Three reasons; trims, fabric, testing and certification.
Trims: Arc & Flame-resistant trims and thread just cost more.
An FR zipper is made of Aramid tape with a dielectric thermoplastic pull. We use this type of component certified zipper in our sweatshirts and jackets; each one of them costs about $4 each. By comparison, a high-quality sweatshirt from a store like REI or Patagonia uses a zipper that costs about $0.40 cents. Comparing $4 versus $0.40 easily exhibits how FR components are multiple times more expensive than conventional clothing.
We are also required to use FR thread which costs about $30 per cone. By comparison a typical cone of non-FR thread, made from spun poly, which is used in everything from luxury brands to sportswear, costs about $2 or $3 a cone. That is a $28 disparity between FR and non-FR threads. Also notable is the long lead time associated with procuring most FR trims.
Fabric: The largest cost.
FR fabric is 50% to 70% of the cost of flame-resistant clothing. It uses fibers such as Modacrylic, Viscose and Aramid. These are specialty fibers and they're not cheap. When we use more commonly available fibers such as Cotton, Nylon, and Polyester in FR materials, these fabrics go through processes to impart flame resistant properties into them. The FR fabric comes from fabric mills already component certified and it also comes with an Arc Flash rating. Many of these fabrics can take over 100 days to arrive at our facility after we order it. Arc and flame-resistant fabrics are typically not readily available, you must plan carefully. You must also consume this fabric as efficiently as possible, if you don’t, you're just increasing the cost.
Many FR fabrics originate in the US, but these materials are trucked or shipped to other countries, produced and then shipped back to the USA where third-party companies distribute them. The logistics and shipping costs to move this material can be additional cost factors for FR companies that don’t make it in the USA.
Labor: US labor vs poverty labor costs
Let's talk about labor cost. I'm going to talk USA labor cost, not “I can't feed my children in Bangladesh” or “I’m buying it from an enemy country” labor costs. US Labor costs for FR clothing are about 20-25% of the cost of the product. The overwhelming driver in FR costs are therefore still the raw materials. Now compare that to a non-FR product; the labor cost is quite high compared to raw materials, which are much less expensive.
There’s a small gap between the labor costs on imported FR and Made in the USA FR and here’s why; in the USA we use less people but add two-dimensional robotics and lean manufacturing techniques for max efficiency. Foreign labor means using more people at a lower cost, with a lot of room for inefficiencies. The labor costs between USA made and imported FR is a single digit percentage difference.
Testing and certification, and then more testing
This is an area that sets us apart from anything that is not flame resistant. Look at the label inside our FR Hawaiian shirt for example. It has an individual serial number; you don't find that in non-FR products and even most FR products do not have traceability to the same extent as Benchmark FR. There is a “UL” or Underwriters Laboratory certification which you earn by having all the materials and components certified in addition to having the final piece of clothing certified by the 3rd party organizations. To illustrate how rigorous this process is, even the actual label inside the shirt goes through 100 washes with acid in a laboratory and must remain legible to pass.
Those certification committees come and randomly inspect us, pull a product to sample and test, and send us a bill for it. Not every FR product out there is UL certified; you will find many FR items that are only arc flash rated and not UL certified, but we go that extra mile. It's important, it proves accountability in our product. It is difficult to put the rigorous certification cost directly into a percentage of the cost of an FR shirt. It does reflect how we choose to run our business.
In summary, the fabric costs more, the trims cost more and the thread costs more than even the most expensive non-FR clothing. You have testing and certification for arc and flame-resistant clothing that does not exist in non-FR products. Flame resistant clothing is a safety product that is designed to be a last layer of defense against thermal hazards, and we hope anyone who uses FR clothing never has to find out the “real” reason why it costs so much more.