When I first started transitioning to a vegan lifestyle, cutting out animal-derived clothing was as obvious to me as cutting out meat. There was no doubt in my mind that I didn’t want to wear animals any more than I wanted to eat them. And transitioning to a vegan wardrobe proved relatively easy: high-street brands gave me my faux fur and faux-leather fix, wool was surprisingly simple to replace (and I say this as someone who has spent the majority of their lifetime in cold, Northern-European countries. Weather is no excuse to wear wool) and during the summer I could forget this dilemma altogether as pretty much all summer clothing is vegan. I was relieved at realising just how simple cruelty-free dressing could be.
But as my research into kind fashion progressed, I realised that I could no longer keep indulging in some of my favourite high-street chain fashions. Watching documentaries like The True Cost and reading books like Tamsin Blanchard’s Green is the New Black and Lucy Siegle’s To Die For opened my eyes to how our fashion consumption is killing the planet. I noticed how some of my favourite smaller vegan brands also paid attention to issues like workers’ rights and the environment, which I also grew increasingly passionate about.
There was one issue though. As someone who has always had financial issues, I found myself in a situation where I really wanted to support ethical fashion, but couldn’t create my dream sustainable wardrobe because of pricing. Understandably, ethical fashion comes at a higher price point than £5 t-shirts from Primark, but I had learned that if a garment comes with an extremely low price, someone else has paid along the way. So, what’s a cash-strapped ethical fashionista to do?
Here’s how I am creating my ethical wardrobe on a budget:
Explore charity shops. I used to live in one of London’s best-kept secrets, Crystal Palace, an area that was surprisingly rich in good-quality charity shops. I’ve entered many of these places with a few doubts and emerged with £7 dresses that have gotten me more than a few compliments. Obviously this type of shopping holds no promises – if you have a specific need (for example: a new coat or a pair of jeans) you might be better off pursuing other ways to shop ethically. With a charity shop, if you find anything you love in your size, you GRAB it, because you will never come across it again. Word of warning: check out the charity before you shop. I recently found the most beautiful metallic pleated skirt in British Heart Foundation…only to find out they fund animal testing. So glad I googled before purchasing! My favourite UK charity shops include Oxfam, Mind, and Shelter.
What makes it ethical? The fact that you’re giving new life to clothes that would otherwise have become landfill. The fact that your money goes to a charity instead of a big fashion corporation.
Check out big chains’ eco collections. H&M Conscious was the game-changer, followed by Zara Join Life and Mango Committed. Big names in fashion are realising that customers are waking up, opening their eyes and getting curious about where their clothing came from, and thus capsule collections made with organic and recycled materials were born. Eco-friendly collections from big high-street brands can be seen as the first step into a new era of conscious fashion: if even the names that are tied to the “fast fashion” phenomenon are producing more “slow” collections, a change is truly underway. It might not be a complete overhaul – but it’s a step towards change.
What makes it ethical? By voting with your money, you’re telling big brands that you’ll part with your cash only if their product has an ethical thought behind it. And that’s a powerful message. If these labels see their eco collections gain growth while the rest declines, they will know what to do.
Have a swap party. Some of my favourite (and most long-lasting) items in my closet once belonged to my friends. Then they got tired of the garment in question and I ended up inheriting it, giving it new life. Or they initially bought the wrong size, couldn’t return it and passed it on to me. Moral of the story: the garment lives on, after narrowly escaping a destiny as landfill. So in order to create a new, low-cost ethical wardrobe, why not host a swap party? Invite some well-dressed friends, get some snacks and wine, and “shop” away.
What makes it ethical? You’re giving a new lease of life to garments that otherwise would have been thrown away, and you’re refraining from shopping new items, thus refusing to aliment the overconsumption machine. Result.
Re-love what you have. I’m constantly in some bizarre competition with myself to see how long my clothes will survive. A top I loved to go out in during the summer of 2004 has gone through the cycle of becoming a gym top, then pyjamas. I’m currently looking for new buttons for a winter coat I bought in 2010 to make it last many more winters. The key to re-loving your clothes? Make new outfits with them, as shown by our fashion writer Olivia in her recent minimalist wardrobe challenge.
What makes it ethical? You’re not shopping – and not shopping is one of the most radically ethical moves you can make to save the planet with your wardrobe.
Two Eco Designers (and Vilda staffers!) on Ethical Fashion on a Budget
Djuna Da Silva, Fashion Editor at Vilda and Founder of Djuna Shay: “start slow”‘
The ten-million dollar question: how to shop ethically on a budget. if I did things a lot of fast fashion companies do, like make the choice to move production overseas, not investigate labour, use cheaper materials and not investigate my supply chain, I would have a much more profitable business, with much larger margins. However, as someone who knows that there is no planet B, I know that’s not an option.
Start slow – no pun intended. Similar to when you transition to vegan, you might choose to focus on one food group at a time. I think the same can be said for ethical fashion, it can feel overwhelming and economically impossible to change out your wardrobe in an instant. Focus on one brand who has sustainable and ethical roots, and purchase one item.
Buy pre-worn. Local consignment: Poshmark, Thread Up, The Real Real, Ebay, Etsy.
Flash sale sites can find you wonders.
Shop out of season items with ethical brands.
Pay attention to what is already in your closet (see the “re-love” advice above!).
Cut out a coffee or meal out with friends, and save it towards a new ethical purchase.
Email your favorite smaller ethical brands, see when sales are coming up, see what options they can give you.
Ask fast fashion brands to be better and write and call the government. I am not kidding, get involved! Call your senators or local officials, ask for safer labour laws for factory workers. If the loopholes that exist now were closed up, ethical purchases would be closer to the norm. The more voices, the more change.
Lastly, if you can’t purchase, keep doing research to make big-picture connections to how the global supply chain works. That’s helpful when understanding the larger picture about what brands you purchase. Not all fast fashion brands are the same, some carry a much worse footprint than others.
Some great resources:
Sica Schmitz, Fashion Editor at Vilda and Founder of Bead and Reel: “we’re addicted to shopping”
Ethical fashion can be more expensive to buy (for instance, paying a living wage will always cost more than not paying a living wage), but there are a few things to keep in mind when you consider the cost of something. First, cost-per-wear: sustainable fashion will usually offer significantly higher cost-per-wear, saving you money (and time!) in the long run when you don’t have to constantly replace things that weren’t made to last.
Second: we’re addicted to shopping. Most of us don’t actually need new things (and likely have too much already!). I’ve really found that by simply avoiding impulse shopping or not buying things I don’t really need, it’s very easy to save up for something I will love. I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in almost a year, since I don’t actually need any, and instead of buying several cheap ones every few months, I can use that savings towards a nice pair when the time is right.
And lastly, what are your priorities? If human rights or animal rights or environmental rights or supporting small businesses (or all of them!) are more important to you than dining out or traveling or a driving a fancy car, prioritize them as such. It doesn’t have to be an either/or – you can still travel sometimes or buy a nice dress sometimes, but maybe not always both, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
My best tips for shopping sustainable fashion on a budget:
1) Shop the sale section
2) Sign up for your favorite brands’ newsletters, they may include exclusive discounts or sales (Bead & Reel’s does!)
3) Shop second hand – it’s never been easier to shop second hand with apps, websites, and local shops (Bead & Reel even has an ethical second hand shop of vegan and sustainable styles!)
4) Shop your closet – most people only wear 20% of their closet regularly, so shop the other 80% for that new fresh feeling
5) Host a clothing swap with your friends – this is basically free (except for maybe a bottle of wine!)
Header and second photos by Brooke Cagle via Unsplash. Other photos belong to Sica Schmitz and Djuna Da Silva.