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I know that when I started to seriously look into shopping more ethically, one of the initial barriers I experienced simply came down to price (I’m looking at you, Stella McCartney!). But even when I wasn’t looking at high-end designer brands, I was still getting a heck of a lot less for my money than my regular H&M hauls.

When I dug down a bit deeper, I realised that I had been trained my whole life to look for a bargain. And I’m not alone. According to these 2021 stats, a staggering 4 in 5 UK shoppers said they’d be willing to hold off purchasing clothing and footwear until they were discounted or on sale. And, with marketing emails every other week promoting the latest offer, is it really any wonder?

I fully appreciate we’re not all blessed with the disposable income to casually drop £100 on a new jumper (and there can be hefty mark-ups). However, if you’re regularly put off by price tags when shopping, I’m here to tell you something you’re probably struggling with:

It’s totally okay (and makes sense) to spend more on ethical and sustainable clothing.

Read on to discover why the price tag is usually justified, how to shift your mindset in this area, as well as practical shopping tips for your ethical wardrobe – even on a budget!

Ethical and sustainable fashion

The Real Cost of Fast Fashion

Firstly, when we ask the question why is ethical fashion expensive, what we should be doing is turning the question on its head. Why is clothing these days so cheap?

Whether it’s factory collapses in third-world countries killing thousands of garment workers, the heavy pollution of major waterways with toxic chemicals, or the disappearance of animals into items of clothing, it’s safe to say that whilst fast fashion may have a cheap price tag, it comes at a high ethical and environmental cost. All for the sake of cheaply made, poor-quality garments that fall apart after a season (if we even get around to wearing them in the first place).

As with most things, when the problem is out of sight, it’s also out of mind. But we should all be aware of the journey our clothes undertake before they reach us.

If you’d like to understand more about the negative impact of the fast fashion industry, then check out these articles for some sobering further reading:

The true cost of cheaply priced fast fashion

5 Reasons Ethical Fashion Is More Expensive

The good news is that there is a viable alternative. We can all choose to vote with our wallets and make a stand for the things we believe in. Slow fashion is the kinder choice all around when looking beyond ourselves and our immediate desires. So here are 5 good reasons why ethical fashion is necessarily more expensive than its fast fashion counterpart.

1. Ethical labour

The mass production of fast fashion involves outsourcing labour to some of the world’s poorest countries. Whilst this boosts employment, it also means that powerful corporations can negotiate ridiculously low prices. For factories to fulfil these contracts, it often means that:

  • Workers aren’t paid a living wage
  • They have to accept unreasonably long hours
  • Working conditions are unsafe
  • They don’t have basic workplace rights (sick pay, holiday, etc)
  • Child labour is common
  • Workers are trapped in a cycle of poverty

On the flip side, brands that produce ethical garments invest in their supply chain to ensure that workers are paid fairly and treated with respect. If you believe that workplace standards should be a non-negotiable for all, then it goes without saying that this comes at an additional cost.

2. Sustainable materials

Organic cotton

Another important aspect when it comes to ethical clothing is the materials it’s made from.

Pesticide-heavy cotton and oil-derived polyester may be cheap to produce, but they come at a high cost to the environment.

Ethical fashion brands will aim to use cleaner, renewable materials, as well as repurposing those already in existence. This includes fabrics like organic cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, and recycled nylon and polyester. It can even involve more innovative production methods, such as the development of plant-based fruit leathers.

By removing pesticides and fertilisers, as well as toxic and polluting chemicals in the manufacturing process, there is more work that goes into the production of these garments.

To dive into sustainable, animal-friendly fabrics in more depth, check out my article here.

3. Third-party certification

To avoid the dreaded greenwashing, it’s always a good idea to check for third-party certifications. Some good examples to look out for include:

  • B-Corp
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified
  • Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certified
  • PETA-approved Vegan

Investing in third-party certification is a good way for brands to walk the walk, rather than relying on vague marketing terms like ‘eco’ or ‘green’ that have little substance to back them up (I’ve written more on the subject of how to research ethical fashion brands here).

However, remember that none of this comes cheap! There are very strict requirements to ensure materials are compliant, and the certification itself comes at a significant cost, too.

4. Conscious packaging & partnerships

Sustainable practices & partnerships

If an ethical brand is worth their salt, they will have considered every little detail – right down to the sustainable packaging of their products. From plastic-free tapes to animal-friendly glues and non-toxic inks, there are plenty of additional costs that go into the delivery of your order.

Many eco brands will also opt to take part in recycling schemes. This sometimes means offering pre-paid labels to return items at the end of their life, or else partnering with recycling schemes like Re-Fashion or Traid. You will also notice that many ethical brands offset their emissions via tree-planting initiatives (like Ecologi or World Land Trust) and partake in charitable schemes (e.g. 1% for the Planet).

5. Limited production runs

Finally, fast fashion is mass-produced with little regard for the waste it creates. This means that brands can secure large contracts at rock-bottom prices.

Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, reduces wastage by investing in limited runs of products or even made-to-order options. For example, Boody have invested in knitting machine technology which maximises efficiency and results in fewer offcuts. Or take a brand like Rapanui, who are embracing a full circular fashion model with their print-to-order t-shirts.

Diagram summarising the reasons why ethical fashion is more expensive

How To Reprogram Yourself To Stop Looking for a Bargain

It’s worth noting that clothing has never been as cheap or disposable as it is today. As recently as a few decades ago, buying new clothes more than a few times a year was relatively unheard of. This was largely because the materials, processes and labour involved made it too expensive to do so. It’s only in the last twenty years or so that there has been an explosion in fast fashion and online ultra-fast fashion brands (think SHEIN, Boohoo, etc).

With consumer demand at an all-time high and cheap labour readily available, big brands know that they can cut corners and produce clothing at a pace and price never seen before. Email marketers have also primed us for a deal, manipulating us with time-sensitive messages so that we feel trapped in a neverending cycle of consumerism.

When you’re looking at price tags on ethical clothing, it’s helpful to consciously remind yourself of the narrative behind them. Whether it’s workers being paid fairly, conscious production methods, or cruelty-free fabrics, you can feel good about a purchase that is actively contributing to the kind of world you want to live in. It should also be a big red flag whenever a price seems too good to be true (someone, somewhere, has likely suffered for it).

Something I’ve found helpful when shifting my own perspective is to consider the overall ‘cost per wear’ rather than the upfront cost. This way, you get a better understanding of the investment you’re making. By purchasing something of higher quality that will last for years to come and get regular wear, it’s going to be a much more worthwhile investment in the long run than a cheap piece that fits poorly and doesn’t last beyond a season – even if it does initially appear more expensive.

7 Tips to Shop Ethical Clothing on a Budget

Once you’ve come to peace with the fact that ethical fashion will necessarily have a higher price tag, don’t despair! I’ve pulled together my best tips to help you shop ethical clothing on a budget – leaving any FOMO at the door.

1. Shop your own wardrobe

When your wardrobe is so overwhelmed with stuff, it can quite literally be difficult to remember what you do and don’t own. I know that I’ve been guilty on more than one occasion of finding stuff I’d totally forgotten about languishing in long-lost corners of my wardrobe!

If it’s true that we only wear 10% of our wardrobe on a daily basis, there’s obviously a lot of stuff in there that we liked when we bought it but are now missing out on.

Rather than shopping for yet more stuff that you quickly tire of after its initial outing, I encourage you to take on the role of your own personal stylist. This means stepping away from the credit card and making a concerted effort to shop your own wardrobe.

When we feel the compulsion to buy new things, what we’re really craving is novelty. But the truth is that you can easily create fresh new looks with the sheer amount of stuff you already own. Perhaps you could pair that cute top with those wide-leg trousers? Set yourself a challenge to create 20 new outfits you’d never thought of before.

2. Repair & upcycle

Upcycling jeans into denim shorts

Another way to save your pennies and get creative with your current wardrobe is to mend and repurpose the pieces you already own. Whether a button has been missing on your favourite coat for half a year so hasn’t seen the light of day (guilty) or you’ve got some jeans that would make even cuter hotpants, there are loads of ways you can get crafty (even if you were never one for Textiles in school!).

This also helps you to establish more of a relationship with your clothes, encouraging you to move away from a throwaway, disposable culture.

3. Make the most of secondhand & vintage stores

When you do want to shop for new things, try the more ethical and affordable option – thrift and vintage stores. This repurposes clothing that is already in existence rather than using virgin materials and extensive resources to bring new garments into the world.

Once you get the bug, you’ll also find that it’s a much more creative process than conventional high-street shopping. There is something way more exciting about discovering one-off pieces and curating your own sense of individual style outside of seasonal trends.

Try Vinted or Re-Fashion if you’re shopping online – you can even sell your old clothes to make some money in the process, too!

4. Create a wish list & save up

Waiting patiently

Fast fashion used to be my nemesis. But one thing I’ve found that helps to slow me down and resist impulse buying is keeping a wish list. If something is still on my radar in a month’s time, then I’ve got a better idea that it’s something I truly want or need – as opposed to being swayed by manipulative adverts or marketing in the moment.

Importantly, this process of patience also gives me time to save up for things. Usually, ethical fashion isn’t so expensive we can’t afford it. It’s simply that we’re used to getting instant gratification by regularly shopping for lots of inexpensive pieces. So by getting more disciplined with your shopping habits and taking the time to save for things you really want, you might be surprised how quickly you’re able to tick off your wish list!

5. Buy less & better quality

For anyone sat there saying, ‘But I really can’t afford that upfront cost!’ just remember this shocking stat:

The average consumer spends £526.50 on clothing every year… but only wears 10% of their wardrobe on a day-to-day basis and keeps 60% of it for less than a year.

Project Cece

I know from my own experience of online shopping that I probably used to spend the same amount of money on fast fashion (if not more) – I simply ended up with way, way more than I realistically needed. Whilst I’m not saying ethical fashion will be affordable to everyone, check how much money you’re frittering away on fast fashion per month – you might be surprised!

When you spend the same amount of money but purchase fewer higher-quality and well-fitting pieces, the cost per wear is going to work itself out over the long run – and maybe even end up saving you money overall. For instance, I used to spend a fortune replacing quickly misshapen, see-through black leggings until I invested in a couple of quality pairs that have lasted me much longer.

6. Curate a minimalist capsule wardrobe

A neutral capsule wardrobe

Another way to shop more ethically on a budget is to build a minimalist capsule wardrobe.

This means that you create a versatile and endlessly mix-and-matchable selection of clothes that are much greater than the sum of their parts. If you try to stick to a certain number of items, you can definitely afford to invest more in a smaller number of garments. It also has the added benefit of reducing the decision fatigue you probably experience when getting ready in the morning!

To begin the process of building your own capsule wardrobe, take a look at my post over here. You can also download my definitive 35-piece capsule wardrobe checklist, in which I’ve linked the ethical and sustainable brands you can purchase from.

7. Support ethical & affordable fashion brands

Last but not least, there are always going to be times when we need to replace things in our wardrobes – albeit at a hopefully much slower and considered pace. Whilst shopping in secondhand stores is an excellent choice, I also think it’s important where possible to show your support for ethical, sustainable and vegan brands. This helps to drive consumer demand for new types of products.

If you’re looking for tried and trusted places to shop, I’ve done all the research for you:

Fashion that looks good and does good

Long-Term Gain vs Short Term Pain: It’s Okay To Spend More on Ethical Clothing

In a nutshell: Yes, ethical clothing does – and most importantly should – cost more. The real problem is that fast fashion is so cheap.

We should be digging down and refusing to purchase things that we know, on a level, couldn’t possibly have been made ethically for the amount of money we’re willing to spend. This involves a fundamental rewiring of the limiting belief that we must always grab the best possible bargain.

Instead, when purchasing ethical clothing, remember to reassure yourself that:

  • Everyone in the supply chain was afforded basic human rights and treated with respect
  • The environmental impact was greatly reduced
  • You weren’t contributing to the suffering or slaughter of animals
  • The journey behind your clothing was kind

I hope this post has given you some ideas for how to shop more ethically on a budget, as well as reassuring you that when you do choose to spend more – it’s fine! Oh, and don’t forget that there are loads of wholesome things you can do instead of shopping. 💚

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