There was a time, not too long ago, when well-made clothes were standard, available in catalogues, malls, and chain stores. Sweaters were often hand-knit, jackets were tailored and lined, and dresses had blind hems. A look through a JCPenney catalogue from 1990 shows that most clothing was still made in the U.S. as recently as 25 years ago.
What’s changed since then, in addition to products’ quality, is consumers’ expectations about price. The cost of clothing was in a period of deflation for almost 20 years before edging up more recently. That drop was largely the result of the globalization of the fashion industry and the movement of garment manufacturing from unionized shops in the United States and other developed countries to low-wage factories with few environmental regulations, most of them in Asia.
Americans also buy a lot more clothing than they once did, on average 64 items and more than seven pairs of shoes per year—double what they bought annually in the 1990s. What this really means is that the culture of saving up and investing in fewer pieces and wearing them for longer has all but waned.
Reversing this logic is a tall order, and Gallardo and Cridland say that without more alternatives such as theirs, little will change. “Customers are really encouraged to buy trends and to buy lots of clothing,” says Gallardo, but she adds that there also hasn’t been much in the way of alternatives, until recently. Earlier ethical-fashion efforts, such as bamboo or hemp, often missed the mark on being fashionable. “As retailers, it’s our duty to fix that and to make better products, more expensive products and to make an alternative offer and stop making products that neglect sustainability,” she says.
Cuyana sells a $40 Pima cotton scoopneck T-shirt and a $215 silk tee dress, and has some items that are even pricier. Cridland’s sweatshirts fetch $85, while his organic, handmade men’s trousers go for $129. For those raised on fast fashion, this might seem like an impossible leap.
But maybe not. There’s growing evidence that U.S. consumers are slowly gravitating toward spending more per item of clothing anyway. The number of garments purchased in the U.S. has fallen slightly from a high of 68 in 2011, while total spending on clothing has edged up at the same time. And according to a 2014 Nielsen study, 41 percent of Americans responded that they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to making a positive impact socially and environmentally. Among all global respondents to the survey, which spanned 60 countries, more than half of those who would pay extra for a sustainable product were under the age of 34.
“There’s a big trend in the growth of ecological sensibility, the growth in demand for artisanal products, and more handmade items,” explains Juliet Schor, a professor of economics and sociology at Boston College who studies consumer behavior. “More people are rejecting mass-production for aesthetic reasons and because of the exploitation in the fast-fashion system.”
Sure, a $215 dress is not something most people are likely to buy on impulse, but that’s really the point. “Fast fashion sees clothing as something that’s disposable,” explains Gallardo. “You wear it once or twice and it’s over. But when you think about investing, you’re paying a little more, you’re actually careful about what you select.”