consumerism corporate responsibility shopping

When 99% cheaper is not enough

wenlock jugEvery city has its treasures. It may not be particularly famous, but here in Luton we have the Wenlock Jug. It’s a bronze piece from the early 1400s, made to order by a bell foundry and incredibly rare – there are only three such jugs that we know of, and the other two are in the British Museum and the V&A.

Ours is on display at the Stockwood Discovery Centre, and every time I walk past it I am a) pleased to see it, as it was stolen in 2012 and then returned, and b) reminded of how precious household goods were in medieval times. Hard though it is to imagine, this humble carafe was the height of luxury, the tableware of kings.

Before the industrial revolution, household goods of all kinds were worth a lot of money. Most people owned very few things, making do with the bare necessities or things they could make themselves. Since everything had to be made by hand, any items for sale represented huge amounts of someone’s time, and were thus expensive.

In his new book Stuffocation, James Wallman gives the example of a shirt. Your classic peasant shirt could be sewn in a day, but the materials did not come cheap. You’d need around four yards of cloth, which would take a weaver about 90 hours to create. The 5,400 yards of thread for the fabric took even longer – an estimated 400 hours of spinning time. In total, it took two months’ work to make a shirt, and that’s why it cost the equivalent of £2,000 to buy one. ($3,500)

medieval weaverThe industrial revolution sped up every one of those processes, with spinning frames, power looms and sewing machines. Efficiencies, materials science and global supply chains have trimmed the costs further still, and today you can pop into a high street shop and buy a shirt for £5. That’s about a quarter of 1% of what it would have cost in pre-industrial times, or a 99.75% discount.

I find that remarkable, and it’s little wonder that our behaviour is different too. We used to own one or two outfits, take very good care of them and pass them on until they were worn to threads. Of course you would, if a new set of clothes was a major investment. Today, we can afford multiple wardrobes-full if we’re so inclined. Nobody needs to go around in rags any more, or shiver in the cold for lack of shoes or a coat. Clothes are so cheap that many of us buy things that we then never wear – 28 items per person, according to WRAP.

There is much to celebrate in that progress, in the end of poverty and lack. Cheaper clothing has made fashion possible, creating a new outlet for human creativity and allowing us to express ourselves through what we wear.

But there’s a darker side too, and it is striking that despite all this progress, sweatshop labour is still common in the textiles industry. Think about that for a moment. The cost of clothing is less than 1% what it was, but we’re still prepared to pay poverty wages in search of further discounting. 99.75% cheaper is apparently not enough.

Primark, Oxford StreetIt sounds like what Ronald Wright calls a ‘progress trap’: a cheaper shirt is a better deal, so a £1,00o shirt is better than a £2,000 shirt. A £5 shirt is a better deal than a £6 shirt, so the logic goes. Except that it’s not, if it relies on unsustainable water use, chemical pollution, and poor pay and conditions for workers, and then ends up unworn anyway. At some point, the logic ceased to hold.

If we paid a couple of pounds more for a Fairtrade cotton shirt, we’d know that the people that picked the cotton were treated fairly. We could add a few percent more for organic cotton and safeguard soil and water health. The slight premium of Fairwear certification, and the person that sewed the garment got paid a fair wage. Put it all together and maybe we’d be enjoying a 98% discount instead of 99%. Would that be so outrageous?

If you’re out buying new clothes this January – and I have been – keep this historical perspective in mind. Don’t feel guilty about it. Feel thankful. Be grateful that a new shirt doesn’t cost £2,000 any more. And out of that gratitude, spend a little more to make sure that the earth and the garment workers get a good deal too.


  1. Another excellent article. Living wages, clean industry and sustainable agriculture should not be a matter of consumer choice, though. Only regulation will ever make serious inroads into these problems, in the same way that only regulation abolished (in this country) child labour, slavery, deadly London fogs, etc. etc.
    I buy most of my clothes second hand but I am also open to the idea that it may actually be better to buy ethically produced new clothes (and other goods) in order to support these practices.

    1. It’s going to be both/and, since much of the regulation would be frowned upon under international rules and quite hard to bring in. One big issue is the corporate model that insists on ever greater profits. A more cooperative approach would defuse that grow or die ethic that exploits people and planet for profit.

      1. We have some brilliant legislation to protect workers here, like the health and safety at work act, but I can’t help but think it was a missed opportunity in more than one way to not write those laws protecting workers (and the environment) to apply anywhere producing items for import to the UK. This would help those working abroad to produce goods for the UK market, and at the same time, slowed the pursuit of cheap foreign labour that did so much damage to industrial cities like Stoke on Trent.

          1. The acts that I think missed the opportunity mostly predate the WTO. (Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, for example) Perhaps if there had been more foresight writing those laws, it would have influenced the WTO rules for the better.

            Still, it’s done, so I guess we either look for a way to change the WTO rules, or other ways to achieve similar results.

  2. Of course that £5 shirt is more affordable for those working the low wages jobs making them. Higher prices, especially regulated, would reduce demanding so fewer people having jobs making them. Higher wages also push employers to increase productivity which normally means employing fewer people.

    So some workers with higher wages, other with zero after losing their jobs and higher prices to boot.

    1. Probably not actually. If you’re on 25p an hour at a garment factory and have a family to feed, a £5 shirt is not affordable. And neither would it be a good investment, since they’re not made to last.

      Given that the average person in Britain already has 28 unworn items in their wardrobe, what we have here is actually oversupply. So yes, there would be a reduction in demand, here in our already saturated Western economies. Does that mean people out of jobs? Not if those businesses refocus on the domestic market, as China, Brazil and others increasingly recognise.

      1. Well a £5 shirt is less unaffordable than a £6 one. And given than in many poor countries second hand clothes from the first world are a major source of apparel then if we cut our ‘oversupply’ then that supply would be less, leading to higher prices for the very poorest.

        It isn’t a choice between supplying China or Europe, supply both means more factories, and more jobs – jobs I have to point out are better than what else is available.

        1. Sure, and that flood of secondhand goods destroyed the livelihoods of local tailors and seamstresses, and ensures that the only clothes people can afford are our cast-offs.

          Do you really think we should keep buying more than we need and throwing things away so that the poor can wear our hand-me-downs?

          1. I want the poor to be as well dressed as possible. It appears you don’t.

            You are deploying the argument that trains destroyed the livelihood of coaching inn owners and horse whip makers so we should ride everywhere. Hand made clothes cost more so the poor going back to having one old torn shirt is a good thing cause it maintains a bucolic idea you seem to have.

          2. Why don’t you say what you think, and I’ll say what I think.

            Now, do you really think we should keep buying more than we need and throwing things away so that the poor can wear our hand-me-downs?

          3. I think we should be allowed to decide individually for ourselves what we need rather than be told by self appointed paternalists trying to impose their moral values on the rest of us.

            I also want the poor to have a chance to earn money providing for our wants and needs. This isn’t so the poor can wear our hand me downs, it is so eventually the can afford to buy what they want.

            You really want everything more expensive; food, energy, clothes. And not just in the developed world but for the poor too. Don’t suggest you have the moral high ground here.

          4. Go and read the post again. I’m saying we should be grateful for the progress we have enjoyed, and out of that gratitude insist that companies pay a decent wage and exercise some environmental responsibility. Your problem is what exactly?

          5. Your ‘insisting’ companies pay higher wages will reduce the living standards for many of the poorest. That is my point. If you choose to pay more, than is your right. Just don’t force your choices on others.

          6. I presume you’ve never read any of the reports on sweatshop labour, and how much it would actually cost to pay a living wage. Or taken the time to see what percentage of the ticket price actually goes to the person who made the item. It is affordable. The mainstreaming of Fairtrade coffee and tea hasn’t reduced consumption or devastated the livelihoods of small farmers, and neither would improving the lives of the most oppressed garment workers.

            You insist on your right to cheap clothes, but last time I checked, the rights to a fair wage and basic health and safety protection trumped your consumer rights to a cheap t-shirt ten times over. You like to use the language of morality to belittle my views here, but that is a moral point and there’s no escaping it.

            But then I don’t think you believe half of what you say, and just enjoy an argument. That’s a waste of your time as much as mine.

          7. Affordable for you perhaps but for the very poorest? How many of them buy fair trade tea?

            The poor have to pay your higher prices too. Your advocated policy might raise the income for some workers but would certainly raise prices for far more. Lowering living standards for those who have the least robs you of your moral halo.

            I don’t just come for an argument but otherwise this would be a echo chamber. Our public discourse is balkanised enough. If ideas aren’t challenged then bad ones get entrenched.

          8. Fairtrade must be wholesale so I assume you accept the tea they buy, wherever they buy it, isn’t fairtrade. But that is by the by and in no way disapproving my contention that mandatory higher wages for textile workers would mean higher prices for the poorest. Like to have another go?

          9. Until you bother to look up how much a living wage would affect the ticket price, you’re all ideology and no facts.

            I’ll give you a start. Here’s a study from ActionAid into £4 shirts from Asda. Go and see how much the worker gets, and then come back and tell me whether or not we could all afford to pay them a decent wage.

            Click to access asda-poverty-guaranteed.pdf

          10. Then you want to add on extra for fairtrade organic cotton, and other fads. Pennies add up to pounds.

            You still don’t grasp that it isn’t just us in the richer world who will pay more but those who earn less than the textile workers. They will have less to spend because you want to salve your conscious.

          11. Not fads and not about my conscience, but let’s put aside the fairtrade and organic for one moment. Are you going to admit that we could afford a living wage?

          12. That is at least six times you have dodged answering my point that mandating higher wages for textile workers and others in the supply chain will raise prices for many as poor or poorer than the textile workers. Clearly you have no answer but aren’t prepared to admit it.

          13. Have you looked at the ActionAid link I mentioned? If you had, you’d know your objection is groundless.

            Let me spell it out. In their study of the costs involved in a £4 shirt from Asda, they calculated the amount paid to the garment worker at one and a half pence per shirt. Is that unaffordable? Given that Asda take £2.80 of that £4, they could take £2.75 if they wanted and triple the worker’s wage. If they wanted to pass it on to the consumer, we’d be talking single figure pennies.

            Do you seriously believe that, at these numbers, paying a living wage is going to make things worse for the poor? If you do, I’m afraid I have nothing more to say.

          14. So the answer is yes, it will make some poor poorer, but you’re happy with that as its just pennies (to you).

            Glad we finally got there.

            You are fixed on raising wages for some rather than lowering prices for all. This is the problem with any ‘living wages’, they raise prices or cost jobs and the prices they raise and the jobs they cost are the ones the poorest in society have.

            It seems so much more moral, wages rises are more tangible, but lowering prices has a greater effect.

          15. We’re talking about paying people on poverty wages a wage increase of a penny and a half, and you’re insisting that this will somehow make things worse for everybody? If you seriously believe this (which I doubt), then your free market dogma must have short-circuited your thinking faculties somewhere along the line.

          16. Not dogma, simple economic (maths really). Textile workers don’t just make clothes for us in the rich West but for people in middle and low income countries. Many people who will buy those wares will be on similar or lower incomes to the textile workers.

            Any mandated increase in wages, especially if done through out the supply chain (cotton pickers and the rest) would mean that ALL clothes produced by those textile workers would cost more.- those made for Asda and those made for Calcutta markets Those costs would be passed on to the consumers. While in the West the shops that sell the clothes might be able to take the hit to their bottom line or the consumers could comfortably pay more, those poor consumers who don’t work in any of the areas you have given a pay rise to (or lost their jobs because the owners wish to hold down their total wage costs) will see higher prices but not higher incomes = fall in living standards.

            Now where is my logic faulty? You want to justify higher wages but can’t see the wider picture.

          17. Nonsense from start to finish, starting with the point that I’m not mandating an increase in wages. Go and read the post again.

            Neither are you reading my comments, nor the link to the facts of that matter. Did see the bit about Asda taking £2.80 of a £4 shirt? Imagine them taking £2.75. Or imagine the price being £4.05. Either the company or the consumer pays the extra for a living wage. Does this break the bank, or cause Western consumers to stop buying clothes, or turf poor people out of their jobs?

            You sound ridiculous, and I’m done repeating myself. You can have the final word if you want. I can’t take you seriously any more on this.

          18. Jeremy understands economics much better than you seem to think he does. He’s answered everything you raised, but you didn’t seem to get it.

  3. Reblogged this on sprokkelen and commented:
    Heel goed artikel, in het Engels, over de prijs van kleren. Voor de industriële revolutie kostte het maken van een shirt 400 uur om garen te spinnen en 90 uur om de stof te weven en dan nog een dag knippen en naaien. De prijs was hoog, omgerekend naar onze geldeenheid € 3500. Daar was je dus zuinig op en je had er een of twee.

  4. Splendid insight, but there are wider issues beyond the wages paid to workers. Everything we consume involves complex industrial processes and the whole infrastructure of the globalised capitalist world: for example, oil extraction, transportation and use, and electricity production and distribution, plus the corporations that run these operations and the legal and political systems that allow them to exploit and destroy the natural world without concern for the wider environmental and human impacts. The real comparison is therefore between a small and largely self-sufficient economy of yesteryear and the global system we now have, and we have no choice in the matter.

  5. Hello Jeremy. A very simple question – do you know if the Wenlock Jug originated here in Shropshire? I’ve never heard of it before.

    Best Wishes


    1. I don’t know. I believe it has a maker’s mark on it, but I don’t think the foundry is known. The other two are better known I believe, the Asante Ewer being the largest and still attached to its lid.

  6. I saw a news article about cotton farmers in the US. The only way they make a profit is from a government subsidy.
    That just seems outrageous to me. Cotton uses lots of water and chemicals and is not a profitable crop. There has to be a better way.

  7. Interesting. Heard James Wallman speak on Suffocation last night. As purveyors of fine (and Fairtrade and organic) shirts we’re particularly interested in the pre-industrial revolution £2,000 shirt cost.

    When we set up Arthur & Henry we knew we had to make good shirts – good quality, shirts that people want to wear, shirts that will last – but also that they had to be ehthical, for those who grow the cotton, for the spinners and weavers and tailors. They are not the cheapest shirts (though considerably less than £2,000) but they are good value.

    1. Yes, it does shift our perception of value. And the more tailoring has gone into the product, the higher the risk that someone’s time has been undervalued.

      I wasn’t aware of anyone doing more formal shirts on an ethical basis, so good to know about Arthur & Henry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: