I’m a little bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to my wardrobe. I struggle with choice and prefer to pare down my options as much as possible. My general rule of thumb is that when I acquire a piece of clothing, another piece is relegated to chainsawing or gardening duties. Our wardrobe is a visual depiction of the difference in styles between my wife and I. While she has a wardrobe density that rates highly on the scale (almost all, I might add, acquired from op shops and a significant proportion made here in New Zealand) my side is somewhat minimalist.

The other day the awesome tailors at Albion Clothing made me a couple of new pairs of dress trousers and the attendant re-ordering of my wardrobe got me thinking about clothing. The fact that I still have (and wear, I might add) the tee shirt that I wore for the 21st birthday party I shared with a bunch of friends almost 30 years ago shows that “built to last” is a theme close to my heart.

I was also thinking about apparel longevity recently when I saw all the examples that customers of Cactus Outdoor sent in to showcase their aging, well-loved but still functional products. The fact that Cactus fan Harry is still wearing his original 16-year-old Cactus Supertrousers and considers them “only just broken in” is an example of just how strongly we sail against the trend .

It’s been the topic of an impassioned conversation on LinkedIn recently as Ethique founder, Brianne West, opined on just why a New Zealand made tee shirt costs $60. Brianne quite correctly pointed out that the difference between a $60 New Zealand made tee shirt and a $5 shirt made in Bangladesh lies in the fact that the more expensive item is made by workers who have robust labour and safety protections and comes with a financial cost that more fully takes into account the environmental impact of production – as opposed to the poor working conditions, unsafe conditions and environmental degradation that generally goes hand-in-hand with offshore production from low-cost economies.

But I’ve also been reflecting on the fact that, sadly, some people don’t care about the social and environmental costs of production. For them, the only issue that really matters is cost and, if you’re thinking in that way, how do you justify spending many times as much for a product that, at first glance, does the same job as a cheaper option?

Which is where this notion of miles per gallon comes in. Remember old mate Harry with his ancient trousers? He probably spent about $200 for those pants 16 years ago and, judging by how good they still look, he’s likely to get at least another 10 years out of them. That’s 25 years service from a pair of pants which are worn almost every day. In other words, for a couple of cents a day, Harry gets comfort and protection. Seems like a pretty good deal, but how does it stack up?

Of course, Harry’s other option is to go to a big-box retailer where he can, in all likelihood, buy a pair of trousers for $20. I’m going to avoid the temptation of getting on my soapbox to decry the social and environmental travesty that those pants create but, purely from a longevity point of view, those pants are unlikely to still be serviceable in three months.

Doing the maths then, Harry has the option of spending far less but, when seen through the lens of “miles per gallon,” costs much more. In this example, over 10 times the price per day of use. Obviously Harry needed the cash at the start to pay for the pants and that is an issue that our inequitable socio-economic situation makes tricky but, economic constraints aside, the decision seems obvious.

So here’s an opportunity – instead of guilting people into buying ethical products by using pictures of cramped and unsafe foreign factories, or rivers died blue from denim factories, how about we instead sell the benefit of buying a product that will last for decades. Sell the positive story, not the guilt-inducing one.

I’ve now got another couple of pairs of pants in my wardrobe and, excessive middle-aged spread aside, I suspect I’ll still be wearing them as I bounce my grandkids on my knee. That’s a pretty impressive miles per gallon figure in my view.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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