Why Do Supermarkets Sell Jeans?

Posted on April 24, 2014 by Jesse Schiller | 2 comments

photo from The Globe and Mail 

I was born in the eighties. I’m getting to the point in my life where I can say “When I was young...” and elicit awed expressions from a younger audience.

A favorite is of course: “when I was young the internet didn’t exist”. I know... crazy!

A new one that I’ve surprised myself by pointing out of late is: when I was young you couldn’t buy your t-shirts (or jeans, or shoes, or swimwear) at the supermarket. You bought food at the supermarket. And only food.

Hard to believe but there is a whole generation out there that finds this concept strange.

A clothing-in-supermarket model pioneered by Walmart has now spread across all demographic levels of the foodstuffs game – from value chains right through to Whole Foods. The concept behind it is fair enough: you’re already out shopping for the staples in your life -  milk, bread, veggies... – why not top it off with a new pair of jeans, or kicks, or underwear.

To accomplish this the clothes must be cheap – cheap enough that one needn’t save up or wait around for a special occasion (you know, like we did in the old days). Hence the miraculous $20 pair of jeans or $5 tshirt or $15 shoes...

Somehow, care of some serious belt-tightening in the supply chain and applaudable marketing ingenuity, clothing has joined the ranks of the commodities. 

We the consumer have accepted this new reality with open arms. And, for the most part, without questions. 

But what deserves to be asked: how has clothing gotten cheaper and more widely accessible in a world where costs are constantly on the rise? Are corners somehow being cut to make this happen? 


One year ago today the deadliest garment factory accident in history occurred in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. A grossly overcrowded building housing several textile manufacturing businesses collapsed in a heap, taking with it 1129 innocent lives. 

In the days and months afterwards much finger pointing ensued. It didn’t take long before a villain was publicly identified (the factory owner) and the western brands contracting clothing from the space were distancing themselves from any accountability.

They did a remarkable job.

Consider for a moment what type of public outcry would have occurred if that scale of tragedy occurred in North America (knocking on wood)? I can only imagine the public outcries against the companies involved and the long term repercussions. 

In this case the tragedy occurred in a distant place in a distant sounding country and because of this, we, the consumer, allowed it not to matter in our daily lives. Think for a moment: can you name 2 brands that were involved in this tragedy?The reasons for why this occurred are many - desensitization, willing ignorance, pure indeference - but the truth is that the event was essentially swept under the rug and people (here - not in Bangladesh) moved on.

As a quick refresher (we wrote a longer piece about the tragedy last year): not only did this building have multiple illegally built floors on top of the original infrastructure, there had also been inspectors announcing the building unsafe and in grave danger of collapse in the days leading up to the tragedy.  Even with this information the factory workers were ordered back to work – business as usual.


I'm writing this piece here this evening, on the 1 year anniversary (if you can call it that) of this terrible tragedy for 2 reasons.

First, as a business that contracts garment factories ourselves, I believe that the brands involved have more responsibility in this than has been let on. The model that they have enabled (cheap at all costs) is largely responsible for why this happened and for that, ownership and accountability is deserved. For this reason I wanted to highlight again the more notable brands that were operating from that factory 1 year ago today: 

  • Walmart
  • Benetton
  • Joe Fresh
  • Mango
  • Bonmarche
  • Primark
  • The Children’s Place
  • El Corte Ingles

Note that two of the brands, Walmart and Joe Fresh, are the dominant players in that supermarket-clothing retailing phenomenon I highlighted earlier (Joe Fresh owns the market sector in Canada).  Both have championed the commodization of fashion and both have profited immensely from it. Perhaps this begins to answer the question of how clothing has come to be so cheap. 

The second reason for which I bring this up is to remind you, the consumer, that you have a choice. Every dollar spent is a vote cast for the future you want to see. There is immense power in this truth! One of my favorite quotes (by Margaret Mead) sums this up perfectly: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." That mentality is exactly what our world needs to ensure this doesn't happen again. 


In the hours after the tragedy a photographer who was on the scene decided that instead of putting down his camera, he'd use it as a tool to show the world first hand that their decisions can prevent this scale of tragedy from happening in future. I warn you, the images are graphic; however, the message is as clear and poignant as I've ever seen delivered. 


Thanks for reading,

(KOOSHOO co-founder)



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    Hi Screwdestiny,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write your thoughtful response. I reread my piece in light of your comments and see that it does come off that I am lumping Whole Foods in as having accountability in this tragedy. That was not my intention and, in fact, I agree completely with you.

    The concept of having clothing in places that we already go to shop is actually a great one. Whole Foods recognized that their audience would be willing to purchase clothing made in the way they’ve come to expect their food and it’s great that this segment is growing.

    Looking into the statics behind eco-fashion the number 1 reason people don’t buy eco is because they don’t know how to find it. Places like Whole Foods are doing a great job of making it more accessible.

    One thing that is different about Whole Foods is that their clothing offerings are not price driven and therefore do not fall into the commodities category; rather they are quality (and story) driven. This is the key piece that I’d love to see other supermarkets follow. It’s perhaps pie in the sky at this point but hopefully more customers will start asking questions when they do see clothing in supermarkets.

    That was a bit of a ramble :) Thanks again for writing Screwdestiny. Really appreciate your thoughts.


  • screwdestiny

    It always seemed strange to me, in the old, dark days that I used to buy my groceries at Wal-Mart, that anyone would buy clothing where they buy their groceries. As you said, the clothing sold at a grocery store is generally not good quality, so why would anyone want to buy it there?

    One place that I find it suiting however is Whole Foods. And here is why. As a consumer who is extremely picky about the clothing I buy, I very rarely get the chance to buy anything in an actual store. 90% of the (new) clothing that I buy has to be ordered online, because stores simply do not stock clothing that fits my standards—that is: fair trade or organic or made in the U.S. or made sustainably, etc. So when I first discovered that Whole Foods had started selling clothing, shoes, and accessories in its stores, I was thrilled. All of a sudden I could find t-shirts and dresses made of organic cotton and recycled materials, fair-trade scarves, Toms shoes, and jewelry made by local artisans all in one place. And Whole Foods does not discount these items like crazy, because they know that the customers who shop there and care about buying that kind of clothing are willing to pay a higher price.

    I personally give kudos to Whole Foods for making ethical and sustainable fashion a little more accessible to the public than it was before. Now if only we could start seeing more storefronts of the sustainable brands (such as Kooshoo!) pop up around our cities, I think that would really help shift people to start making better purchases.


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