By David Pew
Many of us are familiar with the old saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Today, I make the case that there’s no such thing as a cheap suit.
To examine this idea, we should first contrast a $5,000 custom suit with one that costs $400. The $5,000 suit will presumably be made of high-quality materials using long-lasting construction techniques by a labor force who is at least adequately compensated. The $400 suit will most certainly be made of cheap, synthetic and/or unsustainably harvested materials, using quick slipshod construction techniques, by a workforce composed of sweatshop or forced labor. In these examples, the cost of materials, workmanship and labor are not bypassed at all, but displaced.
Cost of Materials
A fine fabric, such as one produced by Dormeuil, is made of fine wool that has been harvested and processed as sustainably and ethically as possible. Many of their fabrics are now robustly tracked through the block chain so that each step from shepherding to applying the finish to the fabric and shipping it to the maker can be examined. The cost for this material is, unsurprisingly, paid in money spent by the eventual owner of the suit.
On the other hand, a cheap synthetic fabric has very little financial cost to the end user. Instead, the true cost of the fabric is paid by the environment in a town where the synthetics are produced, poisoning the air and water in surrounding regions. These textiles are also usually produced using sweatshop labor or, in many cases, even forced labor (also known as slave labor), forcing the laborers who produce the fabric to pay their own price in unpaid or underpaid labor, loss of life expectancy (or simply loss of lives), and starvation for them and their families.
It can clearly be seen which of the two fabrics is truly more costly. However, over time our society has become more and more comfortable with the idea of displaced cost, where somebody else pays an alternative cost to save us money. We’ve learned not to ask where our $5 t-shirt was produced and by whom. These answers are distasteful and inconvenient, and we’d simply rather not know.
The $5,000 custom suit will presumably have been made using upscale, long-lasting construction techniques, such as full canvas construction in the coat, hand-sewn buttonholes and other details, and other touches that are meant to last as much as a lifetime. A well-made suit is known to keep its shape beautifully, often even to be passed down to the next generation. The reduced impact this has on the environment is also notable, when taken in contrast to a suit that needs to be replaced every two or three years because it wears out or loses shape.
A $400 suit is made using a cheap canvas that is literally glued to the coat front. In fact, it’s not only the $400 suit. Many big names, such as Hugo Boss, sell coats with fused (glued) canvas construction for up to $900 or more. This option reduces the life expectancy of the suit to 3-5 years, if the suit is made of high quality wool and is cared for extremely well. If not, you can expect to get a few wears out of it at best. Again, this has a great impact on the environment, as a suit with a fused canvas that has failed is only fit to be discarded and replaced.
This aspect has been referenced already, but it is the most important of all, and requires its own heading.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that sweatshops still exist in the USA by legal definition. It’s easy to imagine how, if sweatshops proliferate in New York City and Los Angeles, they are even more common in countries without robust labor laws.
Not only that, but forced labor still exists in the USA, even if you don’t count prison labor. In many other countries, forced labor is much more common, and is usually a tool of oppression used to subjugate a certain minority people group (such as Uyguhr people in China).
I’m not here to impose a guilt trip for every little thing you pay for. This is, in a way, an inescapable social construct. The problem here is that you can buy a $5 t-shirt from Target and a $100 t-shirt from a big name designer, and they may come from the same exact working conditions. It’s partially out of our control.
However, it’s partially within our control as well. When buying something, especially a garment (as this practice is especially prevalent in this field), take a moment to ask yourself how obvious it is that somebody suffered unjustly to make it for you. Or, if you want to, do some research and see if there are specific brands that seem to be doing the right thing. Just don’t buy a $400 custom suit. The true cost is simply too high.