Catherine O'Mahony: 'Is Paddy Cosgrave's €850 jumper pulling wool over our eyes?'
It's the week of the Web Summit, now exported to Lisbon and featuring well-flagged star attractions including Eric Cantona and whistleblower Edward Snowden. But there's also been an unscheduled hoo-ha over, of all things, Paddy Cosgrave's jumper.
The outspoken founder of the Web Summit has been mildly notable for years for his wearing onstage of a chunky jumper designed by his wife Faye Dinsmore. But this year he has taken the jumper theme to a new level. The Web Summit shop is offering a limited edition run of Paddy-style hand-knitted chunky wool jumpers, priced at either €780 or €850 depending on style. That is not a misprint. The price is truly eight hundred and fifty euro for a black jumper with an Aran pattern. This unlikely bit of merchandising (what next? Mark Zuckerberg flogging plain grey T-shirts for $500?) triggered a major debate in our household. On one side was the how-utterly-ridiculous brigade which harrumphed in indignation at the notion of anyone being mad enough to pay the price of a (rather heavily) used motor - or a very good bicycle - for a sweater. In the opposing corner, the this-is-what-sustainability-costs faction accused the rest of us of flushing the planet down the toilet with our insistence on fast fashion. We'll all be wearing jumpers that cost close to a grand in a few years time, ran this argument. What else did you expect?
As for me, I tried to referee. It's just a jumper, I ventured. Nobody's making you buy it. They look a bit scratchy but are quite nice, I noted, if you like that sort of thing.
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On Twitter, similar debates were running. Paddy Cosgrave was ultimately moved to clarify that 40 hours of work by Donegal knitters was needed to design and produce a single jumper of this quality. Take off, say, €100 for materials (is that even enough?), €50 for branding and delivery, and you end up with a labour cost of around €17 an hour. That's well above minimum wage but it's not really extortionate, is it? And yet, even if not, who can afford it?
Arguments like this will undoubtedly rage on, in our house and in many others, as families try to get to grips with what's likely to prove one of the trickier questions posed by the current climate crisis.
Jumpers aside, the global clothing and footwear industry is already responsible for 8pc of global greenhouse gas emissions, nearly the same as the entire EU. And it's growing all the time. So how much do we really care about the environmental cost of fast fashion and how much will we pay for a more sustainable alternative? How much should we pay? Do jumpers truly need to cost hundreds?
Maybe they do. 'Fashionopolis', a new book about fast fashion by US journalist Dana Thomas, describes our addiction to cheap, disposable clothing from companies like Zara, H&M and Forever 21 as a disease. By her calculations. Zara alone produces 840 million garments every year, often offering sub-poverty wages for its workers. Fast fashion, she says, employs one out of six people around the world and fewer than 2pc of them earn a living wage.
This is why precisely sustainable clothing is a growth sector these days and premium prices are usually a part of the deal, often for the very logical reason that if you use only the best of materials and produce only small runs in an ethical manner, it's going to cost a lot. Anyone with highfalutin tastes in fashion will be well aware that €800 is bog-standard pricing for knitwear if you opt for a truly fancy brand. Stella McCartney, long a champion of sustainable clothing, is selling an oversized sweater with a Beatles album theme for €795 this season, and the price goes up to €1,345 for a wool one.
"We are agents of change," McCartney's website declares. "We challenge and push boundaries to make luxurious products in a way that is fit for the world we live in today and the future: beautiful and sustainable. No compromises."
It all sounds rather lovely, doesn't it? And there are any number of more reasonably priced alternatives that also carry sustainability bragging rights with T-shirts that cost, say, around €50 a go.
The thing is that, over on Boohoo.com, one of an array of cheap fashion websites favoured by teens and 20-somethings, there's a very nice cropped cable-knit jumper on sale for €6. Penneys sells jumpers from €6 too, tops from €3 and coats from €25. And they're all so accessible, so fashionable, so now.
So it boils down to this: you could buy one Web Summit jumper this year or 143 Penneys ones. If you were on a budget - and who among us is not - which would you pick? This is the nub of the problem.
Perhaps the best answer is to buy nothing at all. After all, we already own jumpers. Why not stick with them? There are those, by the way, who would argue that neither the fancy wool jumper nor the cheapest one are acceptable. Animal rights activists query the use of all natural materials like leather and wool to make clothing and also if it's even possible to sustainably make cotton, which depends on large quantities of water for its production. By this way of thinking, the only acceptable clothing materials are those made from recycled materials like old plastic bottles and reclaimed rubber.
It's clear we're all going to have to devote more energy to work this one out.
As an antidote to the madness, Dana Thomas suggests some very simple options like washing your clothes less often, looking at clothes that you already own before buying new trends, trying renting services, considering secondhand options and donating clothes instead of throwing them out.
Basically her point is that we need to get back to behaving more or less as our grandparents did - minding what we have and buying less stuff. Which is rather a tough option in a hyper-consumerist age.
So what to think about that pricey jumper? Could you knit your own one? Or if you really must have something you could opt for a €25 Web Summit T-shirt. Or you might try squeezing into one of the hand-knitted kids' hoodies also on offer from Paddy et al. At €240 a go, chances are you'll be too poor to buy anything much else this year.
A win for you and the planet to boot.