How To Shop Ethically on A Budget

If you asked most people if they wanted to shop ethically, chances are, they'd say "yes, of course!" But how many people actually follow through with that? Chances are, little-to-none. Why? Because shopping ethically is expensive.  

Unfortunately, for the majority of people, it's so much easier to shop from unethical, fast-fashion retailers than to shop from ethical-fair trade shops. After all, why buy a skirt for $70 at Reformation when you can buy one for $7 at Forever 21, right?

But the truth is, the difference between that $70 and $7 goes far beyond just saving money. While that $70 will go into paying factory workers living wages, operating factories, sourcing high-quality materials, and then paying the corporates, the $7 will unfortunately go straight to the latter, with very little of it making its way back to the workers (think: a few cents).  Because of this, many workers are subjected to unfair conditions such working in hot sweatshops for as little as mere dollars a day, and living in a constant state of poverty and abuse.

And with this said, it's important to shop as ethically as possible.  But let's be honest: not all of us can afford to shop ethically. In order to ensure fair working conditions and living wages, ethical companies therefore have to spend more on production costs, thus resulting in an increased price markup per garment to compensate for this.  Of course, the percept of markup depends on the company itself, but generally, it's at least 50% from the production cost, in order to make a profit.

However, shopping ethically doesn't always have to break the bank. Keep reading on for my three best tips for shopping ethically on a budget. 


1. Make Like Macklemore And Go Thrift Shopping

Thrifting is a great way to shop ethically and even sustainably, especially on a budget.  By purchasing once-loved clothing, you are saving it from going back into the waste cycle, and giving it another life. Not to mention, it can be incredibly easy on your wallet. It's not unheard of to find designer items for less than $10 secondhand, or even score them brand new for a little more.  

Now you may be thinking to yourself, "Hannah, how does purchasing a fast fashion or designer item from a  thrift store count as shopping ethically?" Which is actually a great question, and one I had myself when I first embarked on my ethical journey. It counts as shopping ethically because you're doing something to benefit the environment, first off, and second off, you're saving the workers behind unethical fashion retailers from having to produce yet another piece of new clothing, to compensate for the piece sold. 

If that doesn't make sense, here's a little breakdown: for every item that is sold in stores, factories will have to produce one more item, to replace it. That means another clothing item enters the waste cycle, which means more water, C02, and carbon emissions are produced to create the item. Not only that, but a worker is going to have to work hard and take time from their day to create the item, only to again, get paid an unfair wage, and spend even more time in a subpar factory.  

But by purchasing the same item from a thrift store, you are saving a new clothing item from entering the waste cycle, which means you are saving the planet from more water, C02, and carbon emissions being used / excreted from the production process.  And, of course, you are saving workers from having to create yet another item, which again, prevents all of the above. 

In essence, thrifting is not only easy on your wallet, but easy on the planet and on the people who work so hard to make our clothes.  It's probably the most fiscally and socially conscious way to shop... as long as you don't mind wearing gently used clothing. :)

2. Shop Off-Season

But say that shopping second-hand isn't your thing (that's okay, it isn't everyones!) The next best option is to shop ethically, but off-season. Meaning, you buy your winter clothes in the summer, and summer clothes in the winter. This is a great way to save money while still maintaining the quality of a purchase.  Many stores will release their winter collections around July, and vice versa, release their summer collections in December, and usually all for a discounted price.  For example, I know Vaute, an ethical vegan clothing company out of NYC, usually has major discounts on all of their famous vegan parkas throughout the summer months. And Reformation has a huge sale every August, which does include their pants and coats.  Oh, and if you're willing to do some research on which ethical brands are sold per location, Nordstrom has their half-yearly sale every July, which always includes fall and winter wear for an extremely discounted price.  

My recommendation, if planning to shop off-season, is to save in the spring and fall, and only shop in the summer and winter.  Which leads me to my next point... 

3. Research and Budget  

When trying to shop ethically, budgeting will be your best friend. As I mentioned earlier in the post, ethical clothing is generally priced high in response to the high production costs associated with them, and thus, it can be hard for people to shop as freely as they do at a fast-fashion retailer like Forever 21.  However, this is one of those situations where I think the phrase "quality over quantity" applies.  In my opinion, it's a better (and more cost-effective in the long run) to invest in a few, high-quality items that'll last you a lifetime than cheaper items that may fall apart after a few years.  

Your budget will obviously depend on how much you choose to spend on clothing, but one thing to keep in mind is that some ethical brands may cost a lot more than others and might require a bit more saving.  For example, Vaute, Reformation, and Stella McCartney will run you a lot more than brands like Everlane, People Tree, and Threads for Thoughts.  My best advice to you would be to research the brands you're interested in, and see what works for you.  Every brand has their own little quirk, and their own unique style... it's all about your preference, and what works for your style and lifestyle.  


While shopping ethically can seem like it's out of reach for you, it truly doesn't have to be. With a little thought and careful planning, you can create an ethical wardrobe with ease, even on the tightest college student budget. :) 

If any of you ethical shoppers out there have any tips I missed, feel free to share them in the comments below.


Photography by: Julia O Test (edited by me)

Location: Uptown, Oakland, CA

SHOP THE LOOK HERE: Tank (similar) / Skirt (similar) / Boots (mine are the vegan version) / Jacket (c/o)


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