Is there a relationship between quality and cost?

An interesting topic revealed itself yesterday, spurred on by WDW noticing that yet another of her items of clothing was ripe for recycling. Not that it had totally failed in it’s mission, it was still quite serviceable in that it had no holes, failed seams or other mechanical failures. It was just not in the same condition as when it was bought, so the failure was more in the way of pilling, stretching, wear marks and the like. And yes, it was an item of not great cost, purchased from one of the purveyors of fast fashion, so not a huge loss in terms of hard cash. It got us talking about quality and cost though.

Still, a garment that only lasts a few wears, maybe just a single wash, seems like a pretty pointless exercise, even if the actual purchase price was low. There is still all the effort that went into designing the garment, making the fabric, cutting and sewing, transporting it across the world, stocking it in a shop and having staff conduct the transaction that allowed you to carry it home. Not to mention the increasingly apparent environmental issues involved, the human cost of low cost manufacture and the issue of how much shit do we need to accumulate.

Which sets us up for today’s topic: Is there a linear relationship between quality and cost? Or to put it in terms that are more readily understood: Is the number of wears constant for a given unit of money? As an example, if a 5 pound t-shirt is good for 5 wears, will a 500 pound jacket be good for 500 wears? And if this relationship is even vaguely so, are we comfortable with it?

This set things in motion and before I knew it she was going through her closets like a Tasmanian devil, picking out the dull, the infirm and the unwanted. And it was piling up. Some had been there for a while, other items were much newer and with nominal wears as well. And as the recycling pile rose, it was apparent to both of us that someone sure buys a lot of pretty poor quality clothes. And something else that was apparent was that not all of it was of brands you’d typically think of as cheap either. And this was confirmed by two recent experiences I’ve had as well, with a shirt and a pair of trousers, both at around the 200 pound mark. The shirt was worn a handful of times, then washed at a gentle 40 degrees, only to emerge with pilling all over and essentially unwearable for it’s intended use. The trousers have been work the same number of times and have massive pilling on the surfaces that rub together. Not as visible, but very annoying and disappointing.

Which again got a discussion going about whether this is a male/female thing. Are women more subjected to low grade garments? I did try to interject a suggestion that guys buy less and hence want more longevity in their clothes, while women are more into the shopping aspect and will go for shiny volume over quality. This is likely not a universal truth, even if generally speaking women are more comfortable with both the activity of shopping and the actual buying of clothes. We don’t need an official statistic to know that many middle aged men are clothed by their partners. I don’t think I know any guys that view shopping as a desirable pastime. And no, not even I do.

This lead to us spending a couple of hours investigating what was on offer in our local clothes emporiums, both baseline high street and others that are notably more high end. Surprisingly, the apparent differences in the garments are very much less than the price differences would imply. It’s not hard to find two very similar shirts, one costing 20 pounds and the other 300, both made in low cost countries and both of similar construction. The 15x difference in price appears more related to one being H&M and the other a Burberry Brit. I think from a purely garment economics perspective, the 15 cheap H&M shirts would most likely outlast the outlandishly priced Burberry product.

In fact, contemplating the Burberry shirt I can only think that someone is being very cheeky with their markups. And that what you’re getting for the extra outlay isn’t a very much better product but a braggable brand name. Which does strike me as a bit sad. If it was a spectacular design, incredibly intricately made, of vastly superior materials, in all creating a product that is in every way 15 times better, then indeed it would be OK. Otherwise it’s a case of “I saw you coming” (<– hilarious video).

And the difference wasn’t really a male/female thing either. The mens shops are as full of tat as the womens shops, though I will point out that most of the low end shops are unisex, so it’s hardly surprising that the quality is as dire for both men and women. I find that the clothes I buy do for the most part last decently long, but I also realize that I put more effort into finding good things, pay more for them and ultimately take better care of them. The greater longevity may also be due to the nature of the clothes I buy, since a pair of sturdy heavyweight jeans will naturally wear better than a flimsy pair of stretchy jeans. Or a thick knitted sweater will show pilling less than a flimsy lambswool number. Or maybe it’s also true that a shirt that is worn only once a month will only wear 1/30th of a shirt that is worn every day.

It’s not easy to reach a conclusion on the matter though, hence I’d love to hear your ideas. Or suggestions on which brands care more about quality than profit.

About markups:

This might be where a lot of it goes wrong. Those in the business know that a 4x markup is the norm from maker to shop. This means that the 200 pound shirt cost the shop 50 pounds to buy in, and is the reason they will only be smarting a little when they let it go at a 70% discount. The markup is necessary though as if they sold all their stock at that discount they would naturally go bankrupt and we do have to allow them to cover rent, utilities, insurance and wages. This is likely a diversion though and doesn’t really explain why the stuff they make is of such poor quality.

A word about recycling:

We have a large Salvation Army charity shop in town, a shop I am compelled to visit regularly and where I have found some very decent finds. A huge part of their stock is the low cost fast fashion tat. I can see why, as people are throwing out an amount of clothes proportionate to the amount they are buying, and while most of it is bundled and shipped to Africa or Eastern Europe, the sheer volume has to seep through. For the charity shop it becomes a problem in that their racks are filled up with poor quality items and have almost no resale value. Or should have no resale value given that they cost almost nothing to start with. What I see is that they are priced almost at what they cost to start with, and hence no informed buyer will be interested.

A further point about recycling:

In recent times some shops have established a system whereby you can bring back clothes you no longer want and drop them in a recycling bin in the shop. This strikes me as a pretty cynical way to drive further sales by giving the customers a feelgood moment where they drop their surplus tat off before repeating the cycle of excess buying again.


  • Emma 26/02/2017 at 21:09

    As a person who is rather nerdy about wool, I might add that pilling is not a sign if poor quality in a wool product but rather a consequence of the length and type of fiber used. Very many high quality wool garments need a round or two of pill removal before giving you a long time of pill free wear!

    • nick 26/02/2017 at 21:20

      That is certainly true, although the garments in question were not only wool, but also various cotton mix fabrics that under no circumstances should be pilling and would also be tricky to de-pill.

  • Keith Douglas 27/02/2017 at 11:52

    A very interesting article. My experience is that there are no hard & fast rules. As I am getting older (mid fifties)I try to buy fewer things but of higher quality. I prefer to buy pre owned Harris tweed jackets that have lots of wear left rather than a new but inferior quality jacket. The same with shoes, I have two pairs of pre owned Loake boots that should last me the rest of my life if I look after them. They cost more than a high street brand but the quality is superb.
    But my local supermarket sells shirts and underwear of good quality at low price, so why would I go elsewhere and pay more?
    I used to buy my trousers from Fjällraven, as I love the quality and style, but they are made in the far east, not Europe, and cost six times as much as trousers from a good quality high street brand, and do not last six times as long, they still get rips, tears and zip malfunctions. Sometimes experimenting is the only way to find out if you are being ripped off or not.

  • Ian Haydock 19/03/2017 at 13:56

    I think there is too much variation in the relationship by brand (even within brands) for there to be a trend. But while I’ve had some cheap items that have lasted ages, in general my oldest and hardest worn items have had a higher initial cost, reflecting the better materials and construction. I have a 33 year old pair of made in US Sebago deck shoes I thought expensive when I bought them new but are still going strong!

  • wobbly-jelly 02/04/2017 at 17:17

    It’s not just quality v’s cost there is another factor maybe call it a “designer premium” but not always positive. For example a John Smedley sea island cotton t-shirt feels something special and will last compared to high street one, But I’d say the JS is better than some very expensive “designer” stuff that’s 2 or 3 times more expensive Bottega Veneta T-shirt don’t look or feel that much better.

    Mens shoes are the other easy comparison – ‘cheap(er)’ fashion shoes at under £100 – then quality English (or similar shoes) that will last you a decade for a bit more money – to stupid priced like John Lobb – are they 10 times better again?

  • James 22/04/2017 at 17:24

    Good piece of writing…

    Speaking in generalities, it seems to me the old Harris Tweed jackets and caps were simply made better, like many older clothes, particularly suit jackets and anything flannel. Many high-end brands are not high-quality, mass-produced in almost sweat-shop conditions, as the photo shows. You are buying a designer’s name, for status. Takes away from the art and craft of making clothing. At least to me….

    My son has an Armani dress shirt given to him as a gift, which he wears for recitals (I’d never buy Armani). It’s black, and after 4-5 wash and wears, is already looking “blah”. I had a Burberry toque given to me as a present, and it became “ratty” quickly – funny, too, that the label proudly displayed inside and outside, fell off just as swiftly. Yet, I’ve had cheap, mass-produced cotton pullover “sweaters” that have lasted for a decade. Same w/shoes – my Clarks Desert Boots and Doc Martens last forever, as do Blundstones, which in this case proves price point w/these shoes means quality and longevity, or so it seems. And the newer denim jeans don’t hold up as well as my old Wrangler’s and Lee’s. My older Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean flannels last far longer than the new ones. I buy at charity shops (basically 100% of the time)… My 1960’s L.L. Bean flannel oxford continue to provide adequate service!

    Sorry for the rambling here. Trying to get the kids ready for recitals!! I always enjoy the photos of your homeland, by the way. Beautiful country.


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