Does Ethical Have to Be Expensive?—Updated for 2022

Ethical brands have gotten a certain reputation in recent years- namely that they’re too expensive for the average person to afford.

Most people believe this narrative implicitly, after all, it does sound like it’s true...but the problem comes when this perception prevents people from ever even seeking out ethical versions of their favorite products.

If they had, they might have found that the ethical version wasn’t as expensive as they had been led to believe. Or, better yet, that the ethical version was worth every extra penny.

Reality Check

Now, I’m not trying to sell you an imaginary version of reality, here. Ethical alternatives that cost less than their traditional counterparts are few and far between. And for the most part, the ethical or sustainable version of most things will be more expensive than the traditionally manufactured item that aims to deliver the lowest possible price (and corresponding quality.)

But. It doesn’t necessarily need to be so. 

It makes sense to assume that the company that pays a living wage to all the people in its supply chain would need to charge a much higher price than the company that uses slave labor, just to cover its substantially higher costs. However, this perspective overlooks the vast markup that companies put on their products over and above the cost of manufacturing them. Of course, this is a necessary practice for any business that wants to make a profit, but it’s sometimes possible for ethical brands to price themselves below traditional brands just by taking a smaller “cut.”

So, Why Do Most Ethical Options Cost More?

There are a few factors that can come into play when it comes to determining the pricepoints of ethical products. Usually, a “luxury pricing” model that inflates prices far above what they need to be in order to appear more valuable is not one of them.

For the most part, the factors that drive prices for ethical items up are purely practical.

Higher Manufacturing Costs

This one comes in two parts- both costs for labor and costs for materials. As we discussed before, costs for labor when you’re following fair trade practices and providing living wages for all your employees can increase overall costs significantly. 

There is also the increased cost of materials to consider. For ethical fashion brands and home goods, sustainable fabrics can cost a lot more to manufacture.

In order to be sustainable in a business sense, the price of each product needs to cover these costs and then some.

More Costly Processes and Programs

A lot of our DoneGood-approved brands are constantly innovating in an attempt to find brand new ways to reduce our impact on the environment and each other. This process can sometimes be costly, but often results in new and exciting breakthroughs that vastly improve ethical and sustainable products across the spectrum.

Where would we be if no one had ever tried to recycle fabric? Or invent a process that recaptured and reused chemicals instead of allowing them to become pollution? Many of the steps we’ve made recently toward a more ethical and sustainable future have been bought with the investment of ethical brands, and that’s likely to hold true in the future as well.

Beyond the Sticker Shock

Once you get over the initial shock of seeing the price tag on an item that you’re used to paying, say $20 for, you may be interested in understanding the unique value you get from ethical products. 

Here are a few helpful ways to reframe and justify the additional costs that are associated with ethical products:

Cost Per Use

One way to think about the cost of anything you’re considering buying is in terms of cost per use. This is the metric that separates cheaply made, low price and low-quality goods from investment pieces that cost more and last much longer.

Think about it- if you pay $10 for a new tee shirt that you can wear maaaaaybe 5 times before it gets all stretched out and starts getting holes in the armpits, you’re going to have to replace it more than 100 times over the lifetime of a more high-quality, $100 tee that lasts you 500 wears over the years and is still going strong.

By that time, you’ll have spent over $1,000 on low-quality tee shirts (if you choose to keep buying them for some reason) instead of investing in one $100 tee shirt. That’s not to mention all the trips to the store you had to make and the fat stack of crappy tee shirts that wound up in the landfill.

True Cost Theory

Finally, I’m going to get a little bit loosey-goosey with the term “expensive.” I know these arguments won’t do much good to those who don’t have the extra cash to spare for ethical options, but for the buyer who could afford them but just doesn’t think they’re worth the extra cost, it may be convincing.

It’s a privileged position to be able to pay more for something because it’s better- either in terms of quality, in terms of impact or both. I recognize that there are millions of people all over the world who don’t have the ability to make this choice, but for those of us who can, it’s so important to choose ethical.

The cost of not doing so is too great.

The price tags of traditionally manufactured goods leave a lot unsaid. Sure, they may not cost you much in dollars, but they charge in other ways. In pollution, in human suffering, in contributions to global warming, in the mistreatment of animals. These are costs that you’ll never see listed on a price tag, but you must never forget that they’re there.

3 Affordable and Ethical Brands 

So, now you know why ethical brands sometimes cost more and have thought a little bit about why that may be justified. To close this post out, I just wanted to offer you a little list of brands that are doing everything right on the ethical front but have still managed to keep their prices relatively low.

These brands are a great place to start if you want to shop ethically but don’t have a huge budget to work with.

Under the Canopy

affordable ethical towels and bed sheets

I love to talk about Under the Canopy, because it’s just mindblowing how reasonable their prices are. All of their sheets, towels, blankets, robes, and rugs are made from sustainable, organic cotton with fair trade business practices and without any animal cruelty.

And they cost the same as big box store brands.

Buy Now

Vi Bella

affordable ethical bags and accessories

Vi Bella stocks cute and amazingly affordable bags, jewelry, and other accessories. To top it off, their collection of outfit-finishing pieces are made by empowered artisans in Haiti and Mexico from sustainable, and oftentimes local, materials. You'll be glad you checked out Vi Bella's products—they make great gifts, too!

Buy Now

Maggie's Organics

Maggie's Organics offers organic cotton, fair trade basics for women and men that are perfectly affordable. We’re talking the $20-60 range here.

Maggie's pieces are crafted to last, made to be versatile (many of their pieces are reversible), and simple enough to pair well with anything. So you're getting a wardrobe essential that's affordable to begin with, but also made to stay in your closet as a staple you'll wear over and over again.

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Kayla Robbins
DoneGood Contributor

Freelance writer working with bighearted businesses who want to better our world.


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