A Tale of Two Shirts: Green vs. Conventional

Two women with plaid shirts via Pexel

This is a tale of two T-shirts, one from the popular mall store Forever 21, and one from Green America Green Business Network member Blue Canoe. The shirts are both blue and made of 100-percent cotton. They both have cap sleeves, slight tapering at the waist, and come in sizes XS-L. But that's where the similarity ends.

The Forever 21 shirt costs $8.80. The Blue Canoe shirt, $45.95. Which to choose?

"No contest," says just about any budget-conscious shopper in America. "The Forever 21 shirt, hands down."

Even for those who understand that there's more to both shirts than meets the eye, the price difference raises the question that many people have asked us over the years: If there's a premium on green goods, how can one buy green on a budget?

Blue Canoe

The Blue Canoe shirt is made of organic cotton by workers in California.

Forever 21

The Forever 21 shirt is tied to sweatshop labor and chemical-intensive cotton farming.

Taking Responsibility. Or Not

It’s true that people may pay a premium for green goods and services, but it’s not because green companies are trying to earn a larger profit. The fact is, no matter how successful a green business becomes and how much of a cost advantage that company offers due to economies of scale, it’ll never match the low, low prices of a conventional corporation like Forever 21 for one simple reason: Truly green businesses pay for external social and environmental costs that corporations are content to ignore—and foist on the communities in which they do business. To illustrate, let’s return to our two T-shirts.

The Forever 21 shirt likely has ties to sweatshop labor. In 2001, the company moved most of its manufacturing to Asia after a lawsuit was filed that year alleging sweatshop conditions in its US factories. And in 2012, Forever 21 was one of several being investigated by the US Department of Labor (DOL) for wage and overtime violations in its remaining US facilities in Los Angeles. In March of this year, the DOL issued a subpoena demanding that Forever 21 release records of its US workers’ wages, work hours, and working conditions, after the company spent months refusing to comply with a DOL request stemming from the 2012 investigation.

Forever 21 has also been linked to overseas sweatshops by worker advocates, and it has refused to sign on to the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, even after the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse last April.

Forever 21 has refused to join retailers like Gap and even Walmart in committing to not buy cotton from Uzbekistan, where child labor in cotton fields is rampant.

And the Forever 21 shirt has a profound negative impact on the environment. That shirt is made from conventional cotton, the farming of which is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s pesticide use. The blue color likely came from conventional clothing dyes, which often contain toxic heavy metals like chrome, copper, and zinc. And it’s now the industry standard to apply finishes to clothing to make it stain-, wrinkle-, and fire-resistant, including formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Green for the Planet and You

While it may be a similar color and shape as its Forever 21 counterpart, the Blue Canoe shirt stands in stark contrast when you look at which is better for workers, communities, and the Earth.

The Blue Canoe shirt was made with 100-percent organic cotton, meaning no synthetic pesticides were used to grow the cotton. The shirt gets its deep blue color from low impact dyes, says founder and owner Laurie Dunlap. And like every piece of Blue Canoe clothing, the shirt was knit in Los Angeles and sewn in San Francisco by workers making a living wage.

In short, Blue Canoe’s production costs are higher than Forever 21’s, because it absorbs extra costs like paying its workers well instead of exploiting them, paying a premium for organic cotton, and forgoing cheaper chemical dyes in favor of eco-friendly alternatives.

And often, the quality of a green item is just better than a cheap, sweatshop-made product. Cost-conscious manufacturers can make their product cheaper, for example, by requiring longer stitch lengths, which saves time and money. But then, says Dunlap, the seams have no stretch and will easily come apart.

“From the beginning, we’ve heard from our customers how long our clothing lasts,” says Dunlap. “They’ll say things like, ‘I’m still wearing same pants I bought from you five years ago!’ We like to hear that. We don’t think of our clothing as disposable.”

Great, But It's Still Expensive

For struggling families, buying everything they need from the green economy can present a challenge. In our Green American magazine (subscribe), we've compiled our best tips to help you go green within your budget, focusing on the product categories people spend the most on—clothing, food, and transport—and where a shift to green can have the biggest impact.

As you mind your budget, remember that green isn’t always more expensive, and sometimes it’s just better. An energy efficient home feels cozier during the winter and saves money on your monthly bill. Communities designed around green transportation are often walkable, vibrant places where small businesses thrive. Organic foods promote better health and fewer doctor bills than processed foods, and they’re not coated with pesticides.

The green life is the good life, and it can be a wholesome, affordable life, too.