A broke girl’s guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

a broke girls guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

So you care where your clothes are made and how, but can’t afford to buy organic cotton, artisan-made, fair trade everything? Yeah, me neither.

Before I began my slow fashion journey, the aspect of sustainable and ethical fashion that seemed most daunting to me was the price tag. But I’ve since learned there’s more to this conscious fashion lifestyle than just buying from (usually pricey) brands that tout their sustainability and ethics.

Here are some tips to help you be a more conscious consumer at any budget!

a broke girl's guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

1. Don’t buy stuff just because it’s cheap or on sale.

I have been so guilty of this, but a lot of the time I end up never wearing the things I bought just because they were cheap. Instead, I now try to only buy things I can imagine wearing often and keeping for a long time.

Remember: Even if something’s only $5, the cost to the planet is much more than that!

Let’s try to reduce waste in the fashion industry by only buying what you will actually use and love. This also helps you save money by not spending on items you won’t really use.

affordable sustainable and ethical fashion

2. Shop secondhand.

There are so many cool and affordable finds at your local thrift store. In Seattle, I like Lifelong (proceeds help individuals with HIV/AIDS!). I also shop at consignment stores like Crossroads, where you can get more current styles and brands at a lower price. Another way to shop secondhand is on apps like Poshmark and Depop.

80% of donated clothing ends up in landfills, so give your local thrift shop a chance.

Edit: Previously, I had endorsed shopping at Goodwill, but a reader sent me this article about how Goodwill exploits disabled workers by paying them much less than minimum wage. Not so ethical, after all 🙁

sustainable and ethical fashion on a budget

3. When you do buy, cherish that item.

Sometimes you really need or want an item but can’t afford the sustainably or ethically made version. It happens, especially with the relatively narrow range of conscious fashion choices out there today.

If you can, save up over time for what you want. My friend Deb at The Broke Minimalist has a great post on how to save up for slow fashion items. But if you must buy something that’s not from a sustainable or ethical brand, make sure it’s also something you’ll treasure and use for a long time, just like you would with slow fashion items.

Fast fashion has made us accustomed to instant gratification because we can impulsively buy cheap clothing. Slow fashion asks us to think more deeply about our purchases.

This means that instead of buying lots of cheap, trendy items, try saving for a high quality, more timeless piece.

In the past, I’d spent very little per item but end up overspending on clothes because I kept buying things I didn’t need. Now, I’m trying to be more mindful of my purchases by asking myself how each item I buy fits into my wardrobe and into my long-term personal style.

sustainable and ethical fashion on a budget

4. Find your style without following every new trend.

Yeah, I know, it’s tough to restrain yourself when you see your fave influencer rocking the latest new trend and you imagine how *cute* that would look on yourself… BUT this is a rabbit hole of more and more spending and wasteful consumption. A lot of trends die quickly, leaving you with clothes you don’t want to wear anymore. And chances are, you’re buying from fast fashion companies that make cheap, low quality clothing only meant to be worn for a season or two.

This doesn’t mean you can’t follow any trends; just pick the ones that you can see yourself rocking for a long time.

If you’re curious about how I intentionally incorporate trends into my wardrobe, check out my post on defining my personal style.

sustainable and ethical fashion on a budget

5. Care for your clothes consciously.

Most of the environmental harm caused by clothing actually occurs when we machine wash and dry our clothes or use toxic dry cleaning services. Using a clothesline can save the average American household over $200 a year and reduce a household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds a year. Try hand washing and air drying some of your clothes; this helps them last longer and retain their quality. Use green dry cleaners if dry cleaning is necessary.

And of course, make sure to research how you can care for your clothes so that they can live long, happy lives in your wardrobe.

I’ll be writing posts on how to properly care for your clothes, so stay tuned.

sustainable and ethical fashion on a budget

I hope these tips were useful. Let me know your strategies for dressing yourself sustainably and ethically on a budget!

Outfit details:

Dress: bought secondhand from Crossroads
Bag: Kate Spade*
Shoes: thrifted

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*not a brand wholly and transparently committed to sustainability and ethics

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18 thoughts on “A broke girl’s guide to sustainable and ethical fashion”

    • I think 90% of my closet is secondhand, too! I totally agree – so many used clothes are perfectly wearable, cute, and affordable. Thanks Ayana!

  • Hey! Great post! I think its really important that we inform people that ethical doesnt mean expensive! And also that it doesnt mean throw out every you already own! Thanks for this post its great, I will post it on my FB page if you dont mind?

    • Yes, absolutely! I think lots of people beginning to explore ethical fashion think they must start with a clean slate, but it’s so much more sustainable to treasure everything we own…even if it wasn’t ethically made. I would love it if you shared. Thanks for reading, Lyndsey!

  • I LOVE your point about trends. It’s easy to start thinking that ALL trends are bad, but that’s not the case – it’s all about moderation and intentionality. Trends are fine as a concept, just not as many as fast fashion companies want us to buy into. Great post! xo

    • Yes, so true – trends can help refresh your style but there’s a balance between finding inspiration and just following trends for the sake of being trendy. Thanks for reading, Amy!

  • Thank you so much for this post. I first became aware of the problems with fast fashion with a documentary – I’m blanking on the name. It can be challenging to only buy sustainable, but i like that you gave real options.

    • Was it “The True Cost”? I think that’s the one everyone has seen but I actually haven’t seen it! I’m glad this post was helpful. Thanks for reading, Nicole!

  • I think learning to care for items and buy items that can be mended or repaired (i.e. shoes that can be re-soled or handbags that can be re-lined) is such a lost notion for our generation. Everyone wants to replace it with something new. I love finding pieces that I love so much I want to keep for forever. And keeping them for forever means having the ability to repair them. I have had my favorite (read: only) pair of tall leather riding boots for 9 years! I plan on trip to the cobbler for new soles every year or two and regularly moisturize the leather with saddle soap at home! Thank you for posting this and opening up the conversation. For as concerned as we are about everything else in life, I feel really strongly that we don’t need to be such a disposable goods minded generation.

    • I totally agree; it shouldn’t cost less to completely replace something than to repair it! I love how you care for your boots…that makes them so much more meaningful. That’s something I would really like to do with the clothes I buy now, too. Thanks for reading, Maria!

  • Ethical clothings are sure pricey and college going students like me can’t afford to make purchase , I ‘m new to sustainable purchases but was always on the side to save Nature. Your blog really helped me

    • That’s awesome! I’m so glad these tips helped. You don’t need to buy only from expensive ethical brands to approach fashion in a more sustainable way.

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