The most important question I'm asked in my shop

If the shop is open, there's a pretty good chance I'm working in it. In between stocking, ordering, marketing, and cleaning - I get to talk to my super cool neighbors and customers. There are a couple of questions I get asked a lot:

1. Is this candy / chocolate bar / truffle any good? Answer - yes. I've tried them all.

2. What is that awesome smell? Answer -  It isn't me...I wish! The soaps and bath bombs in here blend together in the best way and I agree, it is lovely.

3. Where is the pilates studio? Answer - it is down the hall, and thank goodness for it, because see my answer to question 1.

4. Why is (fill in the blank) so expensive?

I think this is the most important question I'm asked - because the answer kind of sums up the reason this shop is here - and it needs to be broken down a little. First off, EXPENSIVE as defined by my bffs Merriam-Webster means "commanding a high price and especially one that is not based on intrinsic worth or is beyond a prospective buyer's means."  

Ok, so we need to think about the value of the item. Let's focus on a dress - like this one, from Mata Traders. It retails in my shop for $78, which for many of us is an amount that makes one pause and think - do I really need/want this thing? And that's where the word "expensive" starts to creep in - when the cost makes us pause. Here's the thing - that's GOOD!! We should pause and think before buying. The rise of so-called "fast fashion" has made clothing so inexpensive that it's nearly disposable.  $10 jeans! $5 t-shirts! $20 dresses! Low cost fashion is the new normal, but the cost to the environment and the garment worker is high. We'll save that for future posts, for today - back to the value of this dress and that $78.

Here's a basic overview of what goes into the cost of the dress. Mata Traders garments are certified Fair Trade - which means, at each step of this process, workers and artisans are paid a fair, living wage. To make a dress, you need:

  • design - style, fit and embellishments
  • fabric - this dress is 100% cotton (their cotton jersey dresses are now organic!)
  • printing - the fabric is printed by hand in a traditional block printing style
  • cutting - each dress is cut by hand
  • sewing - the seamstresses learn to sew an entire garment start to finish to provide them with a marketable skill.
  • hand embroidery
  • packaging / tags

Mata Traders cooperatives go further to provide job training, medical care, paid maternity leave and childcare - which helps to break the cycle of poverty and subsequent child labor.

So...this gives you a general idea of how the dress is made (you can learn more on the Mata Traders blog), but that isn't where the process ends. The dress is then sent to the MT warehouse in Chicago, Illinois. Their staff there markets the collections and once the items are sold, they ship them to retailers (like me!) where they are put on the shelves, advertised, and purchased by fashionistas like you. These dresses support farmers, printers and seamstresses in India and Nepal, the Mata team in Chicago, and my little team here in New Jersey. That's a lot to ask for a $78 dress, but she makes it look easy.  Knowing how this garment was made changed how expensive it seemed to me - because I saw the value.  It also made me start to question how a $20 dress was made. What is life like for the workers who make and dye that polyester or cotton? Are the seamstresses who sew it paid fairly? Are we sure children aren't employed in the process? 

Closets like ours are a relatively new invention. Our grandmothers may have only owned 6 - 10 dresses in a year. They were chosen carefully and cared for - because the cost was surprisingly similar to the dress we just talked about above. This is before discount retailers moved production to countries where they could take advantage of lower wages. 
Speaking of grandmothers, I really loved this post - 7 Ways Your Grandmother Dressed Better Than You. She is so on point, my grandmother was always put together from head to toe, whereas I am frequently a hot mess. At the very end of the article, Brie Dyas references "Overdressed" by Elizabeth Cline and this post by the author which compares the plummeting price of fashion over the past 100 years. It is really such a new phenomenon.  An average dress for $8.95 in the 1955 Sears Catalog would retail today for $72 when adjusted for inflation - which is pretty close to that $78 price tag. Our definition of expensive has changed in part because there are so many discount garments readily available. As a country, we're spending far more on fashion than we ever have - and yet we're often getting lower quality garments that come with negative social and global impacts.

To wrap this up, because you've been patient and I don't want to take up all your internet time - It's ok to be careful about what we purchase. We should be focused on the value of the item and the impact it will have on both our pockets and the people who made it. The upside is that when you get in that habit - you buy less, but the clothes you do buy stick around longer. Then you start looking around in the H&M's and Zara's and asking yourself "Why is that so CHEAP?"

That's a long answer to a short question, but it's a really important one! 



February 11, 2017 by Sarah McEwan
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