The one-dollar t-shirt is now virtually an impossibility, and the social and ecological cost of producing the world's cheapest t-shirt is intolerably high. Jozef De Coster, reports from Apparel Sourcing Paris (February 11-14, 2019).

With around 350 exhibitors, Apparel Sourcing Paris (ASP), a half-yearly trade fair organised by Messe Frankfurt, is one of the biggest European clothing fairs. Parallel to the fabric trade fair Texworld at the same location in Le Bourget-Paris, ASP offers a contract manufacturing platform dominated by the world's leading clothing exporting countries, with China on top.

Imagine you are a retailer specialising in t-shirts. You wonder how you could make your shop 'the talk of the town' while making your customers happier than they already are. What if you could boast that your dear customers will be able to buy in your shop 'the cheapest t-shirt of the world'? Of course, it's possible that not all your customers would appreciate this kind of Barnum publicity. To play it safe, you could try to offer the more responsible shoppers a nice alternative: 'the greenest t-shirt' of the world.

So, instead of spending time at the Eiffel Tower or in Le Louvre, you roam the corridors of Apparel Sourcing Paris. You note that Chinese companies occupy two-thirds of the exhibition space. Apparently, the textile section of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT Tex) strongly believes in the trade potential of ASP. Besides, in February 2019, it's probably more appealing to Chinese clothing exporters to look for business opportunities in the European market than in Trump's America. Also, the Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh was active at ASP. It had reunited ten companies in a national pavilion, while some ten others defended their interests independently. India and Pakistan were well represented at ASP, while the number of Hong Kong, Ethiopian and Cambodian companies could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The cheapest t-shirt According to some sources, the company that is most actively scouring the markets to find the cheapest possible t-shirts is Fruit of the Loom. This legendary American clothes manufacturer (started in 1851), which since 2002 is operating under the wings of the quasi-immortal investor Warren Buffet, reportedly succeeded buying last year a stock of basic t-shirts for a price of $0.8 per piece.

Could an exhibitor be found at the ASP exhibition daring to declare that he's willing to produce t-shirts for the same unholy price? Maybe some big, very efficient Chinese juggernaut with factories in low labour countries? Sally Yang, the vice general manager of Ningbo Orient Hongye Imp & Exp Co Ltd gives a clear answer: today, a t-shirt price of $1 or less is totally impossible. Ningbo Seduno Group, a garment supplier to brands like C&A, Zara, H&M, GAP, Esprit, etc, declares in its Vision text that it has the ambition of "building the world's most competitive knitwear manufacturer with wisdom".

Well, a one -dollar- per-piece t-shirt can't be manufactured 'with wisdom', neither in the Ningbo facilities of the group, nor in the group's production bases in Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar or Bangladesh. Yang says: "We can competitively produce t-shirts of all sizes and weights and with all kinds of ornaments in the price range of $2-4, but not for a lower price."