It’s not easy being green on a budget — especially when it comes to clothes shopping. On the one hand, fast-fashion brands offer clothes that are cheaper than ever. But to keep them affordable, the fashion industry often relies on toxic chemicals, processes that consume vast amounts of energy, and factories with dangerous working conditions.
On the other hand, several ethical fashion brands are attempting to address these problems. They pledge to use nontoxic dyes and eco-friendly fabrics, including reused or recycled material, while paying their workers a fair wage. But making clothes that way is expensive, and it shows in the price tags at the store.
For eco-conscious shoppers, there are two ways around that dilemma: Shop less or shop smarter. You could blow your whole clothing budget on just a few top-quality pieces from eco-conscious brands. But it’s much more fun to get creative and find clothing that’s good for both the planet and your wallet.
Ways to Buy Eco-Friendly Clothing on a Budget
The biggest problem with sustainable clothing is the high price tags it often comes with. Eco-friendly designer brands like Stella McCartney charge more for some pieces than the average family spends on clothing in a whole year.
According to the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average U.S. household spends $1,883 per year for “apparel and services.” Prices on McCartney’s site start at $60 for a pair of underpants and go up to $3,995 for a full-length lace dress. Those garments are out of reach for the typical shopper.
However, that doesn’t mean sustainability is simply a luxury you can’t afford. You can shop sustainably on a budget if you know where to look.
Affordable Ways to Buy Secondhand Eco-Friendly Clothing
For shoppers who are both eco-conscious and budget-conscious, secondhand clothes are the best choice. They require no new materials, energy, water, or toxic chemicals to produce. And by keeping used clothing out of the waste stream, they reduce the need for new landfills and the energy used to collect and dispose of trash.
Best of all, used clothes cost far less than new ones. In some cases, you can pick up perfectly good, new-to-you clothes for no money at all. That leaves you plenty of extra cash to fill in any remaining gaps in your wardrobe with purchases from ethical clothing brands.
And there are many places you can get secondhand clothes.
1. Thrift Stores
There are many types of thrift stores, which can vary widely in selection and price. At the low end of the scale are nonprofit shops run by charities like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and local churches. Clothes at these stores cost as little as $1 per garment, but quality can be iffy.
At the upper end of the spectrum, consignment stores specialize in high-end designer apparel. These clothes and accessories often cost as much as or more than low- to mid-level new clothes from a chain store. However, they’re usually better made and more stylish, offering more value for your dollar.
Vintage shops and antique stores specialize in clothing from past eras. Old and rare garments in like-new condition can cost a lot more than new clothes from a department store. However, you can find occasional bargains at these stores, especially if you don’t mind slightly damaged apparel. Think of the minor flaws as signs of character.
2. Garage Sales
You can’t always find clothing at garage sales, but when you do, the prices are hard to beat. Even designer clothes often cost no more than $10 each, with no-name brands costing $1 or less. You can also find shoes in good condition for a few dollars per pair.
One drawback to shopping for clothes at yard sales is that there’s often no place to try them on. But you can get around this problem by dressing in layers.
Wear a snug-fitting tank, camisole, or undershirt under your regular clothes so you can try on other shirts over it. You can also wear tights, leggings, or biker shorts to try on pants, shorts, or skirts. If it makes you more comfortable, you can cover these tight garments with a loose-fitting skirt or pants the rest of the time.
If you have fairly narrow hips, you can also try the “pants around your neck” trick (just try it at home with pants you know fit first). Or since men’s pants sizing is reasonably predictable, guys can just judge the fit based on waist and inseam measurements.
3. Online Sellers
Thrift shops and yard sales don’t always offer clothes in your size. Online marketplaces like eBay and Poshmark offer a much wider selection, and the prices are just as good. Other online sellers include ThredUp, an online consignment store where you can sometimes save upward of 80% on designer brands, and Swap.com, where most items cost $20 or less.
The biggest downside of online shopping is you can’t try on the clothes before you buy them. And unlike other online stores, many secondhand sites won’t let you simply return the clothes if they don’t fit — though ThredUp and Swap.com are exceptions.
To minimize sizing issues, read listings carefully. Look for clothes that have detailed measurements and check them against your own.
4. Online Swap Sites
Swap sites are a bit different from other online marketplaces. Instead of buying and selling clothes, you trade your old clothes for someone else’s.
At online swap sites like Rehash, you can post a picture and description of a garment or accessory you want to give away. If someone else likes what they see, they can click on “Request a Trade,” enabling you to look at their posted apparel to negotiate a swap. Once you reach an agreement, you mail your items to each other. You both get new clothes, and all it costs you is the price of postage.
Some swap sites, such as Swap Society, use a hybrid model. You pay for your clothes partly with cash and partly with points you earn by trading in your old clothes. However, this site also charges membership dues, so it’s only worth using if you plan to swap a lot.
5. Swap Parties
Swapping clothing in person is even easier — and more fun — than swapping online. At a clothing swap party, friends or community members get together and bring their unwanted clothing. After trying on each other’s discards, you select the ones you’d like to take home. You can get rid of all your old clothes and find new ones you’ll actually wear without spending a penny.
Clothing swaps are particularly good for kids’ clothes, which kids often outgrow before they wear out. A swap lets you pass on these gently used clothes to younger children and get larger clothes for free.
You can find tips for hosting a clothing swap, either in person or online, at Fashion Revolution. If you don’t have a group of friends willing to trade, try joining a clothing swap group on Meetup. You can use the site to find clothing swaps in your area or start one.
6. Freecycle and Buy-Nothing Groups
Another way to trade clothes with others is through the Freecycle Network. You can post your unwanted clothes on your local Freecycle group and offer them to people in your area who can use them. If someone else posts clothes in your size, just send a message to request them. No cash ever changes hands on Freecycle, so all your new-to-you clothes will be completely free.
The Buy Nothing Project, started in 2013, is similar to Freecycle. It’s a network of neighbors who connect to give away or request “gifts” of goods and services. Most buy-nothing groups connect via Facebook, but some use other platforms or exist only offline. Visit the website to find the buy-nothing group nearest you.
Affordable Ways to Buy New Eco-Friendly Clothing
It’s not always possible to fill your whole closet through thrift stores and swaps. But there are a couple of ways to fill the gaps in your wardrobe without sacrificing either your budget or your principles.
First, look for eco-friendly fashion brands. Designers like McCartney may be out of reach for budget-conscious shoppers, but many brands are both affordable and sustainable. And if you crave a few pieces of high-end eco-fashion, try to get them for less through flash sale sites.
7. Affordable Eco-Conscious Brands
The nonprofit Climate Neutral certifies specific fashion and apparel brands that have taken decisive measures to reduce their carbon footprints and environmental impacts. They use sustainable materials and manufacturing processes to keep emissions low. Many of these sustainable fashion brands are costly. But there are a few affordable brands as well.
Patagonia is an excellent choice for rugged outdoor gear, while Boody, Pact, and Tentree offer underwear and activewear, such as sweats and leggings. For footwear, check out Allbirds, which sells sustainably made casual and running shoes at moderate prices.
8. Flash-Sale Sites
High-end sustainable brands like Stella McCartney, Nicholas K, and Eileen Fisher can cost hundreds or even thousands per garment, more than shoppers on a budget can afford. But you can shop these brands for much less on flash-sale sites.
Sites such as Gilt, Beyond the Rack, and Zulily buy batches of clothing and accessories at steep discounts. Then they offer these discounted goods to consumers through flash sales, quickie sales events that can last between a few hours and a few days. You have to check them regularly to spot bargains before they’re gone, but you can score great deals if you’re quick.
Fashion brands sell their clothes through flash-sale sites for numerous reasons. For small ethical fashion brands, it can be a way to increase their visibility. For better-known brands, it’s a good way to clear out excess inventory. Either way, shoppers on a budget reap the benefits.
Just don’t assume all the clothing on these sites is ethical. To find sustainable fashion brands on flash-sale sites, go to a site and create an account if necessary. Then search for your favorite brand by name.
There’s no way around it: Sustainable clothes made with eco-friendly fabrics and fairly paid labor tend to cost more. If you’re used to paying $5 for a T-shirt or $25 for a pair of jeans, you’ll never match those prices on new clothing from sustainable fashion brands.
Fortunately, you don’t have to. For many of the clothes you wear every day, you can shop at thrift stores and pay even less than the discount-store price. By getting some of your clothes secondhand and buying the rest from eco-friendly brands, you can fill your whole wardrobe with well-made clothing for no more than you spend now.
To use this two-tiered shopping strategy, start by getting to know your local thrift shops. The stock at thrift stores changes often, so visit your favorite stores regularly to keep on top of the changing offerings and catch the best items when they appear. Then, use the money you’ve saved to fill in any gaps in your wardrobe with new, eco-friendly pieces.