A complete guide to buying ethical clothes on a budget

If you’re keen to fill your closet with inexpensive clothes you can feel good about, this list is a good place to start. Companies like Everlane, Allbirds, Rent the Runway, and American Giant are leading the way, but so are some lesser known brands like MATE, Nisolo, and Blu & Blue.

A complete guide to buying ethical clothes on a budget
[Source Photos: hifashion/Shutterstock, AnikaSalsera/iStock]

The world is addicted to cheap, crappy clothes. Thanks to low-wage manufacturing in poor countries and the rise of fast fashion, clothes have morphed from being valuable possessions to disposable items that we chuck out at the end of the season. And, as I recently described in a recent essay, this never-ending cycle of consumption is killing people and the planet.


Related: Stop buying crap, and companies will stop making crap

Brands across the fashion industry learned how to make and sell products at rock bottom prices. The cost of apparel has been spiraling downward for decades now. Fast-fashion labels like H&M and Zara set new lows for the industry with their model of selling inexpensive, on-trend items that consumers would only wear a few times before tossing out. And retailers like Walmart and Target have had to play into this model to keep up with customers’ expectations. But when you consider the terrible environmental and human impact of manufacturing such cheap clothes, it’s clear that the price tag only tells one small part of story.

The main way to reduce the cost of manufacturing is to use cheap labor, which often means relying on factories in developing countries, where working conditions are often less regulated. Seventy million people around the world work in clothing manufacturing, the majority of whom are women. When these workers are overseas, it can be very hard for brands to track whether they are paid a living wage, given reasonable hours or production targets, and allowed to work in a safe environment. Sometimes, brands themselves don’t realize they were using child labor or even indentured labor to make products, because their factories are so far removed from the brand headquarters.


[Source Photo: AnikaSalsera/iStock]
It’s the low cost of production that also leads to some of the most egregious pollution problems as well. By some estimates, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, after the petroleum sector. Fashion brands have relied on increasingly less expensive material from low-quality polyester to cheap cotton. Of course, since the clothes are designed to be obsolete after a few wears, it doesn’t matter if they will fall apart quickly. There are many other pollution problems, like coloring fabrics using toxic dyes, or tanning leather using toxic chemicals. But perhaps the most problematic part of all is that, as consumers, we’re cycling through more clothes than we need, partly because they’re designed to fall apart quickly, and partly because they’re so cheap, it’s worth making room in our closets for new items.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve written extensively about how our clothes are damaging the earth and harming human beings in other countries, and I’ve been finding brands that are fighting back against the status quo to create clothes in a more responsible way. I’ve also received many emails from readers who are keen to change their shopping habits, but believe that buying from ethical brands is out of their price range. I can see where they are coming from. Shopping ethically has often been perceived as a luxury, because the price points of ethical brands are on par with those of upmarket designers. It’s wrapped up in a particular urban, millennial lifestyle that is synonymous with buying $90 Goop vitamins, eating at hip farm-to-table restaurants, and buying exclusively organic produce at farmers’ markets.

[Source Photo: nurdanst/iStock]

There’s some truth to this. It does cost more to manufacture clothing ethically. Responsible manufacturing involves paying workers more, using higher-quality materials, and making sure the factory pollutes as little as possible. And in some ways, there’s no getting around it. Choosing to shop ethically will mean nixing your dependance on cheap, throwaway clothes. Instead, you will have to train yourself to buy fewer but longer-lasting products.


But the good news is that there are more and more ethical brands entering the market, creating entirely traceable supply chains, so you can learn about who made your clothes, whether they were paid a living wage, and if their working conditions were safe. This influx of new brands are using higher-quality, sustainable materials to lower the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. And contrary to the fast-fashion ethos, many of these responsible brands are creating classic clothes and encouraging customers to wear them season after season.

Until now, many ethical brands have been small, niche businesses, which meant that they didn’t have access to the efficiencies that come with producing at scale. But things are beginning to change. These brands are growing and building larger consumer bases, which will allow them to start reducing the cost of manufacturing.

Take MATE, a label founded by Kayti O’Connell Carr. Carr was tired of hearing about fashion’s devastating impact. So she launched a T-shirt brand with a vintage aesthetic that’s been picked up by retailers such as Urban Outfitters. Carr makes all her products in the L.A. Garment District where she can keep an eye on workers, to make sure they are treated well. And she only uses certified organic cotton that is durable enough to wear for years. As a small, five-year-old startup, Carr’s T-shirts are at a high price point, starting at $68. But she hopes to bring prices down over time, as her orders go up and she can take advantage of economies of scale. “I think my clothes are priced fairly given how much we spend on raw materials and labor,” she says. “It’s expensive to make clothes sustainably. But over time, as the brand grows, I want to find ways to bring the prices down, to be even more accessible.”


Buying from brands that don’t pollute the earth or contribute to human suffering should not be a luxury. And until more consumers feel they can afford to buy clothes from values-driven socially conscious brands, it is hard to fundamentally change the problems in the fashion industry. To help you in your own ethical shopping adventures, I’ve compiled a list of brands that will allow you to shop responsibly, while still keeping an eye on your budget. This is by no means a comprehensive list–there are many other great brands out there–but these are brands whose products I’ve researched and can vouch for.

[Source Photo: Everlane]

Buy Classic, Versatile, Durable Clothes

American Giant, a San Francisco-based startup, wants to make indestructible clothes. The company’s founder, Bayard Winthrop, wanted to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., partly to ensure that workers would be properly treated, but also because he wanted to make high-quality clothes that America was once known for when brands like Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom still manufactured products in the country. It’s best known for its very first product, a $108 sweatshirt that has been dubbed the best hoodie in the world. But it’s expanded into other products like pants, dresses, shorts, and bags. While none of the products are as cheap as fast fashion, they are meant to provide good value given how durable they are. T-shirts, for instance, start at $28, which is affordable, given that you could wear it for the next decade.

If you’re looking for slightly more formal clothes, Everlane might be a good pick. It’s another San Francisco-based startup that focuses on finding the best-quality materials in the world and using them to create affordable products. The brand’s cotton T-shirts start at $14 and its jeans start at $68. If you’re looking for higher-end materials, like silk and cashmere, Everlane also sells these at a fraction of the cost of other designer labels. But the goal here isn’t just to provide good value: These clothes are designed to be classic and to last a long time. And on top of all of this, Everlane is known for its incredibly ethical and sustainable supply chain. Its factories, which are all over the world, have been carefully selected based on how workers are treated as well as how eco-friendly they are.

[Source Photo: Known Supply]

Buy From Brands That Connect You To The Maker

It’s not always bad to buy products made in developing countries. Some brands have gone into poor communities around the world and built factory jobs to create employment opportunities. Take Known Supply, for instance. The brand creates soft cotton T-shirts, dresses, and trousers–that start at $28–in Peru, Uganda, and India. Workers are paid a living wage, and the person who made the product signs their name on a tag, to create a real connection between the maker of the product and the buyer.

Another tip: Seek out brands that can verify they treat their workers well. Take shoes and accessories brand Nisolo, which employs 500 people in Peru, Mexico, and Kenya. The company’s founders spend a lot of time in these factories, where they know workers by name. Not only do these artisans get paid significantly more than the national average, but Nisolo also provides important benefits, like healthcare, financial planning training, and English classes. And importantly, the company ensures that products are well-made, durable, and affordable. Leather sandals cost as little as $118 and canvas totes start at $78.

[Source Photo: Aday]

Buy Clothes Made From Recycled Materials

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of innovation around polyester, a fabric widely used in moisture-wicking clothes. If you’re in the market for a swimsuit or workout clothes, I would suggest looking at sustainable brands that use polyester made from recycled bottles pulled out of the ocean, rather than virgin polyester made from petroleum. Summersalt for instance, creates cute and high-performing swimsuits that cost $95 a pop, all made from recycled fishnets and carpets. (Even its mail packaging is made from recycled plastic.) Aday creates athleisure clothes that can be worn at the gym and in the office using sustainably sourced polyester. Its Waste Nothing Jacket, which costs $145, uses 41 recycled bottles. Rumi X makes yoga outfits made from recycled materials of all kinds, including plastic bottles, coffee grounds, and crab shells. Its colorful leggings, which cost $92, save 16 bottles from landfills.


Of course, when it comes to sustainability, it’s never a simple story. The problem with polyester is that every time you wash it, tiny pieces of it–called microplastic–end up getting washed away and polluting the ocean. We are also consuming these micro plastics through the food we eat, and scientists still do not fully understand the impact of these materials on our bodies. (In fact, every meal you eat may have up to 100 piece of plastic in it.)

The answer isn’t necessarily to stop buying synthetic clothes; there are also problems with how many organic fabrics are sourced. Cotton, for instance, is a heavily water-intensive plant, and in many countries toxic pesticides are used in the growing process. All you can do is be aware of the impact of the materials you are using, and try to make the best decisions you can.

[Photo: Allbirds]

Buy Shoes Made From Sustainable Brands

When thinking about sustainable fashion, it’s easy to forget shoes. Yet, as consumers, we’re equally prone to overfilling our shoe closets. And the leather, rubber, foam, and plastic that go into our shoes is far from sustainable, and there isn’t a good way to recycle any of it when we’re done with the shoes. But the good news is that there are some innovative brands on the market now creating sustainable shoes using the most cutting-edge methods. At the moment, these shoe brands all focus on flats and sneakers.


Allbirds is a good place to start if you’re looking for a comfortable, everyday sneaker or loafer. The brand is a certified B Corporation that uses sustainable materials in every part of the shoe. It first launched with a wool sneaker that took off with the Silicon Valley crowd but has gained fans all over the country, selling a million shoes in two years. It has also invented a summertime sneaker made of eucalyptus tree fibers. Every sneaker within the collection costs $95.

If you’re into more feminine shoes, Rothy’s is a good pick for you. The brand makes flat shoes out of recycled bottles, and they come in several styles, from a pointy toe to a loafer to a ballerina flat. Women adore the brand because the shoes are comfortable, they come in a wide range of stylish designs, and they are machine washable. The shoes cost between $125 and $165.

[Source Photo: Monica + Andy]

Don’t Forget Your Kid’s Clothes

Since kids grow out of their clothes so quickly–and also get them dirty–many parents tend to think of kids’ clothes as even more disposable than their own. And since parents don’t want to pay too much for their children’s clothing, brands often make these clothes out of the cheapest possible materials, using the lowest-wage factories possible. Children’s Place, for instance, manufactured clothes out of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that was so poorly constructed that it collapsed in 2011, killing thousands and injuring thousands more.


There are a few small sustainable brands out there. Blu & Blue, for instance, creates kids’ denim clothes made in an Indian factory that is incredibly eco-friendly, using a fraction of the water that other denim brands use and that ensures that none of the indigo used in the manufacturing process pollutes the water. And unlike other kids’ brands, Blu & Blue deliberately tries to create durable pieces that will withstand messes and that you can pass on to another child after yours has grown out of it. The pieces can be purchased in boutiques as well as Amazon, where leggings cost $29.95 and rompers cost $35.95.

Monica + Andy is known for creating cute clothes, the majority of which are made with organic cotton certified by GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard). This means that clothes are evaluated throughout the manufacturing process and do not use any pesticides, bleach, or heavy metals. And importantly, the factories must provide safe living conditions and fair wages for employees. Onesies start at $22, shirts cost $18, and dresses for older children cost $38.

[Source Photo: AnikaSalsera/iStock]

Consider Buying Secondhand

Until recently, it took some skill to be fashionable while shopping for secondhand products. You’d have to take the time to sift through piles of clothes at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, or perhaps a consignment shop like Buffalo Exchange, then figure out how to put together an eclectic, bohemian, or vintage look. But not only is buying secondhand good value for money, it is great for the environment because it ensures that products circulate in the economy longer and stay out of landfills. This helps justify all the labor, raw materials, and energy that went into the manufacturing process.


The good news is that we now live in the golden age of secondhand shopping. Online retailers like Thred Up and Poshmark allow you to search for brands and products you like and buy them for a fraction of what you would pay for new items. If you’re looking for kids’ clothing, Kidizen offers a great selection of secondhand products for babies to teens. These stores also ensure that the items on their site are in good condition. If you love designer products, sites like the Rebag, The Real Real, and Tradesy sell high-end bags and shoes that have been inspected for authenticity. In fact, luxury products are among some of the best items to buy secondhand because they tend to be well made and stay in good shape through several users.

In most cases, the products you get from these sites will be in excellent condition. But if they arrive at your door with that infamous thrift store smell, it’s relatively easy to get rid of it. One cleaning expert recommends washing them in Dr. Bronner’s, and then it’s as good as new.

[Source Photo: PhotoMelon/iStock]

Try Renting, Rather than Buying

A new trend in the fashion industry is clothing rental. Companies like Rent the Runway and Caastle are helping brands transform their stores into rental services. The idea is that you don’t need to buy fast-fashion items that are in vogue, wear them a few times, then toss them out. You can rent these items, wear them a few times, then send them back where they will be mailed out to another fashionista. You wouldn’t need to buy those millennial pink pedal pushers that you’d only wear three times; you could rent them. Brands like Gwynnie Bee, Ann Taylor, and Rent the Runway have all pioneered this approach.


On a large scale, if this model takes off, it will mean that the fashion industry will produce fewer goods, but consumers will still get to enjoy all the fun on-trend items they love. But there are some downsides to this approach, too. Mailing clothes back and forth isn’t great for the environment. And these brands need to launder the clothes every time they come back, and even the most eco-friendly of dry-cleaning methods still has some environmental impact.

The most innovative and eco-friendly brand I have discovered within the rental economy is For Days. The brand rents organic cotton T-shirts that are made in the most sustainable method possible for prices as low as $12 a month for three shirts of different styles and colors. After you’re done wearing your shirt, you can send it back, where For Days will recycle it into brand-new T-shirts, creating an entirely closed loop system. Eventually, For Days will expand into other products, opening up some intriguing possibilities about how we might dress more sustainably in the future. As an added bonus, customers are obsessed with the T-shirts themselves, claiming they are incredibly soft and comfortable to wear. And you never need to worry about staining your white shirts because you can send them back to be recycled and receive a new one in the mail.

As you can see from this list, there are many brands that are trying to make a difference in the fashion industry but also working hard to keep prices affordable. If you’re keen to change your shopping habits and fill your closet with clothes that you can feel good about, this list is a good place to start. But it’s also a good idea to use this as a starting point to explore the world of ethical fashion and learn how to figure out if a brand is thinking about workers and the earth in its manufacturing practices.


About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts


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