A funny thing has happened to clothing prices over the last half-century. While other consumer goods have grown more costly over time, clothing has become cheaper. According to KQED News, the average U.S. household in 1960 spent over 10% of its income on clothing and shoes. By 2013, that number had dropped to less than 3.5%.
Prices have fallen partly because production has moved overseas. In 1960, about 95% of the clothes Americans wore were made in the USA; by 2013, less than 2% of them were. Cheaper materials, such as polyester, have also played a role. According to Quartz, polyester production has risen sharply since 1980, vastly outstripping natural fibers like cotton and wool.
Unfortunately, cheap clothing comes at a high cost for people and the planet. Synthetic fabrics like polyester require vast amounts of energy to produce, and the chemicals used to make them are often toxic. Furthermore, the working conditions in foreign clothing factories can be dangerous. The best-known example is the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which left more than 1,000 workers dead and more than 2,000 injured.
Today, there are several ethical fashion brands attempting to address these problems. They pledge to use eco-friendly fabrics and non-toxic dyes while paying their workers a fair wage. However, this adds to their operating and production costs, resulting in higher prices at the store.
For eco-conscious shoppers, this poses a dilemma: How can you remain true to your principles without busting your budget?
You could just buy fewer items, but for true fashion lovers, that’s not much fun. The other solution: Instead of shopping less, shop smarter. If you know where to look, you can find clothing that’s good for both the planet and your wallet.
What Makes Clothing Sustainable
What sets sustainable clothing apart from today’s cheap “fast fashion” is it’s both planet-friendly and worker-friendly. Sustainable clothes are also durable enough in most cases to last for many seasons. They’re often made from eco-friendly fabrics, which can include reused or recycled material. Most sustainable clothing companies pay their workers a fair wage and provide decent working conditions.
Natural fabrics, such as cotton, aren’t always greener than synthetic fabrics like polyester. Conventional methods of growing cotton use vast amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, which are often highly toxic. It’s possible to grow cotton without these chemicals, but even organic cotton consumes large amounts of water.
The greenest fabrics are made from renewable fibers that are easy to grow or produce. They require limited water and energy to produce, and many are recyclable.
- Linen. Made from flax – which needs far less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than cotton – linen requires little energy to manufacture. It’s also easy to compost or recycle into paper.
- Hemp. Hemp also doesn’t need much fertilizer or pesticides. And, as the selection at Bulk Hemp Warehouse shows, it can be made into a wide variety of fabrics, such as canvas, denim, twill, jersey, and fleece. Hemp growing used to be illegal in many states, but the 2018 Farm Bill made it legal across the U.S.
- Bamboo. Bamboo has both pros and cons as a sustainable fiber. This fast-growing plant uses almost no pesticides. It produces soft fabrics that are easy to care for. However, turning its fibers into fabric often requires toxic chemicals.
- Lyocell. Commonly sold under the brand name Tencel, this fabric is made from wood pulp — typically eucalyptus wood, which grows quickly with little water and chemicals. Unlike rayon, another wood-based fabric, lyocell doesn’t produce a lot of pollution. As a bonus, the fabric is naturally wrinkle-resistant, so it’s easy to care for.
- Alpaca. A mammal native to Peru that looks similar to a llama, the alpaca has long hair that produces beautifully soft fibers. Alpacas are hardy creatures that don’t eat or drink much and can stay healthy without antibiotics. Alpaca wool is more eco-conscious than cashmere, which comes from a type of Asian goat. Heavy breeding of cashmere goats has led to severe overgrazing in Mongolia, slowly turning much of the country into desert.
- Organic Wool. Some sheep farms use toxic pesticides on their pastures or treat the animals with toxic dips. Organic sheep farms avoid these harmful chemicals. They keep both the sheep and pastures healthy by using the animals’ manure to nourish the soil.
- Silk. Produced by caterpillars known as silkworms, this natural fabric is lightweight and durable. At the end of its life, it breaks down naturally. Commonly used for evening wear, it also makes surprisingly warm thermal underwear. Many ethical vegetarians avoid silk because producing it usually involves killing the silkworms. However, peace silk, also known as vegan silk, is a cruelty-free alternative.
Another problem with most fabrics is the dyes used to color them. Many traditional dyes contain harmful chemicals and require large amounts of water to process. Much of the dye washes out of the fabric during the coloring process, polluting rivers throughout the developing world.
This doesn’t mean white fabric is a cleaner choice. In most cases, pure-looking, snow-white fabric is bleached with chlorine. This process releases dioxin, a chemical that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says can cause cancer and damage many bodily systems. Also, nearly all permanent press fabrics, whether white or colored, are treated with toxic formaldehyde, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Natural and low-impact dyes offer a greener alternative. Natural dyes such as indigo and cochineal are derived from plants, animals, or insects. Low-impact dyes are lower in toxic chemicals and require less water to process. Another green option is unbleached fabric, which has a natural, off-white color.
Recycling and Reusing
Another way to make clothes eco-friendly is to make them from recycled materials. For example, fleece is often made from recycled plastic bottles. This turns a waste product into something useful and reduces the use of non-renewable oil.
It’s also possible to make new polyester fabric by recycling old polyester garments. This uses less energy and produces less pollution than making fabric from petroleum. An analysis published by the University of Delaware shows that recycled polyester is a more sustainable fabric than cotton.
The greenest choice of all is to reuse clothing. Recycling reduces waste and energy use, but reusing clothes cuts both to almost nothing.
The easiest way to reuse clothing is to simply pass it on to new users. For instance, you can take an old shirt in good condition to the thrift store or pass outgrown clothes from older children to younger ones.
However, even when clothes start to wear out, it’s often possible to salvage usable material. Some sustainable clothing brands have made a business of remaking old clothing to give it a new look. This type of reuse is often called “reworking.”
The primary focus of sustainable fashion is to protect the environment. However, many eco-conscious designers are also concerned about human rights. They believe truly sustainable clothes must be made in ways that are safe and healthy for workers.
One way to find worker-friendly clothing is to look for American-made brands. The USA has much stricter health and safety standards for factories than most developing countries. When you buy clothing made in the USA, you know the people who made it work limited hours, have a reasonably safe workplace, and earn at least minimum wage.
You can also look for clothing that bears the Fair Trade label. To earn this label, manufacturers must promise to pay all their workers a living wage. They must also guarantee their factories are safe and their production is eco-friendly.
If there’s a specific brand of clothing you love, visit its website and look for information about its labor practices. Try to find out where the clothes are made, how much the workers earn, and what kind of standards the company has for its suppliers. If you can’t find this information easily, send the company an email to ask for details.
Where to Find Eco-Friendly Clothing on a Budget
The biggest problem with sustainable clothing is it often comes with high price tags. Eco-friendly designer brands like Stella McCartney charge more for some pieces than the average family spends on clothing in a whole year. However, you can shop sustainably on a budget if you know where to look.
For shoppers who are both eco-conscious and budget-conscious, used clothes are the best choice. Secondhand clothes require no new materials to produce. No extra energy, water, or toxic chemicals are used when they change hands from their previous owner. Keeping used clothing out of the waste stream also reduces 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 sustainable brands.
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 such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and local churches. Clothes at these stores cost as little as $1 per item, but quality can be iffy.
At the upper end of the spectrum, consignment stores specialize in high-end, designer clothes. These items 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 clothes. Think of the minor flaws as signs of character.
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 per item, with no-name brands costing $1 or less. You can also find shoes in good condition for a few dollars a pair.
One problem with shopping for clothes at yard sales is there’s often no place to try them on. However, you can get around this problem by dressing in layers. If you’re a woman, wear a snug-fitting tank or camisole as an under-layer so you can try other shirts over it. Wear a loose-fitting skirt with tights to try on pants, shorts, or other skirts underneath it, then slip off the skirt to see how they look. If you have fairly narrow hips, you can also try the “pants around your neck” trick.
If you’re a guy, wear an undershirt beneath your regular shirt so you can take it off to try on other shirts. If you’re bold, you can also wear bike shorts under your pants so you can take your pants off and still be decent. Or, since men’s pants sizing is fairly predictable, just judge the fit based on waist and inseam measurements.
Thrift shops and yard sales don’t always offer clothes in your size. Online marketplaces such as 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. Unlike other online stores, most secondhand sites won’t let you simply return the clothes if they don’t fit — though ThredUp and Swap.com do accept returns for store credit. To minimize sizing issues, read item listings carefully. Look for clothes that have detailed measurements and check them against your own.
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.
The oldest online swap site, Swap Style, is currently unavailable. However, new sites like Rehash have popped up to fill its place. On this site, you can post a picture and description of an item you want to give away. If someone else likes the item, they can click on “Request a Trade,” enabling you to look at their posted items 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.
Swapping clothing in person is even easier — and more fun — than swapping online. At a clothing swap party, friends 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 are often outgrown before they wear out. A swap lets you pass on these still-good clothes to younger children and get larger clothes for free.
If you don’t happen to have a group of friends to trade clothes with, try joining a clothing swap group on Meetup. You can use the site to find clothing swaps in your area or start one of your own.
A final 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.
It’s not always possible to fill your whole closet through thrift stores and swaps. That’s where eco-conscious brands come in. You can use them to fill the gaps in your wardrobe without sacrificing your principles.
As noted above, many sustainable brands are costly. However, there are a few brands out there that are much more reasonable. For example, Toad & Co, Alternative Apparel and PACT offer everyday basics at reasonable prices, while Patagonia is a great choice for rugged outdoor gear. For footwear, check out Allbirds, which sells sustainably made running shoes at moderate prices.
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 eco-conscious labels.
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 if you don’t find something one week, you might the next. If you visit your favorite stores often, you can keep on top of their 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.
What’s your favorite place to shop for sustainable clothing?