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6 Tips to Buy Ethical Clothing & Fashion on a Budget

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In the fashion industry, there’s a term for retailers that sell piles of clothing for rock-bottom prices: fast fashion. Just like “fast food,” it’s cheap and quick, but it doesn’t always make you feel great after you’re done. While fast fashion can fill up your closet with discount goods, the process by which it’s manufactured may not always be ethical.

In 2013, the retail fashion industry was rocked when a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsed, leaving 1,129 workers dead and another 2,500 injured. It was no secret that foreign garment workers churn out shirts, dresses, suits, and scarves for low wages, but this tragedy highlighted another problem – terrible and downright dangerous working conditions.

Since then, many retailers have signed pledges to improve conditions in foreign garment factories. However, if you purchase clothes at just about any mass-market retailer, you should still be concerned. It may not be feasible to boycott all foreign-made clothing, but it is possible to make affordable, socially responsible clothing purchases – even when you’re on a tight personal budget.

Tips for Buying Ethical Fashion

The term “ethical fashion” is applied to clothing and accessories made in good working conditions and for fair wages. Unfortunately, such goods can be notoriously expensive, as the added cost of upkeep and better pay is passed onto the consumer.

Still, it’s possible to purchase clothing that is budget-friendly to you, and also friendly to those who manufactured it. Ethical fashion isn’t about completely abstaining from major retailers, but rather understanding more about your favorite brands, considering common manufacturing concerns, and even thinking beyond the clothing rack for your next shopping trip.

1. Research Your Favorite Brands

I once shopped religiously at a particular retailer. After the Savar building collapse in Bangladesh, it was one of the only retailers that refused to sign the accord to improve factory working conditions. That left a very bad taste in my mouth and I’ve since stopped shopping there, as I’d rather support the roughly 20 (of 28) retailers with factories in the compound that pledged better working conditions.

When in doubt, do a little digging on your favorite brands. You can easily find out where their garments are made, how much they pay their workers, and any outstanding allegations made against working conditions in their factories. Sure, skipping a specific store in the mall doesn’t exactly make a worldwide statement, but the more people who do it, the bigger difference it does make.

Use the following sites to research a number of clothing companies:

2. Buy Handmade

Have you ever checked out Etsy? It’s an online marketplace for homemade goods featuring a bustling fashion community of homegrown designers who make and sell their own clothing. Surprisingly, many handmade garments are very affordable – shirts and dresses routinely sell in the $25 to $50 range.

Other options for handmade, locally sourced clothing are farmers’ markets, flea markets, and craft fairs. Support your community by purchasing goods made close to home.

3. Visit Thrift or Consignment Stores

One person’s trash is another person’s latest trend. Shape up your buying habits and ditch retailers altogether by going for thrift store finds or pre-loved clothes at consignment shops. Both sell secondhand items, which means you’re not contributing to the problem of poor foreign working conditions. In fact, you’re reducing the number of low-wage-sourced garments that need to be produced – a message some retail giants may end up hearing.

Thrift stores receive donated goods, which they then sell for a charity or for profit. Consignment stores purchase used clothes from their previous owners – or agree to split the proceeds with them – which means they tend to be more expensive, but offer higher-quality inventory. You can find lower prices at thrift shops, but for the latest styles, you’re probably better off with consignment.

Visit Thrift Consignment Stores

4. Simplify Your Closet

At a fast food restaurant, you can get a burger, fries, a drink, and dessert for less than 10 bucks. However, do you really need all that? You may be better off spending the same amount on, say, one good steak at a better restaurant. That’s why one of the tenets of ethical fashion is to edit your closet and simplify your needs.

Retailers that use shady manufacturing tactics are dedicated to quantity, not quality. And, thanks to the fashion industry at large, you’re often fooled into thinking you actually do need the latest “it” shoe. However, while ethical fashion sources might cost a little more than those cheaper, larger retailers, you’re usually getting a better-quality item that can last a lot longer than some trendy shirt you nabbed for $9.99. Determining the difference between “wants” and “needs” can be a big help in reducing the amount of clothing you buy and allowing you to focus your budget on ethically sourced fashion.

5. Check Flash Sale Sites

At flash sale sites, you can purchase items at deep discounts for a short period of time only. Because they provide an excellent way to raise awareness and move inventory, they’re a no-brainer for ethical, stateside fashion brands.

Here’s how it works: Smaller brands commit to a quantity of a certain item at a discounted price. The flash sale site then advertises that item. When purchased, rather than the ethical brand shipping each item individually, it ships the entire quantity to the flash sale distribution center, where they’re all then shipped to buyers. Because the ethical brand doesn’t have to worry about postage and shipping costs, it’s able to pass those savings onto you.

Some of my favorite ethical flash sale sites include the following:

Flash sale sites are great for stocking up on ethical fashion at a fraction of the price.

6. Shop Out of Season

Just like any retailer, ethical clothing companies need to rotate their inventory. By shopping out of season – swimsuits in January or warm sweaters in April – you get the best prices on ethically sourced clothes.

Another great tip for better prices? Sign up for store mailing lists. You can often get notifications for first-purchase discounts.

Final Word

Unless you have exceptional knowledge about every retailer and its parent company, making ethical purchases can be a challenge. Of course, you don’t need to toss out your entire wardrobe and start from scratch. Simply making an effort to know where your clothing comes from and purchasing from retailers, designers, and brands you trust can make a difference.

How do you find the best ethical brands and designers?

Jacqueline Curtis
Jacqueline Curtis is an experienced style expert, and she focuses on getting high fashion on a tight budget. She writes for several online publications and specializes in fashion, finance, health and fitness, and parenting. Jae grew up in Toronto, Canada, but now resides in Utah with her husband, two kids, and prized shoe collection.

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