Sustainable Fashion on a Budget

a white woman with straight, shoulder-length blonde hair stands in a garden. She is wearing a straw hat, beige jeans, a white t-shirt, and a long, lacy beige cardigan.
Image by CapucineModa from Pixabay

Confession time: most of my wardrobe is from Target, and not much of it is what I’d call ethical or sustainable. I’m trying to do better, though. Ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, and slow fashion are buzzwords you might have heard. There’s no exact definition for any of these phrases, but I think we can agree that we want less environmental destruction, fairer labor practices, and less animal cruelty. As usual, I’m not aiming for perfection and I’m not encouraging anyone else to do so. I’m aiming for improvement. If you search for ethical fashion, you will see brands that charge anywhere from $40 to $200 or more for a simple shirt. I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t pay a hundred dollars for a shirt. In fact, $40 for a t-shirt is steep for me. I definitely couldn’t pay that on the regular. But I know my usual $10-15 garments are made with cheap labor, often child labor, and they wreak havoc on the environment. They’re also not the best quality, which means they don’t last all that long, so after two or three years they’ll end up in a landfill. More environmental damage. But if we can’t afford the fancy sustainable brands, what can we do to be more ethical in our clothing choices?

Assorted used clothing, mainly shirts and jackets, hang from four racks inside a shop.
Image by Nilay Sozbir from Unsplash

1. Buy used when possible. If you can shop at thrift stores or consignment shops, do so. I know not everyone can. As a fat woman, I have a hard time finding decent clothes that fit me in secondhand shops. But I often buy my kids’ clothes secondhand. Now, there are ethical issues with some thrift shops, too. Goodwill pays disabled employees less than minimum wage, and the Salvation Army is a right-wing religious organization that discriminates against LGBTQ people. Personally, I still shop at Goodwill. Most clothes I can afford to buy use poor labor practices anyway, so I’d rather at least have less environmental impact. But you have to do what you feel is best. And don’t forget about online shopping- Poshmark, thredUP, and eBay are good places to find used clothes online.

2. Similarly, if you have children, don’t be too proud to accept hand-me-downs. Young kids barely wear their clothes before they outgrow them, so you’ll be getting items that are in good shape, absolutely free. And then when your own kids outgrow things, hand them down to someone else. Let’s get the most use possible out of those clothes!

laundry, mostly red and white, hangs from a clotheline in a yard. The wall of a house with two windows is in the background.
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

3. Use greener cleaning methods. Natural laundry detergent, cold water, natural fabric softener (or doing without), wool dryer balls, and line-drying are all ways to use less energy and pollute less when you wash your clothes. Avoid dry-clean-only items if possible- this makes life easier anyway! Only wash clothes when you need to. In the winter, you can often wear clothes a few times before you wash them (if only I could make my kids understand this!).

rolled fabrics of various colors are stacked up.
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

4. Buy clothing made of natural materials. We can’t all buy only organic hemp clothing, but we can try to avoid polyester and acrylics as much as possible. Cotton, linen, silk, hemp, and wool are natural fibers. They are biodegradable, breathable, and less polluting than polyester, acrylic, and nylon, which are made from petroleum. In between are semi-synthetics such as rayon/viscose, Modal, bamboo, and lycocel/Tencel. These are fabrics made from cellulose, the fiber in wood and plants. They, like natural materials, are biodegradable and breathable. Some manufacturing methods are very polluting, though. Of the ones I’ve listed here, viscose (aka rayon) is the worst, but it’s still better than synthetic material. You can find more information about semi-synthetics here.

5. Only buy clothes you know you will wear. This sounds obvious, but how many times have you bought something you were so-so about just because it was on sale? I know I’ve done that. These days, I only buy something if I love it. If I don’t feel happy when I try it on, I don’t buy it. If I look in the mirror and it looks “ok” or “fine,” but not great, I don’t buy it.

an assortment of sewing items, including white thread, some buttons, and two bobbins, sit on a light wood surface.
Image by lloorraa from Pixabay

6. Upcycle! Can you turn old clothes into a quilt? Turn jeans into a bag or a t-shirt into a pillow? Sew some doll clothes out of your old clothes? There are tons of websites and books with cool projects you can make with clothes you no longer wear.