What does that $14 shirt really cost?

photo and price breakdown courtesy of macleans.ca (click the photo for more details)

This breakdown of the cost of an average shirt really shows some of the major problems with the clothing industry. Specifically, why almost all ready-to-wear clothing is horribly unethical in several ways. Let’s break it down:

Treating workers like machines…

The people who make these shirts are paid $0.12 per hour. Now, this particular example is from Bangladesh; some countries, like China, have wages that are much higher – double, even – at $0.24 an hour, or more! And they get the privilege of working 10-14 hours per day, for a whopping monthly income that gets as high as… $250. PER MONTH. For working crazy long hours in crowded factories with major air and noise pollution. And then there are the folks who make the fabric (see below about what that means) who are spending their days inhaling all kinds of chemicals for the same great pay in similarly horrifying places.

…results in low quality workmanship…

Because when you are expected to meet a quota, it is all about SPEED. So the stitch length is longer, which means it’s more likely to come loose while you’re wearing or washing it. I’m sure you all have as many shirts as I do with hems that are pulling out?

…and to keep the prices low, they use the cheapest material around – PETROLEUM. Ahem, I mean Polyester. So it’s great for the environment.

Did you know that polyester is made from petroleum and coal? And, in order to produce it, you start with an acid and alcohol chemical reaction to make a melted plastic puddle, which is stretched into ribbons and dried. And then cut into chips and dried some more. And then melted again and forced through tiny holes to form strands which can be knit or woven into fabric.

And you love wearing it, don’t you? (No. No, you don’t.)

Also, because it’s made of plastic, it doesn’t breathe when you wear it. So when you get hot and sweat, the heat and moisture are trapped between the garment and your body, making it more prone to permanent odors and pit stains and you more prone to discomfort while wearing it. And if you’re cold, it forms a barrier between your skin and whatever heat source you may use to try to warm up.

Natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk, hemp) on the other hand are breathable – meaning heat and moisture can escape when you get warm, and can get in when you are cold.


Well, first, we don’t have the economies of scale that mass producers do – so our suggestion would be lobbying to bring good manufacturing jobs back to the USA. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s see what it would cost to make it here. We’re going to assume that we already have a pattern, and that our workers take 2 hours to make the shirt, since we don’t have an assembly line factory or machines that cut the fabric for us. Here’s how it breaks down:

$50.00 – Labor: 2 hours @ $25/hour – our current labor rate
$10.00 – Materials: 1 yard of 100% organic cotton or hemp fabric and a few buttons
$ 0.00 – Factory Overhead: included in our labor rate
$ 0.00 – Factory Margin: None, we don’t mark things up
$ 0.00 – Shipping: None, we don’t outsource our labor
$ 0.00 – Agent: None, no outsourcing of labor means we don’t need someone to find a factory for us
$ 0.00 – Retail Markup: None, you buy directly from us


You could extrapolate with some assumptions – perhaps a US factory with special equipment could make it in just one hour, and paying at least minimum wage* (currently $8.25 in Illinois) could perhaps reduce the labor to $25 or so, including its overhead and markup. And with economies of scale, the material cost could probably be reduced by a dollar or two, bringing the wholesale cost to around $33. If we assume the same 60% markup by the retailer, that would bring the total to $52.80.

*We’d argue that sewing is skilled labor, and should be compensated at a higher rate because it can’t be done by just anyone. Furthermore, the minimum wage is not really a living wage and desperately needs… a raise.

So… in summary, yes, it would cost quite a bit more than we are used to paying to have ethically made clothing. It would mean a return to a time when we bought a much lower volume of much better quality garments. It would mean that we’d wear the same clothing over and over, instead of having a new outfit for every day of the month. It would mean taking better care of our clothes – using gentler cycles, hang-drying more things, and even hand washing from time to time.

What do you think? Is it worth the higher price to have ethically made, better quality garments? Will you start making that change in your wardrobe?

Leave a Reply