In 1960, the average American bought just 25 new garments a year. By 2013, that number had soared to 70. These figures reflect the rise of “fast fashion”: the trend of bringing new styles into stores at faster speeds and lower prices than ever before. The Huffington Post reports that, as of 2014, the fashion industry was churning out new looks as fast as once per week.
Unfortunately, fast fashion does long-lasting damage to the earth. According to the documentary “The True Cost,” which details the environmental impact of fast fashion, the average American today generates a staggering 82 pounds of textile waste every year. More than 60% of that is made from synthetic fabrics that don’t break down in landfills, says The New York Times. And cotton fabric isn’t much better, as it requires vast amounts of water and pesticides to grow.
Workers in the garment industry also suffer from the breakneck pace of fast fashion. Most of them work in overseas factories that cut corners on safety to churn out clothes quickly. The world witnessed a particularly horrifying example of this in 2013 when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people. According to The Guardian, that event was just the largest in a long string of disasters to strike clothing factories, including fires and stampedes caused by false fire alarms.
The good news is many sustainable clothing companies are swimming against the tide of fast fashion. They’re producing garments with eco-friendly fabrics and built-in strong worker protections. The bad news is their clothes typically cost quite a bit more than comparable fast-fashion garments. A 2016 article in Refinery29 calculated that you should probably expect to pay at least $100 for a pair of jeans made without harm to workers or the planet.
However, for clothing lovers with both a tight budget and a strong conscience, there are ways around this dilemma. By shopping strategically and doing your homework, you can build a wardrobe that’s both ethical and eco-friendly without spending any more on clothes than you do now.
Understand Sustainable Choices
The first step to finding sustainable clothing on a budget is knowing what to look for. Two major factors to consider are the fabric used in a garment and the way a company treats its workers.
Eco-friendly fabrics have a low carbon footprint. They don’t require lots of water or toxic chemicals, either for growing the fibers they’re made from or for processing those fibers into finished cloth. They’re colored with natural or low-impact dyes. And at the end of their lifespan, they can either be recycled or returned to the earth through composting rather than going into methane-producing landfills.
It seems like natural fabrics such as cotton should automatically be greener than synthetic ones made from petroleum. However, that’s not always the case. For instance, textile expert Gail Baugh calculates that recycled polyester is greener than cotton — even organically grown cotton. It requires less water, produces little waste, and can be recycled again at the end of its lifespan.
Two good resources for identifying eco-friendly fabrics are the guides from Trusted Clothes and Go Climate Neutral. They analyze the environmental pros and cons of different fabrics in detail. Their top-rated choices include lyocell (also known as Tencel), hemp, linen, jute, alpaca wool, and silk, especially cruelty-free “peace silk.”
These sites give mixed reviews to bamboo fabric. It’s made from a fast-growing plant that doesn’t rely on pesticides, but it takes a lot of energy and harmful chemicals to turn it into cloth. Organic cotton also has both pros and cons. While it doesn’t use lots of pesticides, it still requires a lot of water and land to grow — perhaps even more than conventional cotton.
Treatment of Workers
A shirt made from the greenest fabric on the planet still can’t be considered ethical if it was assembled by a worker who toils for 16 hours a day in an unsafe, unheated warehouse and still can’t earn a living wage. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), such conditions are less common today than they were 10 years ago. However, many garment workers still face serious problems in the workplace. For instance, The Guardian reported in 2019 that workers in Bangladesh typically work long shifts for low wages, and safety standards for factories are seldom enforced.
It’s not always easy for clothing brands to check on their suppliers’ workplace practices. For instance, The Guardian revealed that T-shirts sold by Represent, a brand that touted its ethical sourcing practices, had actually been made by workers who earned less than minimum wage and described their working conditions as “inhuman.”
However, some sustainable brands go the extra mile to make sure their workers get fair treatment. These brands often carry the Fair Trade label, indicating that their factories are safe and their workers earn a living wage. Companies with Fair Trade certification agree to regular inspections to make sure their factories are meeting these standards.
How to Buy Ethical & Eco-Friendly Clothing on a Budget
1. Research Brands
Once you know what to look for, you can research your favorite brands to learn how they measure up on ethics and sustainability. Look for information about where their garments are made, how much they pay their workers, and working conditions in their factories.
If you can’t find this information on a brand’s website, there are various other resources you can consult. For instance, Better World Shopper uses data from 76 sources to rate companies on their track records for human rights, animal welfare, the environment, social justice, and community involvement. It distills all this information down into a single letter grade from A through F for about 2,000 companies. Click on “Companies” and type “clothing” into the search bar to see how different brands rate.
If you want more info than a single letter, check out the Good Shopping Guide. Its list of ethical fashion retailers rates companies on a scale from 0 to 100 and shows how this score breaks down by category, such as environmental concerns, animal welfare, and people. This information will allow you to avoid the worst offenders and steer your business toward sustainable brands.
2. Seek Out Sustainable Producers
In addition to researching the brands you already buy, you can specifically seek out brands with credentials that show their ethical and environmental bona fides. Fair Trade labels, such as Fair Trade Certified, are one example. Other labels to look for include:
- USDA Organic. Clothes and other textiles bearing the USDA Organic label are made from fibers grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. However, they may still use toxic chemicals in the finishing of the fabric.
- GOTS Organic. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) requires clothing to be made from at least 95% organic fibers, with no toxic dyes or other chemicals used in processing. Clothing labeled “made with organic” must contain at least 70% organic fibers. GOTS also requires companies to minimize waste and pollution and to meet ILO standards in their factories.
- Bluesign. Clothes labeled as bluesign APPROVED must meet strict standards for health, the environment, and worker-friendliness. They can’t use any harmful chemicals at any stage of their production, from raw materials to finished clothing.
- American Made. For American shoppers, clothes that are made in the USA have a head start on sustainability. They’re made by manufacturers who must comply with U.S. laws for workplace safety, pollution, and health. Also, their carbon footprint is lower because they don’t have to be shipped from overseas.
- Union Made. A step up from American made is union made. This label shows that clothes were made by unionized workers who are able to organize and negotiate with management for better wages and working conditions.
- Handmade. A final way to make sure your clothes come from fairly paid and humanely treated workers is to buy them directly from those workers. You can often find craftspeople selling their own garments at farmers markets, flea markets, and craft fairs. Another good place to look is Etsy, where many designers sell their own clothing at prices that can be surprisingly affordable.
3. Focus on Investment Pieces
If you’re used to fast fashion, the prices of sustainable brands are likely to give you sticker shock. Spending $100 for a pair of jeans when you’re used to spending $30 may seem unreasonable.
But take a step back and think about all the money you spend on clothes in a month or a year. Now imagine splitting up that amount between a few quality pieces — maybe one garment every month instead of five or more. Suddenly, those $100 jeans start to look a lot more affordable.
Shopping in this way allows you to step off the fast-fashion treadmill. Rather than buying lots of new clothes every year and discarding them after just a few uses when they start to fall apart, you can invest your shopping dollars in timeless, high-quality staple pieces that will last. A leather moto jacket from DSTLD, for instance, clearly checks both boxes, and matches perfectly with a pair of DSTLD’s polarized aviator sunglasses. Even though you’re paying more for each individual garment, your total fashion budget won’t increase because you’re buying fewer pieces. In fact, over time, you could find yourself spending less because your new, well-made garments don’t wear out as fast.
The idea of limiting yourself to just a few new garments each year may seem hopelessly limiting. But for many people, being choosier about the clothes they buy actually makes it easier to dress well. Building a capsule wardrobe allows you to see all your clothes at a glance, so you don’t waste time each morning figuring out what to wear or hunting through your closet for the one item you really want. Plus, when every piece you own is one you truly love, every outfit you put together looks great.
To give yourself as many options as possible, make sure the new eco-friendly garments you buy are versatile. Items like a pair of jeans, a plain white shirt, a warm sweater, and a trench coat can all be combined with other items in your wardrobe to create lots of different looks. Additionally, you can dress them up or down depending on the accessories you choose.
4. Hunt for Bargains
If your clothing budget is really tight, buying even a few high-end pieces each year may be out of your reach. When you only have $300 a year to spend on new clothes, blowing one-third of it on a single pair of jeans or the whole amount on a handmade jacket isn’t an option.
Fortunately, there are ways to find sustainable clothing at more manageable prices. One good strategy is to shop during the offseason. Just like other retailers, ethical clothing companies need to rotate their inventory, so out-of-season clothes are priced to get them off the shelves. You can take advantage of this fact to find swimsuits in January or warm sweaters in April at a fraction of their in-season price.
Another way to find great deals is to shop on flash sale sites such as Gilt, HauteLook, and BeyondTheRack. These sites buy small batches of clothing and accessories at sharply discounted prices and pass those discounts on to shoppers. They’re a good choice for small, ethical fashion brands because they increase their visibility and help them move inventory. Search these sites to find offerings from specific sustainable brands you like.
Also, if you’ve found a new store that offers ethical clothing you like, but its prices are a little high for your budget, sign up for its mailing list. That way, you can learn about any “first-purchase discounts” or other sales the store offers.
5. Get Into Secondhand Style
For those who want to shop sustainably on a budget, secondhand clothes are a win-win. They’re the greenest of all possible clothing choices because they require no additional resources to produce and they reduce the amount of textile waste going into landfills. As a bonus, they typically cost less than new clothes bought on sale.
Places to find secondhand clothes include:
- Thrift Stores. The most obvious place to look for secondhand clothing bargains is at thrift stores. These run the gamut from upscale consignment stores to charity shops such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Shop your local stores frequently to catch items in your size and style as soon as they become available.
- Garage Sales. Although clothes aren’t the most common items found at garage sales, the ones that do show up are priced to sell. I’ve paid as little as a dollar for tops in good condition and just a few dollars for shoes. Since there’s often no place to try on clothes at these outdoor sales, dress in layers that allow you to try some items on in public while preserving your modesty.
- Online Stores. There are lots of websites that deal in secondhand clothes and other merchandise. Everyone’s heard of eBay, but it’s also worth checking out clothing-centered sites like Zulily, ThredUp, Poshmark, and Swap.com. You can’t always return items from online sellers, so check all the measurements for a garment carefully before you buy.
- Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. You can often find secondhand clothes and accessories on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Buying from local sellers can be better than shopping online because you get a chance to try the items on before handing over your money. A recent search of my local Craigslist group turned up such gems as Coach bags priced between $12 and $25, leather jackets between $25 and $65, and a pair of Cole Haan sandals for $20.
- Freecycle. The only thing better than cheap is free, and that’s just what everything costs on Freecycle. This network of local sites helps people send their unwanted stuff, including clothing, to new homes. Sign up for your local Freecycle group and check postings regularly for clothing items in your size.
- Clothing Swaps. Another way to get new-to-you clothes for free is to have a clothing swap party. It’s a chance to get rid of everything in your closet you don’t love or don’t fit into, refresh your wardrobe with new clothes, and have fun with your friends, all at the same time. If you don’t have any friends in your size to trade clothes with, search for clothing swap groups in your area on Meetup.
One downside of secondhand shopping is that it doesn’t always offer a lot of choices. Your local thrift store can only offer what other people have donated, so you can’t always count on finding the exact item you want in your size. However, because buying secondhand is so much cheaper, you can use the savings to fill in any gaps in your wardrobe with pricier purchases from sustainable brands.
Creating an ethical wardrobe doesn’t mean tossing out all the clothes you currently own and starting from scratch. In fact, that would be exactly the wrong approach. The resources that went into making your current clothes — and the money you spent on them — are already gone, so you can’t do anything to help the earth by discarding them.
It makes much more sense to take care of your clothes so they last as long as possible. That way, you can wait longer to buy new clothes that require more resources to produce. As your old pieces gradually wear out, you can replace them one by one with more sustainable garments. In this way, you can gradually build an ethical and eco-friendly wardrobe without having to spend a lot of money at once.
What are your favorite ethical clothing brands and shopping strategies?