Melissa Stieber of More Than Half clothing in Kitchener, Canada

Melissa Stieber of More Than Half clothing in Kitchener, Canada

A\J’s Fashion issue explores the social and ecological impacts of “fast fashion.” In “Picking Up the Threads,” Kelly Drennan of Fashion Takes Action explains how low prices and über-trendiness come at the expense of both people and the environment.

The issue also profiles a number of designers who are bringing a more sustainable approach to their work – designers whose “slow fashion” products, frankly, often come with higher price tags. We spoke to fair trade advocate Melissa Stieber about why sustainable clothing often costs more – and why investing in sustainable clothing can perpetuate fairness and better quality throughout the entire industry.

Stieber is the owner of More Than Half, a fair trade clothing store in downtown Kitchener, and a leader in trying to change the system from within. Those of us who can follow her lead can expect, just as the early adopters of green energy did, that these actions will make sustainable clothing more accessible.

A\J:  What’s behind the higher cost of fair trade and ecofriendly clothing?
Melissa Stieber: I get asked this question all the time and when I explain to people everything that went into creating a particular item, their perception of clothing changes. We have become so used to seeing low prices that we think, no matter what, clothes should always cost this little.

But behind that fair trade dress is a farmer that grew the organic cotton, workers that picked the cotton – and ginned, spun, weaved, dyed, printed, cut and sewed it – and in many cases did this all by hand using traditional methods.

Fair Trade pays living wages, health benefits and premiums, and creates safe working conditions. Yes, these factors will increase production costs, but they bring clothing back to it's true value. When you increase social and environmental standards, you come out with a higher quality product that will last longer, feels better and creates a more sustainable world.

Fair Trade clothing doesn't have to be as expensive as people assume it would be. When we have done our own price comparisons, we found that our prices are about the same as other popular brands – and sometimes a bit less. If people want to pay $10 for a new pair of jeans, they should understand that it was made in a sweatshop, using poor quality materials that damage the environment and will probably fall apart in very little time. 

Will that ever change?
Wholesalers and retailers already do what they can to lower prices by taking a lower margin than their fast-fashion counterparts. But looking for the price to change shouldn't be our prime concern, it should be changing our perception of the value of clothing and the work that goes into creating it. If we are going to continue putting price first, than the issues of fast fashion will never change.

Why is it worth it to you to pay the higher price?
When I look at clothing or any products that are unethically made I automatically think about what is behind the label. I pay that higher price because in my mind there is no other option; I refuse to be a part of the problem. If paying a little more for clothing can bring others out of poverty, empower women and send children to school, than I'm more than happy to do that. 

What about people who can't afford the expensive options – how can they support sustainability in the fashion industry?
We have many customers who buy an item or two each season and then do the rest of their shopping at thrift stores. Other good shopping options would be vintage, consignment and clothing swaps, and if you are handy with a sewing machine you can upcycle, creating something new to you.

There are different thoughts on boycotting, but I'm a firm believer in giving my money to only brands I trust. Lessening demand tells a company that they need to change their business model. Ask questions and make brands accountable, – as consumers, we have more power than we think in changing the fashion industry. 

Laura is a past A\J managing editor. She has an MA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, is an organizing aficionado, lackadaisical gardener, and former musical theatre producer. @inhabitings

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