Why is fashion on Amazon so cheap?

I’m in the market for crewneck sweatshirts, with the ones in my rotation wearing out after a few years of solid wear. (Please send recs my way if you have any! I’m looking for one that’s brushed on the inside, and don’t have wide necks like a lot women’s stuff do these days…)

I googled “crewneck sweatshirt” and Amazon ads were at the top of the results. Multiple ads had Gildan crewneck sweatshirts being sold for $11. So cheap! How is this possible?

See, it takes about $10 to make a single crewneck sweatshirt at large scale like for Gildan. And to make a reasonable profit after taking into account other costs like shipping, you need to charge about $30 at retail. So it’s likely the seller is actually losing money by charging so little. Why would they sell so cheap?

Some of the items for sale on Amazon for very cheap are probably what you’d expect – general overstock or overruns, where the manufacturer creates more items than are needed. The same stuff that’s sold in stores at a lower price – T.J.Maxx‘s whole spiel.

But another common scenario is that something is wrong with the item due to mistakes in production. Nothing is so wrong that it’s unwearable, but there’s an issue that makes it unacceptable for receipt by the customer. It might even be so wrong that they can’t turn around and sell to T.J.Maxx (they probably don’t want Gildan sweatshirts anyway). The seller, probably the manufacturer or someone related, is trying to salvage anything he can, and one way he might do that is to try and sell on Amazon. Let’s see how that might happen.

A sampling of all the things that can go wrong in garmentmaking

It’s extremely easy for mistakes to happen during garment manufacturing, because it’s an incredibly difficult, complicated process involving many steps and a long, global supply chain. We as consumers just pick up a t-shirt at the store and wonder why it’s sheer, or we complain about other nits we notice–a loose thread here or an itchy collar there. But because garment making involves so many different steps, with a multitude of materials made by factories located all over the world, there are a million different places it can all go wrong.

Here’s just a sampling of what can happen:

Size is labeled incorrectly

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this (been victim of it?) on Amazon. I recently ordered a pair of Adidas sneakers in my regular 6.5. I’ve owned several pairs of Adidas sneakers, all fitting well at that size. I was seeing the same pair for around $65 other places, but on Amazon it was something like $45. Free shipping both ways, so I bit.

What arrived had to have been at least a full size larger than 6.5. I compared it with another pair of Adidas shoes, and it was a good three-quarter inch longer (almost 2cm). The shoe was clearly not meant to be a 6.5 – more like 7.5.

Here, the manufacturer probably labeled the size incorrectly in the factory, attaching the wrong size label to the shoes. The Adidas distributor or other customer likely discovered this and promptly rejected it. So the vendor or someone related is trying to quietly sell them on Amazon. They almost definitely don’t have permission to sell Adidas goods as a third party like this, so are trying to quickly sell them off at a low price, hoping Adidas doesn’t notice.

Cutting miss

To put it very basically, to make clothing, you take fabric and cut it into shapes that you sew together. The pattern is the template you use to cut fabric into the right shapes.

For industrial-scale manufacturing, factories cut fabric using a cutting machine. This works by stacking many layers of fabric on top of each other, and using a jigsaw-like machine to cut the fabric. Like this:

With something like this manual hand-held machine, human error is a huge factor in whether the cutting is done correctly – the user could slip, use the wrong pattern, forget to put in enough sewing room where seams can be placed, or make some other error that results in a bunch of cut fabric in unusable shapes. And you can’t put cut fabric back together to correct the mistake. With industrial-scale cutting, there would be many layers of fabric that get cut at once with a bigger machine, so one error can result in a lot of fabric cut in the wrong shape.

Once this happens, a manufacturer might try to salvage this by making the garment anyway, and hoping and praying the customer doesn’t notice the garment isn’t made correctly, or accepts anyway because they are desperate for a product to sell–especially if it’s a trendy item. But if the customer does realize this and refuses to accept the garments, the manufacturer is left with a large quantity of clothing that he has to deal with somehow.

Throwing away the entire order would be a massive waste, and might even bankrupt his entire company if it’s a large order. Again, this is likely not permitted, but the manufacturer might quietly try to sell them off on Amazon or some other third party website. He might price the item very low to hope it gets sold quickly, before the customer brand notices.

Wrong dye color

Every article of clothing produced industrially is based on a sample. A sample is the example or template for an item of clothing that the garmentmaker and the order customer agree to before going into production. That sample has the correct shape, color, trim, and other components that the manufacturer is supposed to use. By the way, this is where the term sample sales comes from – companies selling off the samples that were made that they can’t sell through the normal channels, since they don’t have the correct labels or otherwise don’t comply with laws that apply to garments sold commercially.

So the manufacturer, among other things, must make sure that the garment he produces have the same color as the sample. Garment-dyeing is a very precise, technical science where a lot can go wrong–especially because many manufacturers try to take shortcuts to save money, like using less dye than required or leaving the fabric in the dye for less time than required. This can result in a color that is substantially different from what the customer ordered. It’s otherwise a perfectly made garment, and us retail customers would never notice, since we never know what color it was supposed to be. But a customer could reject the entire order based on that.

The manufacturer is left with a lot of clothes that are, again, perfectly wearable – just a different color than what was ordered, a slightly lighter shade of navy than he was supposed to make. It is his fault, yes, but this might be the end of his business, or at the least a loss of many thousands of dollars. So then he might turn around and try to sell them through alternative channels, including Amazon.

Human rights compliance issues

Despite what clickbait-y sensation stories might lead you to believe, there are a lot of workers’ rights rules imposed on manufacturers operating abroad that make products for American companies. Most American companies have their own specific rules about working conditions in factories that make their goods, and have conditions that give them the right to reject any items made in a factory found to violate its rules. They’re not just for show, either – factories regularly get inspectors who make sure the rules are being followed, anything from safety requirements to giving workers enough bathrooms and water.

The rules are pretty onerous for manufacturers, and most do their best to follow them. But sometimes they might slip up on some minor requirement. Or a worker who is angry at his factory employer might lie about violation of the rules to the inspector interviewing him. Or, also totally possible, a manufacturer might just flout the rules completely, expecting that a company might not actually care.

In any case, a customer might invoke the workers’ rights rule violation, real or not, to cancel the order or refuse to accept after delivery has been made. The clothes themselves might be perfectly made, but now they have nowhere to go. Again, in this scenario, the manufacturer might try to recover his expenses for making the garments by selling them for cheap on Amazon.

* * * * *

These are just a few things that can happen, and there are a million other different ways for very expensive hiccups to occur in garment manufacturing. It’s really a miracle that something gets made correctly and is delivered on time and satisfies customers, especially with the increasing pressure to make clothes cheaper and faster.

Who knows what the story is behind those Gildan sweatshirts I saw? It could be any of the above issues, and it could even be a perfectly good piece of clothing. You could say it’s a boon for us customers. Except you can’t tell until you receive it if something is indeed wrong or off, like my Adidas shoes – after my experience with that, I’m hesitant to order cheap clothes on Amazon (and Amazon generally, I think competition is good and don’t want them to be too dominant). I think since I buy so few items of clothing anyway, I’ll just pay a little more so I don’t have to take that risk.


4 thoughts on “Why is fashion on Amazon so cheap?

  1. Despite what clickbait-y sensation stories might lead you to believe, there are a lot of workers’ rights rules imposed on manufacturers operating abroad that make products for American companies.

    I’d love to read a post on the actual working conditions – what parts are exploitative and what parts really aren’t, despite our fears, etc. To what extent is child labor practiced, what are typical working hours per week, what happens in different countries or with different manufacturers, etc. This may be way beyond your purview, but a straight-forward reality check would be really great.

    • Hmm, I think it’s hard to say because it is completely different for every factory (and there are many) and depends on the people in charge of the factory. There are good people who make a conscientious effort to comply with all the rules, even while rolling their eyes, and then there are the people who just scoff and ignore everything. But I would also be interested in if there are any trends for specific countries or regions, too–I’ll take a look around.

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