Be an Ethical, Frugal Fashionista: How to Shop Ethical When You're on a Budget

Many of us who adore fashion – me included – want to move towards more ethical ways of buying clothes. But that’s not an easy ask if you’re a budget fashionista. Despite the inroads it’s making into the mainstream, to some extent ethical, environmentally sustainable shopping is still a niche market for those who can afford sustainable designer threads, or those who can happily confine their wardrobes to organic cotton T-shirts, trousers and hoodies. (An exception is the UK, which is miles ahead.) So how do you shop ethically if you're also living frugal and on a strict budget?

If you want to buy new clothes cheaply in fashionable styles, it’s easier to source clothing that is ethically produced than clothing that is both ethically produced and completely sustainable. It is possible to combine the two, but your choices will be more limited. If you want both and your budget is low, you may be better off focusing primarily on secondhand clothes and supplementing your wardrobe with a few well-chosen new garments.

Having said that, there are some exciting options available, and they’re growing in number. The sustainability area is relatively new and very dynamic, with new brands and techniques coming on board all the time. Online stores offer some reasonably priced options, although of course you’ll need to take postage costs into account.

(BTW, I welcome any news from readers in this area. I’d particularly welcome any info about mainstream brands from non-Anglo countries that combine ethical manufacture and sustainability as well as offering great style. Because of time constraints and where the majority of readers are, I tend to confine my (limited) research to Anglo countries. If there are any stand-out brands that you think deserve a mention please let me know.)

Some of the options below, then, focus on ethically produced fashion in terms of workers’ rights rather than environmental sustainability. I’m not a full-on ethical shopper, although I’m moving nearer to it at a glacial pace. The tips below are advice to myself as much as to anyone else for shopping ethically on a budget.

* Don’t give up if you fail to be completely ethical and sustainable all at once. Make changes gradually.

* If you want to find ethical fashion on a budget, being proactive is the key. You can still rely on serendipity – great accidental finds – at op and thrift shops, but you’ll need to think ahead if you want to source the fashion you enjoy at a good price. You’ll also need to be a bit of a bowerbird, buying clothes from an eclectic range of sources. Don’t focus on just a few favourite brands or stores.

* Stake out upmarket secondhand clothes shops and designer recycling stores in your area and visit them regularly. In Australia, for example, Red Cross stores focus exclusively on selling secondhand clothes and accessories at cheap prices.

* If you love online shopping, explore the options for buying secondhand clothes online. No longer is your choice confined to eBay! Secondhand Posh sells recycled designer fashion in Australia. The Clothes Agency is a UK-based website selling secondhand (and new) clothes for a minimum listing fee. Etsy is a US-based marketplace specialising in handmade goods and vintage items, so you get a huge array of choice when it comes to both handmade and vintage clothes, and a great philosophy to boot (the handmade goods won’t all be sustainable).

* Ethical and sustainable fashion stores with high-priced clothes can still have great sales. One UK brand with online sale items at mainstream prices is Bibico. This brand is World Fair Trade certified, and the clothes are stylish. World Fair Trade certification focuses on ethical standards, but it does have a sustainability factor.

* Independent clothes stores in edgy, hip parts of town often have alternative fashion brands that are relatively cheap and yet aren’t mass produced.

* Some mainstream brands are committed to ethical manufacture, and are no more expensive than non-ethical, but they may not be green. In Australia, some of these brands don’t want to associate themselves with the move to ethical fashion and therefore don’t use their accreditation in their marketing. Sillies! I think they are grossly underestimating their customers. In Australia, these brands include Bardot and Cue, both known for their great style. A full and growing list of Australian accredited ethical fashion – only some of it proudly so! – can be found on the Ethical Clothing Australia website.

In the USA, American Apparel is an institution, offering middle-of-the-road, reasonably priced clothes that are ethically produced in the USA (according to their website – they don’t have any formal accreditation, but the info on the site is fairly thorough). Apart from some organic cotton options, most of the range isn’t necessarily environmentally sustainable.

If you live in the UK, you’re way ahead of us in this area. It really seems to be a vanguard of ethical and sustainable fashion. As more people buy ethical fashion it moves into the mainstream and the prices go down. People Tree in the UK has pioneered fashion that is both committed to fair trade standards and minimises environmental impact. The prices are a little higher than mainstream but they have excellent online sales.

* Clothes swapping is a wonderful way to reduce landfill as well as your carbon footprint. Threadswap is an Australian website that enables you to swap your unwanted clothing for credits that you then use to ‘buy’ clothes online. The Clothing Exchange runs regular swapping events in all Australian capital cities except Darwin and Hobart. The Swapaholics team holds regular fashion-swapping events in the USA, while details of UK events can be found on the Swishing website.

* The USA has a new, comprehensive accreditation system for fashion that takes sustainability into account as well as ethical employment practices. It’s early days yet and there’s not much choice offered by the retailers on the web page, although it’s good for basics.

* Visit flea markets regularly, as well as markets specialising in recycled fashion. In Victoria, markets selling recycled clothes occur periodically; for example, Take 2 Markets runs regular events in Geelong, Darebin and Hawthorn. Conduct an internet search to find out if events like this take place in your area.
* Finally, vintage clothing is such an obvious inclusion in this blog entry that I almost forgot it! But where do you start if you’re on the hunt for vintage threads? The Vintage Fashion Directory is a great guide to bricks-and-mortar vintage stores in Paris, London, LA and New York, and it look as if it will soon be enabling stores to sell online through the website. The Vintage Vault is a US online vintage boutique that offers a very long list of online vintage stores. And there is an Australian vintage fashion directory on Facebook.

Good luck in your quest for fair fashion, and remember I'm always thrilled to receive any news on this topic.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like Great tips for successful op and thrift shopping.


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