of clothing, and the more wears, the better the investment. So rather than purchasing five £10 T-shirts that will last, say, 10 wears, and achieving the cost per wear of £1, a £30 T-shirt designed to last many more wears will only have a CPW of a few pence.

  • Sustainable and ethical goods are becoming more affordable

Moreover, since truly sustainable fashion is produced responsibly and invests in the future, it’s good for everyone. As sustainable practices become more widespread and demand increases, so will prices decrease. Thanks to innovation and the growing circular economy, which can help to reduce costs in the long-run, fashion brands are now producing affordable clothing that is good for people, the planet, and animals.

  • Unsustainable consumption

Fashion Revolution recently endorsed the adage that buying ‘cheap’ is not always best: “Cheap prices make us believe as consumers that we’re saving money. This may appear true in the short term, with a narrow focus and looking just at the money in our wallets, but all of us, as global citizens, will ultimately end up paying the external cost, the true cost for the unsustainable consumption and production of cheap clothing.”

Changing Attitudes

Thankfully, the consumer mindset is now shifting away from the culture of instant gratification and materialism that often leads to exploitation. In our increasingly interconnected world, thinking critically about the source of products, transparent supply chains and whether the company supplying your products is a responsible corporate citizen has become the new normal.

A 2015 poll by Nielsen of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries around the world found that 66 percent of global consumers and 73 percent of Millennials (those born from 1977 to 1995) were willing to pay more for sustainable goods.

But still more progress is needed

In its recent report, Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour , the International Labour Organization (ILO), concluded that forced (or slave) labour in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year, and that US$ 51 billion of this estimated total came from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities.

“This new report takes our understanding of trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery to a new level,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “Forced labour is bad for business and development and especially for its victims. Our new report adds new urgency to our efforts to eradicate this fundamentally evil, but hugely profitable practice as soon as possible.”

Estimates indicate that more than half of the people in forced labour are women and girls, primarily in commercial sexual exploitation and domestic work, while men and boys were primarily in forced economic exploitation in agriculture, construction, and mining.


Slave-free products are cheaper in the long run and of a far better quality than those produced under modern slavery.

Next time you’re browsing the aisles and have to choose between a slave-free product and one made in modern slavery, you could consider the following factors behind the former’s price tag:

Workers are treated with respect;

Workers receive a living wage, are happier and thus more productive, in a safe working environment;

Workers’ communities thrive and are lifted out of the poverty trap;

And you leave the shop with a quality product and a clear conscience.

You’ll also be helping to eradicate slave labour and create a World Made in Freedom.

This article was authored by Simon Watkinson, writer at slavefreetrade.