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How to Shop For Sustainable Fashion on A Budget in 2023

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Brooke Bowlin


Updated December 13, 2022

Looking for ways to shop for sustainable fashion on a budget? Do you want affordable ways to create a slow fashion wardrobe? Have no fear– while sustainable fashion may appear to be a big investment, we’ve compiled plenty of ways to create a more ethical wardrobe without breaking the bank.

p.s. Sustainable fashion on a budget is a lot easier than you would think!

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Sustainable fashion isn’t all about shopping from ethical brands that charge higher prices compared to the fast fashion industry. Creating a greener closet is more comprehensive than *just* the sustainable clothing brands we shop from. It also includes finding creative ways to source and make the most of our clothes, like shopping secondhand and taking care of our clothes so they last longer and can be passed down from person to person (or generation to generation – like in the old days!).

p.s. If looking for a quick list of affordable sustainable brands, check out this post here.

This is guide will teach you how to shop for sustainable fashion on a budget.

Sustainable brands may be more expensive than we are used to paying, especially given the culture of fast fashion that we’ve grown accustomed to. The reality is that our clothes should be worth more than fast fashion prices so that the workers and resources used to create them are respected and paid fairly.

However, the higher cost can still be a barrier for some to participate in shopping sustainable clothing brands. The good news is there are ways to engage in sustainable living that are low cost and can even save you money!

Why is sustainable fashion *so* expensive?

With the rise of fast fashion in the last couple decades, culturally, we’ve grown used to cheap clothing. However, clothes haven’t always been cheap and those low prices are often a result of exploitation in the fashion industry.

Instead of asking why sustainable fashion is expensive, we should consider why fast fashion is cheap.

Often, it’s a result of cutting corners, making unreasonable demands of garment workers, and using plastics-based fabrics.

Fast fashion engages in what is known as “the race to the bottom.” This is the practice of finding the cheapest ways to produce clothing by seeking out countries and factories that have the least amount of regulation and worker protection in order to push the limits of garment workers to get high quantities of clothing produced quickly at a low cost. Often, this means fast fashion brands target poverty so that the factories will have no choice but to comply with fast fashion’s unreasonable, unhealthy demands because the factories rely on the business.

While we may label fast fashion as “cheap”, it does come at the cost of the livelihoods of garment workers and harmful environmental impact. Sustainable fashion is more expensive because its prices allow for better payment for garment workers and supply chain partners and higher quality materials.

What is the most sustainable way to buy clothes?

There isn’t one right way to be sustainable. It will be different for everyone based on lifestyle, needs, and accessibility. When considering adding new clothes to your closet, I recommend a hierarchy that prioritizes what already exists. The majority of the impact of fashion comes from the production of clothing. Therefore, we want to create habits that reduce our need to buy new so that we can reduce our consumer demand for newly produced clothing. Start with shopping your own closet. Next, seek secondhand sources. Then, buy new, sustainably, when you need to. 

There are so many ways to pursue sustainable fashion. Here are some of our favorite budget-friendly ways to engage in slow fashion:

8 Amazing Ways to Shop Sustainable Fashion on A Budget

1. Start with what you have!

The most sustainable clothing item (and most budget friendly!) will always be the one you already have. Thus, the best thing we can do is wear our existing clothes for longer.

This requires us to take care of our clothes so they last as long as possible. Learning how to properly launder, maintain, and store our clothes can go a long way! Additionally, challenge yourself to try out new outfit combinations that you would not have thought of before.

A yearly or seasonal analysis of your closet is very helpful to ensure you know exactly what you have in there! I personally love to put half of my clothes away each year (for seasonal needs) and then, once it’s time to bring them back out again, it’s like an entirely new closet!

2. Repair & Mend

Instead of throwing out an item when it becomes damaged, repair it! No, you don’t have to be a Martha Stewart type – you can (very affordably) pay a local person to fix it for you.

It’s often cheaper to fix something than it is to buy a replacement. Plus, the environmental benefit far exceeds the time or effort it may take to repair the piece. There are so many resources available to teach yourself basic repair, like these videos on hand sewing, mending holes, or replacing buttons.

If DIY isn’t for you, befriending your local tailor can be a great way to get your clothes fixed while supporting your local economy! Sustainable fashion on a budget can also help support local.

3. Shop Secondhand

When it comes time to add a sustainable fashion piece to your closet, look secondhand first.

Secondhand is a great way to get new-to-you items without the higher price tag of a sustainable fashion brand. There are many ways to shop secondhand from in-person thrift shops to online platforms. Often, you can even find secondhand versions of the sustainable fashion brands and pieces you love (sustainable fashion on a budget usually comes with a lot of patience!). 

Seeking out secondhand sources doesn’t always have to mean thrifting either. Consider participating in sharing economies. The sharing economy is using peer-to-peer methods of sharing, accessing, and providing goods and services. One avenue for this is a Buy Nothing Facebook group that allows you to gift your unused items or be gifted items you need within your local community. Other ways may look like swapping, borrowing, renting, or using exchange platforms.

Online Secondhand Shops We Love for Sustainable Fashion on a Budget:

4. Shop Less to Invest in What You Love

Part of the sustainable living journey is committing to buying less overall. This is not talked about enough – but it is a huge benefit for our finances and overall mental health.

We have to shift our mindset away from consumption patterns. Instead of regularly spending money on cheap clothes, pause your purchases, save, and invest in ethical clothing brands. Only buy pieces that you love, are high quality, and will last you a long time. You’d be surprised how much money you can save just by mitigating impulse purchases and trend-led shopping.

5. Calculate Cost Per Wear

Cost Per Wear (CPW) is a method used to break down the upfront cost of a garment based on the number of times you will wear it. The item price divided by the estimated wears is the cost per wear. For example, if an item costs $100 and you estimate wearing it 50 times, the CPW is $2.

Cost per wear can be used to evaluate whether a purchase is worth the investment. We tend to think sustainable fashion costs more, but looking at the long term costs, that may not be the case. For example, investing in a more expensive sustainable fashion piece can actually end up with a lower CPW due to quality allowing for more wears than a cheaper item.

The Breakdown of Cost Per Wear:

Let’s say you spend $30 on a pair of fast fashion jeans. On average, fast fashion items are only worn around 7 times. $30 divided by 7 wears would mean a $4.29 CPW. Given the short term use of the jeans, you’ll keep replacing them as the fast fashion trends change. For this example, let’s use a 3 year time period. If you’re wearing these jeans once a week, over the 3 years, you’ll replace your jeans 22 times to keep up with the trends and end up spending $668.

If you invest $100 on a pair of jeans from a sustainable clothing brand that are more durable and timeless in style, you can keep wearing those jeans every week for 3 years and only spend $100 with a $.64 CPW.

CPW demonstrates how valuable it is to invest in longevity over trendiness and upfront cost savings.

Ultimately, chasing trends and buying cheap items will result in a higher spend over time due to the need to replace more frequently. Buying the highest quality you can afford is worth your money as long as you are shopping in alignment with your style and values so that you will love and wear your clothes for years to come. Sustainable fashion on a budget must take cost-per-wear into consideration (always!).

6. Mitigate Impulse Shopping

Impulse shopping often leads to regret and clothing purchases that don’t get a lot of wear.

By reducing our impulse shopping, we can save ourselves from purchases that waste our money. Then, we have more cash to spend intentionally on pieces we will really love to wear.

To limit impulse shopping, give yourself time before making a purchase, understand your personal style, and use filtering questions like does it fill a gap in my wardrobe? or is it well-constructed to last? before buying something to ensure you will truly make use of your purchase.

If you feel as if there may be a shopping addiction present, please seek help as soon as possible.

7. Build With Basics

A sustainable wardrobe will be full of versatile, quality pieces that will be in your closet for years to come.

To build a more eco-conscious wardrobe and reduce your cost per wear, shop from sustainable fashion brands that align with your personal style and will fit in well with what you have. This will ensure that you will get a lot of wears out of your pieces. To increase the versatility of your closet, start by adding basic, multi-functional pieces to your closet.

There are many affordable ethical brands that offer great pieces at a great price. Some of our favorites are listed below!

8. Plan and Have Patience!

Sustainable fashion should be slower. If you want to avoid spending full price on an item, plan ahead. A conscious closet should always come with mindful decision making.

Create a list of your needs and gaps in your closet. Then, give yourself time to acquire them.

If you are wanting to shop new from a sustainable brand, wait for a sale. Sign up for their mailing list to be notified of discounts. If shopping secondhand, create search alerts on secondhand sites to track items you’re looking for. Be patient and disconnect from the need for instant gratification.

This was your guide to making sustainable fashion affordable.

Sustainable living is about aligning our actions with our values, unlearning consumption mindsets, and living in a way that lessens our harm and impact. Thus, sustainability will look different for everyone. 

Sustainable fashion on a budget will mean getting creative, making the most of what we have, and being kind and generous with the resources available to us. We cannot buy our way to a sustainable future, but we can shift the ways we consume and interact with fashion in order to create progress towards that sustainable future.

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