The amount of global growth over the last several decades is staggering when compared to nearly any other time in history. The rapid rise of communication technology, and the advent of faster, easier, and more efficient modes of transportation has made basically anything you could want cheap and accessible. That couldn't have been more apparent than last year when COVID-19 dropped into our lives and yet dinner, groceries, prescriptions, and shopping were all at our fingertips. But... how exactly? Have we really reflected on the true cost of our consumption? While some prices and costs of goods have certainly increased over the last few years, there have never been more scarily cheap options in the food and fashion industries. And that's not quite a good thing.
Let's first look at the food sector. In another life, I worked as a chef and was in the restaurant industry for years. That is to say, I have worked in the back end of the supply chain in varying capacities, from bar food to fine dining.
"The portions are huge!" and "It's so cheap!" have become commonplace and almost expected statements when asked about the local Bar & Grille. At risk of ruining your next Friday night out, some harsh truths need to be delivered. A simple dinner with meat, starch, and a vegetable may run you $14.99. Is that normal? The industry standard suggests the food cost of that dish is 25%, or $3.75. The other costs are the labor, the overhead of the building, the rent, owners' salaries, etc. As for the food, the restaurant bought the raw ingredients from a distributer like Sysco or US Foods, who in turn bought the raw ingredients from multiple sources: the meat from the meatpacker, the grain from the mill, the veggies from a large-scale farm (or yet another distributer). Likely at 50% of the cost, so ~$1.85. Of course the restaurant's distributer has to make money, so all of that likely cost a grand total of ~$1, and likely even less.
In a finer dining atmosphere, where a similar plate (albeit better executed with higher quality ingredients) costs $45, you can still assume the food cost is the same at 25%, or $11.25. In a shorter supply chain (like buying from local farms), more of that money stays in the immediate area and directly pays those producing the goods.
Even while ignoring the sustainability question (we all saw what happened with shortages and prices in 2020), is this even ethically OK? How can that much food be produced for so cheap? Then transported from all over the country to a central location, to be transported again and again until it hits your table for $14.99. An increase of the minimum wage (to something like $15) has been gaining national popularity, but often with the backlash that prices will increase dramatically. But the pay of the line cook cooking your dinner (who should be making the same as your server, but that's another story) is merely one tiny stone in the balancing act going on in the food supply chain. Pressure from the buyer over food cost, now having to pay workers more, can impact the whole system as distributers and producers adjust prices. But how much lower can the cost of food go? Meat in particular is produced at such an astonishing rate under incredibly horrifying conditions, how could it get any cheaper? The answer of course, is that it can't, nor should it. That $14.99 meal should probably be more than double that.
If you shop at a local butcher, farm, or small grocer, you will inevitably notice the increased price for the "same" items when compared to a big box store. But this is not apples to apples. At some of the finer restaurants I worked at, I got to see the price difference and the people behind quality food. This food was intentionally produced on a smaller scale, locally to the restaurant, and delivered directly from the source. While costing a bit more, we translated that to the cost of the dish, and were happy knowing we were supporting the lives of honest and passionate people. Our customers too, were happy to keep the money they spent in the community rather than contributing to massive global operations. The Mega Food Industry relies on exploiting those people at the very bottom of the supply chain. All along the way, someone is being used and abused so that at the end, the consumer is happy with the price of a mediocre product, entirely removed from its source.
Why am I talking about food? Because at the end of the day, the textile industry is a mirror image. At its most basic, Cotton is a plant and gets treated much the same as other staple crops like corn, soy, and wheat. Fast fashion got its name for a reason, as it mimics the same issues in the Fast Food world.
A T-shirt for $14.99 is just as removed from reality as the $14.99 dinner. The meat industry in the USA is largely based in the USA, but with the the fashion industry, the corners of the world have all been exploited and abused by outsourcing companies for decades. China is often at the center of the debate, but in reality, the laborers of dozens of other countries are all paying the real cost of a cheap, throwaway T-shirt.
The T-shirt supply chain is massive, and costly. Just like in the food industry, the true cost of the good is passed along over and over again down the line until the bottom of the ladder is the most exploited. A $14.99 T-shirt starts with cotton grown and harvested in China (recently discovered that it was often via forced labor of Uyghur Muslims). From there, the cotton may go to India to be knit into fabric, again often under "questionable" circumstances with eye-popping lack of regard for working conditions and labor laws. The fabric then goes to Bangladesh or across the world to Honduras to be cut and sewn under, you guessed it, more appalling conditions. Then it is bulk shipped to the USA to be disseminated through department stores across the country. At the end of the season, it's either burned or "recycled" and the process repeats (it never stopped). If you can turn a blind eye to the obvious humanitarian crises across the globe in our effort for cheaper and faster products, the transportation cost alone should knock you off your feet. The fuel consumption of cargo ships, trucks, planes, trains, and delivery drivers to move cheap clothes and plastics across the world is staggering.
All this is to say that when your dinner, or your shirt, make you say "Wow! So cheap!" there is often a hidden cost. Whether that's the laborer producing the goods for dollars a week, or the brutal working conditions of those getting the goods to you, or just the pay of the person finally selling you the item, someone is being exploited to keep that cost low. Ignoring all of those, you too are being exploited; these mega-global operations are destroying the environment (your environment) in the name of cheaper consumables, and often making their cheap option the only option around.
When you pick up a truly quality piece of clothing, or have a truly amazing meal, you know it. And in the moment, you are happy to pay for it. High quality goods leave a lasting impression, in the case of clothing, tangibly for years to come. Fast Fashion junk is made so poorly that it falls apart or becomes uncomfortable quickly (convenient for you to buy another) where a thoughtfully handmade piece will last. When you buy a Made in USA item, whether apparel or otherwise, from a company committed to a domestic supply chain, you can rest assured a large portion of the above will have been avoided, and the cost reflects that. A $50 shirt with American harvested cotton, made in a local American factory with safe and ethical practices, and delivered directly to the consumer keeps that hard earned $50 in the local economy, supports traditional American values and craftsmen, and will last decades longer than a polyester knock-off at the department store.
For agreat write up on Fast Fashion, check out this article by our friends at Porch