HOW MUCH SHOULD A T-SHIRT COST?

AUSSIE BRAND THE ROAD IS SHAKING UP THE SYSTEM

AUSSIE BRAND THE ROAD IS SHAKING UP THE SYSTEM

The ‘$5 T-shirt’ is emblematic of unethical fashion. I’ve written about it at length. How can you pay workers fairly once the costs of fabric, store markups, taxes and marketing have been factored in? Then there’s the implicit message that a super-cheap garment is designed to be disposable. But it’s been a while since I’ve actually looked for one. Not to buy, of course - I’m Sustainable Style woman, aren’t I? But to see if the $5 shirt is even a thing anymore, now that there’s so much more awareness around these issues. Surely they cost more in Australia anyway. Is $10 too cheap? Is $15?

Turns out the too-cheap tee is alive and kicking. ASOS sells basic tees for $12, or two for $20. Boohoo’s also start at $12 but you can grab a singlet for $6. Target is currently advertising “New low prices are here!” including women’s tees for $8. In June, Who What Wear shared news of a “$7 shirt with over 400 positive comments on Amazon.” Woo! There’s an American e-store called $6 Shirts that sells only…you’ve guessed it. Rivers flogs ribbed cotton tees in various colours for $7.20. And K-Mart’s got one for Use it to blow your nose on when you’re over it. It’s about the same price as a box of tissues, although presumably less absorbent being a poly-cotton blend.

THE ROAD'S MENS & WOMENS ORGANIC COTTON TEES WERE LAUNCHED AT THEIR "TRUE" COST TO MAKE

THE ROAD'S MENS & WOMENS ORGANIC COTTON TEES WERE LAUNCHED AT THEIR "TRUE" COST TO MAKE

These are extreme examples but designer versions that sell for between $200 and $250 abound. Some have fancy graphics or are made from premium fabrics (linen blends, silk trims) but they’re all essentially simple T-shaped garments – two squares or oblongs sewn together for the body with a neck cut out, and two more for sleeves.

So, how much does a T-shirt cost to make? “About $15,” says Nikki McAllum, founder of a new Australian ethical basics brand called The Road. [ the-road.com.au ] “Well, $13.64, to be precise. That’s what it costs me anyway.”

And that’s what McAllum is charging during The Road’s launch campaign for her classic ‘Dust Jacket’ T-shirt styles, in order to ignite more discussion around the true cost of a garment made with integrity. There is too much confusion, she says, and not enough transparency. In such a context, how are we as consumers supposed to know what’s what?

Bon Label also makes locally using GOTS-certified organic cotton

Bon Label also makes locally using GOTS-certified organic cotton

“I’m giving customers an opportunity to buy a T-shirt for what it costs me to make it ethically in India, ship it and pay the taxes on it, but I’m not adding any of my overheads or marking it up to make a profit,” she explains. Once the campaign is over, the tees will revert to their regular retail price: a still very reasonable $39.

“I’m doing this to prove that it is possible to produce cool, fashionable ethically-made clothing at an affordable price,” says McAllum, an undies designer by trade with a background in mainstream brands. 

The range includes women’s tees, tanks, bralets and bodysuits, a well as men’s tees, all made from Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton in a Fair Trade factory. Surely you have to pay more to guarantee these things? “Yes you do, but my point it is, not as much more as people think,” says McAllum. “It’s about the power of numbers, economies of scale –the more demand there is, the more affordable it will become.

So far the market is small, with only a handful of Australian brands in the ethical basics space.

Etiko makes affordable ($30) Fair Trade organic cotton tees. At the designer end, Bassike uses organic cotton to makes its T-shirting out of one of the last knit factories in Melbourne [http://www.bassike.com/women/t-shirts-tanks ] (starting at $90) . And Parisian-influenced (think stripes and cute French slogans) Aussie label Bon also makes locally using the good GOTS stuff (from $59).

McAllum believes the sector will grow, and that customers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for ethical production – as long as it’s kept to a reasonable level.

“We work hard for our money,” she says. “We want good value. But we’ve been trained to want to pay less, even when we can afford more. It’s become culturally acceptable to gloat about our bargain-hunting skills. It’s a kind of an ‘I want to win against the world’ mentality. The problem with that is, someone always loses.”

Ah yes, time for one of my favourite sayings: someone always pays the cost for too cheap….