How to Buy Ethical Fashion on A Budget

As some of you may know, I committed to not buying anything new last year, and will continue the challenge for as long as I can. Since not everything can be bought new, this self-challenge has focused mainly on apparel and accessories. The underlying premise was as my friend Matt said, “Until we can know for sure where things go at each step of their production chain, the best way to shop ethically is probably to buy as little as we can.”

For over a year and a half, I have not bought any new clothing. Not only have I purchased less items and actually purged from my closet, but I’ve also been able to find quality items exclusively at resale, thrift, and consignment stores. It’s been good for my closet, my sanity, and my wallet. But as I wrote about in this post, something was missing.

Buying fair trade or goods made by trafficking survivors was tokenism, not a lifestyle. Buying these types of items for only special occasions like birthdays or holidays reinforced the assumption that fair trade isn't sustainable. And as I began to research the companies included in the Business for Good series, I realized that to truly make a dent in our over-consumption, we need to not only buy less, but also buy smarter.

The other day a friend asked how to buy ethical fashion on a budget. She was learning about the pitfalls of “fast fashion,” such as being able to get 10 dresses for less than $100 at Forever21. Yet she was also concerned that ethically-sourced and produced fashion would be more expensive, say one dress for $100. It’s a common concern, one that isn’t unfounded. Oftentimes ethical fashion is more expensive than (potentially) unethical fashion. But it doesn’t have to be.

Below are a few steps for buying ethical fashion on a budget. It starts with being educated about your consumption and ends with aspiring to maintain a simple closet. As with fast fashion, we can be tempted to over-consume ethical fashion beyond our actual needs (or budgets). The goal is to help make the world a more just and fair gorgeous spring dress at a time. (Or maybe that's just me.)

Research Your Favorite Apparel Brands 

You’ve probably heard that it’s nearly impossible to understand every aspect of a company’s or item’s supply chain. Sometimes, it can be exceedingly difficult, but that doesn’t negate the responsibility of the producer or the consumer to try to understand the supply chain. The reality is that if consumers demand more ethical supply chains or switch to brands that are already certified fair trade or ethical, then the producers will begin to change. 

Here are some helpful sites to understand how your favorite apparel brands or clothing items stack up:

Take Inventory of What's Already in Your Closet

If you’re anything like me, you may have several items in your closet that are quite similar to one another. At one point, I had over 75 dresses in my closet, many of which were floral, A-line spring and summer dresses from Forever21 (see point above about cheap, fast fashion). When I started purging my closet, I realized that tendency and now am much more intentional about buying those types of dresses.So take a look into your closet and write down what you actually have. You may be surprised.

Develop A Budget for Items You Actually Need

Based on your inventory, develop a budget for what you are willing to spend on some new items. Sticking to a budget will also determine what outlets you can buy from since ethical brands will likely be more expensive than the 50 cent bin at your local thrift store. 

Shop at Thrift, Consignment, & Resale Stores and/or at Ethical Fashion Companies or Collaborations

Over the last couple of years, the vast majority of my ethical clothing shopping has been at thrift, consignment, and resale stores. I’ve been thrifting for nearly ten years and have my favorite haunts around the city to find quality vintage dresses. However, if vintage dresses aren’t really your style, I suggest checking out consignment or resale stores that likely carry more modern trends and brands. At the consignment stores, you may even sell or trade the clothes you’re purging from your closet in exchange for some new gently-worn ones. 

Ethical fashion companies and collaborations potentially may be more expensive, but you have the added benefit of knowing that they are certified fair trade and ethical. Unlike many thrift store finds, you can rest assured that the apparel and accessories from ethical fashion sellers was not produced in less than appealing conditions. 

Check out some of my favorite ethical fashion companies below. For more companies, check out the Ethical Fashion Forum.

Please also share any brands/companies that are ethical, eco-friendly, or organic in the comments! I'm always on the lookout for new options.

For Every Item You Purchase, Donate or Sell Another

This step is the hardest for me, but is well worth the discipline. For every new item you bring in, try to donate or sell another. This will help keep your closet simple and completely utilized, as well as rid you of that ever-nagging feeling of having nothing to wear (with dozens of items in the closet and stuffed in drawers, of course). 

Those are my steps toward buying ethical fashion on a budget! What other questions do you have? Have you switched or are you switching to more ethically-sourced and produced fashion? 

Photo credit: Ethical Fashion Forum
Note: Affiliate links are used in some of the links above.