The Secret to Affording Ethical Fashion
So, you've decided to take the leap.
Your head is spinning with newfound knowledge of the fashion industry, the enormous weight of your responsibility as a consumer. You've seen the images of poverty-stricken women sewing in noxious factories, you've gaped at the statistics. You will have no part in this.
But there is something holding you back. It's always the invisible things, isn't it? Money. How on earth to afford fashion that isn't killing the earth or its people.
A not-so-distant memory of exiting the mall with a $30 sweater flashes across your mind as you scan an ethical online store, the price tags well over $100. On the one hand, you're relieved to find that ethical fashion isn't limited to granola style, flowy skirts and strappy sandals. It's modern and elegant and even trendy. But on the other hand, how. To. Afford. It.
Of course, my first answer to "How can I shop ethically on a budget" is always: buy mostly second-hand. Go thrifting, scour consignment stores, find online shops selling pre-loved clothing, go to friends' clothing swaps. Not only is it far more affordable than buying new, it's actually incomparably more earth-friendly than buying a new garment, no matter how sustainable the brand claims to be.
However, second-hand shopping is a tale for another time. We want to know how to afford new ethical garments now and then, and we want to support brands that are paying their employees living wages and beyond, so that's what I'm addressing here. But a warning: my answers might not be entirely what you were hoping to read.
It's hardly fair, how inaccessible fair trade clothing actually is. Or at least, how outrageous the prices seem when you hold them up to the prices of the brands that cut corners. We've been indoctrinated by the likes of Zara and H&M to believe that clothing should be so cheap, we don't have to give impulse purchases a second thought. They've made out the employees sewing the garments to be small, invisible, even nonexistant – so all we see is the trendy jacket, and the easily digestible dollar amount attached to it. No matter how many harrowing statistics we read, those cheaper prices will always be there, reminding us that expensive ethical clothing isn't our only option.
But deep down, you and I know it's the only option. Humans before clothes.
I wish I could say I had a simple three-step method to getting around the financial barrier to shopping ethically. I'd love to say, 'Do this, and you can afford to buy whatever ethical linen jumpsuit you like.' But the reality is, the prices aren't going anywhere. Even a 10% influencer discount won't make that much of a dent.
But don't give up just yet. The real answer, you see, lies in a mindset shift.
When we say we can't afford ethical fashion, I think what we're really saying is, "I can't afford ethical fashion in the same way I can afford Zara." In other words, we can't afford to buy ethical fashion on a whim, whenever we feel like it.
Before the millennium, ethical clothing was not expensive. All clothing was relatively expensive, because it was sewn by people making a living from their craft. You would need a yearly budget for your family's clothes, and make thoughtful purchases through close attention to quality and style, because they had to be worth your money. As a result, many people could fit their entire wardrobes into an average sized closet. 'Capsule wardrobes' were not a radical or trendy idea – they were the norm. And if you knew how to sew, you could supplement your family's wardrobe with your own creations. Some people could afford better quality or more fashionable garments than others, of course, but no one thought clothing was a cheap commodity.
All this being said, however, I recognize that trying to buy new ethical clothing today is certainly a lot more challenging than it used to be. And more expensive. Our choices are limited, and many responsible brands are young startups and small businesses, with talented designers sewing the garments one by one themselves. This is going to make the pieces more expensive right off the bat. And most ethical shops are online-based, which means you're probably paying more for shipping as well. The way the fashion industry has evolved makes it very difficult to access clothing that is both competitively priced and truly ethical.
Though that seems unfair, we do need to return to the mindset that clothes are valuable. They should cost enough to make us more conscious of our purchases, they should take budgeting and planning and creativity. If we can embrace that way of thinking, then shopping ethically is not as impossible as it sounds. It's about having a realistic and respectful perspective on clothing – and reminding ourselves that it's a good sign that we can't afford new (responsibly made) clothes whenever we want. If an ethical shoe company started selling loafers for $30 without a good explanation, I would be highly suspicious.
So, the secret to fitting ethical clothing into your budget. In three not-so simple, but reasonable steps.
1. plan it out
I know, I know, those of you who are personally acquainted with me are raising their eyebrows right now. I hate planning with a passion. But as far as my wardrobe goes, I actually do like to keep a running list of items I think my wardrobe lacks. It doesn't have to be fancy – just a note on your phone's note taking app is enough. But it needs to be a thoughtful list, the result of poring over Pinterest boards and style books and Instagram feeds. Cultivate an idea of your unique style, wear what you currently own so you'll be well acquainted with the real gaps in your wardrobe, and write down a list of pieces that you lack and would help complete your wardrobe. This process serves a couple of purposes:
One, it makes affording ethical clothing much less overwhelming. You're not peering into the great swirling vortex of expensive prices and endless choices -- you've narrowed down a list of pieces that you really need/want, and can begin budgeting for them and looking for deals.
Two, it prevents us from buying on a whim, and from buying in excess. We know exactly what we're looking for and will walk out of a shop or close the shop's website if there are no items from our list. And if we stumble across an item on our list that happens to be on sale or highly accessible, we don't need to feel guilty for making the purchase (if our finances can allow for it) because it was purposefully chosen.
And three, we can hunt for certain items second-hand first, and narrow down the list to items we think we'll only be able to find brand new.
2. Save for it
Once you've curated a wish list, decide which pieces are priorities. For example, maybe you can live without a cropped linen t-shirt for a while, but you really need some new work-appropriate bottoms and would like a pair of black cigarette pants. Ok, so put those at the top of your list. As I've said (ad-nauseum, I know), try your best to look for them second hand first. But if you decide you want a new pair, factor them into your budget. See if you can locate a few different makers selling black cigarette pants: compare prices (some brands are much more expensive than others), read reviews, and take shipping and exchange rates into consideration. Make sure they're worth the cost. See if there are any influencers offering a discount for them. If you're into budgeting, factor in ethical clothing and plan accordingly.
3. Practice Patience
I realize that what I've outlined is not an easy process to swallow. I know better than anyone -- I'm the poster child for instant gratification. While my sister's birthday money, Halloween candy, gift cards, and anything else you can think of would be patiently saved for a year, mine would be gone within the week. My husband savours his coffee shop drinks; I'm finished mine in minutes. So believe me when I say I know it's not fun to be told that you need to be patient when it comes to clothing purchases. Here's the issue, though: I tell myself that I can't afford a certain ethical garment just yet, that I need to save up for it... and in the meantime, I'll just buy three or four consignment pieces to tide me over. Umm, that totally makes sense, right? Well, that's Alena logic for you. Turns out, I probably could have bought that ethical piece for the amount of money I spent on a few "affordable" pieces. So bear in mind that if you truly desire a new ethical garment, you're going to have to be conscious of your spending while you save up for it. In order to afford a $230 pair of ethical work pants, it may require some saving – and some waiting. But that's okay, because you've thought carefully about them and know that they will be worth it; they're classic and you'll wear them for years. Besides, life is about more than clothes. Let that knowledge settle into your soul.
Well, I know this isn't a particularly exciting or easy list. And I know it doesn't sound as fun as, "here's a discount code for 50% off at Everlane!!" I wish I could offer that. But the reality is, ethical clothing is priced the way all clothing was meant to be. Responsible brands can't afford to both pay their employees above a living wage while at the same time keeping product prices as low as Old Navy. This is simply where we find ourselves in the fashion industry today.
We need to ask ourselves, what price can be put on human life? How much do I value the women sewing these garments, and their opportunities? Is supporting them worth my money – or is satisfying my immediate fashion whims worth more to me?
Tough questions, but necessary.