Ethical Shopping on a Budget


Whenever I tell people I’ve sworn off fast fashion brands and any clothes produced in a sweatshop, the first thing they do is look at me like I’m crazy. The next thing they do is tell me they could never make the switch to ethical fashion because they can’t afford it. Or that they just love Topshop jeans or Nike sneakers too much to give them up. And then, they don’t believe me when I say that yes, they can afford to shop ethically and that they can find fashionable clothing without buying into the inhumane practices of big fashion corporations.

It’s no secret that shopping ethical brands is quite a bit more expensive than shopping fast fashion brands. Trust me, as someone who works only part time and has a tiny income each month, I know that for most people it just isn’t feasible to spend $200 on a dress. The good thing, though, is that there are TONS of ways to shop ethically that don’t break the bank and don’t compromise on style.

So without further ado, here is Part 1 of some of my tips for shopping fashionable, ethical clothing on a student budget.

  1. Shop less. This is one of the most important principles of shopping ethically and sustainably. By shopping less, you not only reduce your textile waste but also ensure that the pieces you do buy are pieces that you genuinely love and will wear again and again. In 1930, the average American woman owned about 9 outfits, but today, the average American woman owns about 30 outfits – more than 3 times as many. This statistic definitely demonstrates the rise of fast fashion in the past several decades, and this rise in fast fashion has been paralleled by an increase in textile waste. Each year, Americans send almost 11 million tons of clothing to landfills. So next time you have a wedding/party/event to attend and you need a new outfit, just think, “Do I really need this? Do I already have something that will work?” If you do decide to buy something new, there are so many really wonderful ethical clothing companies you can check out (more on that later). The clothes will be more expensive, but the idea is to fill your wardrobe with investment pieces that will last you a while. Before buying anything new, ask yourself, “Is this outfit something I will wear again and again and again?” If not, don’t buy it. The idea behind ethical fashion is to reevaluate what you consider to be a need and make conscious, informed decisions about how you satisfy that need.
  2. Buy secondhand. When it comes to buying secondhand, you have several options: thrift stores, vintage shops, and apps like Poshmark or Etsy. Thrift stores are good, because they are super cheap, and personally, I’ve found them to be really good for midi-skirts, flannel, funky men’s button down shirts, and elastic-waist jeans. Vintage shops are my favorite of this category, because they’re really suited to my personal style. They’re a little more selective about what they stock, so the clothing is usually more fashionable. The downside is that they’re also a little more expensive, but they’re normally no more expensive than a store like Zara or Topshop. Finally, the internet. Apps like Poshmark allow you to sell your old clothes and earn credits to buy clothes from other sellers. Similarly, there are tons of shops on Etsy that sell vintage clothing. Each of these options requires some patience and vision, but in my experience, it pays off. All of the clothing I’ve gotten secondhand is both fashionable, unique, and complements my personal style. I never have to worry about showing up to the party in the same dress as someone else, and I get compliments all the time on the uniqueness of my wardrobe. The secret to successful thrift shopping is to know your personal style and go in without expectations.
  3. DIY/Upcycle. When you shop secondhand, don’t pay too much attention to size or department, because much of what you find can be easily tailored to fit you, or you can do it yourself. One of my favorite things to do in the summers is find really awful jeans from the thrift store and make my own high-waisted cutoffs. It’s so easy and fun. Even if you’re not super crafty or good with a sewing machine (fabric glue is your friend), you can have simple alterations done by a tailor for fairly little money. Just use your creativity. I’m really excited to try this poncho!

For this outfit, I found my shirt at one of my favorite vintage shops in Atlanta called The Clothing Warehouse, and I made my shorts from a pair of elastic-waist denim capris I snagged for $2 at the thrift store. I got my sunglasses last summer from a secondhand shop in England.


When it comes to fast fashion and the exploitation of garment workers across the globe, I think it’s important to remember that what we give our money to is what we believe in, outright support, and allow to continue existing. However, there are so many people who are ignorant of what it takes for fast fashion companies to provide us with $10 shirts or $15 jeans. That’s why it’s so so important to me to be a conscious consumer and encourage others to do the same. We can only make a change if people care, and people can’t care if they don’t know.

I hope you found this post helpful. Stay tuned for Part 2 and leave a comment below telling me your best tips for ethical shopping on a budget.

– Lauren

Check out:

The True Cost Documentary

The Shirt on Your Back Interactive Documentary 

Where Does Discarded Clothing Go?

Fashion Revolution

My Blog Post on Fast Fashion

*Photos by JFG Photography