The Truth of Who Pays the Price For Our Obsession With Discounted Fashion


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As the pandemic tightened global purse strings, the desire for discounted goods soared. Have we painted ourselves into an unwinnable corner?

If you find it difficult to open a web browser page or social media app without being slapped in the face by a barrage of markdown advertisements, you’re not alone. Sale culture seems to have scaled new, terrifying heights this last year thanks to the arrival of COVID-19 and a pandemic-induced recession.

In a joint 2020 report published by Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, The State of Fashion 2020 Coronavirus Update, it was revealed consumer spending on discretionary items like fashion had plummeted to an all-time low during 2020, with 56% of consumers revealing their primary motivation for purchasing clothing during the crisis was due to special promotions.

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, this is something that has been percolating for much longer. In fact, we could trace it back to the first dramatic surge of sales launched during the 2008 financial crisis, gaining momentum over the last decade with the addition of new key sale dates in the calendar, increased budgets for discount marketing and mounting reliance on sale revenue when projecting annual budgets.

The result is a powder keg of brands competing for dwindling consumer revenue and conducting business on razor-thin operating margins, coupled with shoppers who have forgotten what it feels like to pay full price. As for COVID-19? It simply lit the match. Overfilled warehouses (due to distribution restrictions) still needed to be cleared, resulting in another plague of sorts, with desperate discounts infecting every major brand and retailer.

It’s an excruciating conundrum we find ourselves in, and one I’m also guilty of perpetuating. It’s so easy to hold off on an expensive purchase when you can safely bet it will be reduced within weeks. Still, the question begs: who’s paying the price in the relentless game of discount we find ourselves in?

“Cheap chicken, cheap shirts, cheap sneakers — they’re all being paid for by somebody, even if it’s not the person taking them home.” This quote is pulled from a 2009 New York Times feature though, depressingly, reads just as pertinently in 2021. The piece, Nothing for Nothing, explores Ellen Ruppel Shell’s publication, CHEAP: The High Cost of Discount Culture. The book provides fascinating insight into the cultural ramifications of ever-multiplying sale seasons, with the biggest victims being the garment makers.

Despite their low cost at checkout, heavily discounted items come at a huge price to the millions of people making them — often living in developing countries, with some of the workers just children. And without any incentive from retailers or shoppers (e.g. buying only full price items), many factories refuse to increase the minimum wage of these workers. The clothes are made cheaply, so brands are comfortable with slashing prices in order to move product.

The solution feels almost too simple. Sell clothing at a price that doesn’t justify modern slavery practices and convince consumers it is fair to pay those full prices. An easy fix were we not currently enmeshed in a kind of chicken-or-egg sartorial scrum. Humankind, for all our perceived intellectual autonomy, is inherently malleable — we can be stretch and contorted into any way of thinking if left unattended for too long.

An example of which is the terrifying pervasiveness of this discount frenzy — the desire to have more for less imprinting itself so deeply within our cultural psyche we can no longer see the forest for the trees. “If enough dishonest merchants water their milk, more and more customers will forget what normal milk tastes like and buy only the cheaper — watered-down — variety,” Shell poignantly illustrates.

It also disturbingly fractures our connection and respect for craftsmanship and creation. “Craftsmanship cements a relationship of trust between buyer and seller, worker and employer, and expects something of both. It is about caring about the work and its application. It is what distinguishes the work of humans from the work of machines, and it is everything that… other discounters are not.”

Is all hope lost? Thankfully, no — a growing number of international and local brands are taking a stand.

“A growing number of international and local brands are taking a stand.”

In an unprecedented move early last year, a collective of designers, retailer executives and others launched a forum to correct the imbalance of discount frequency. Dries Van Noten, Lane Crawford’s Andrew Keith, and Altuzarra’s Shira Sue Carmi, posted a petition to ForumLetter.org to formalise a fashion calendar that is more practical for both the designers and retailers, as well as the consumers.

“It’s not normal to buy winter clothes in May,” Van Noten reportedly said during a Zoom call with Kieth and Carmi. “It’s not normal to work with the design team on a collection that hits the shop floor one month and a half before it’s discounted at 50%.”

Showroom-X, a luxury digital retailer stocked exclusively with Australian brands, launched in August 2020 with a commitment to operate without offering discounts — a bold move by any standards, least of all during the worst economic crisis Australia has faced in over 30 years. As outlined on the ‘Ethos’ page of the e-tailer’s website, “We are also working on ways to disrupt the relentless discount cycle we currently find ourselves in. As such, Showroom-X does not offer sale discounts on our products. We prefer to encourage our customer to buy less and invest in quality, reinforcing the true value of each garment.”

Though many consumers are supportive of the brand’s stance, others have found the position frustrating. On a recent post on the brand’s Instagram feed, one user commented, “All the stock is last season on the site. You can buy it at a discount from the designers.”

The brand responded with a comment from Creative Director, Kelly Atkinson: “… We introduce stock online weekly so you can look at our new editions section for the latest offering in fashion and art. We do however believe in season-less style, hence we keep our stock online longer than most. You might find some styles that designers have sold out of or even archive pieces from old seasons ….. all of which are still amazing styles whether in season currently or not.” (The original comment has since been deleted.)


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On a brand-level, Melbourne-based designer Jade Sarita Arnott has also made the decision to not offer online or in-store markdowns on her brand, Arnsdorf. “We take a multifaceted approach to sustainability and part of that was about rethinking the current systems and practices in our industry and assessing whether they are part of the solution or not,” she explained.

“The discounting culture in the fashion industry has become a vicious cycle. Clothes are being over-produced with inflated mark-ups to account for the sales cycle. I was frustrated by the way the traditional system product was on the shop floor for three-months and then deemed ‘old’ and less desirable and of less worth.

“It felt really wasteful and didn’t honour the design, craftsmanship and all the hours of people’s time that went into the creation of it. It also felt like it didn’t honour the customer who had paid full price for something only to have it marked down the next week or end of the season.”

The experience compelled Sarita Arnott to take an alternative approach with Arnsdorf, crafting her business around an ongoing permanent collection alongside limited edition, small-batch seasonal collections.

“We do hold an annual sample sale at our factory as there are garments that are samples and garments that may be slightly damaged or a few pieces with left over sizes we need to move on, but we don’t go on sale in the store or online or mark things down. We encourage our customers to buy in a more conscious way.”

The ripple effects of which, Sarita Arnott believes, are profound. By not engaging in discount culture, “it makes us really consider each piece we bring into the collection and the units we produce in our small batch manufacturing.” And it changes the dynamic with the customer, too.

“It just sets up a straight-forward respectful relationship and exchange with our customers, they can feel confident in making a considered purchase with us knowing that it won’t be marked down afterwards and lose its sense of value. We are very transparent with our pricing so they can see what went into each individual garment and why it costs what it does.”

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