Ethical fashion on a budget

I had a sociology professor my freshman year in college that used to tell me “every dollar is a vote”. This has always stuck with me. Whether I’m spending my dollars at the grocery store, shopping for my home, or for clothing and accessories, I try to remember that every dollar I’m spending is a vote. A vote for whatever company is making that product, a vote for however they manage to bring that product to the market. I don’t always remember, but I try.

I’ve known for some time, as most of us have, that there are some very unethical practices in the fashion industry that have become the norm. We know that there are sweat shops, we know that over 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh died when their factory collapsed because the factory owner would not invest in the safety of it’s workers. We know that most of the clothes purchased in the US today are, for the most part, disposable (which means they are filling up our landfills). We know these things, but we are so far removed from the day to day reality of these problems, that it’s possible for us to think these problems don’t really exist, or that maybe they aren’t as bad as we heard. My former therapist used to call this “Magical Thinking”, it’s something I can be pretty good at.

It was my 12 year old son that turned my attention again to this issue. He loves watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and he shared with me an episode where John Oliver calls out the large corporations that are participating in the exploitation of garment workers all over the world. Gap Corporation, which includes Old Navy and Banana Republic, H & M, and Wal-Mart were the usual suspects. I have several items of clothing in my closet that I have purchased at Old Navy, mostly since I moved to Idaho. I’m not proud of it, but I’m also not perfect. After listening to John Oliver though, I decided I needed to try harder. So the aforementioned companies went on my blacklist (although Wal-Mart was already on it) and I started digging into the fashion industry a little more. The results were disheartening. 

While I expected to find mostly information about supply chains and garment workers, I was somewhat surprised to find out that the fashion industry has become one of the largest sources of pollution on our planet. Some are saying it’s second only to the oil industry. It’s a massive problem and it seems as though it will get worse before it gets better. During my research, I found the documentary True Cost which digs deep into the true cost of the environmental effects and the human costs of our fast fashion culture. It was one of those movies that changed my outlook on my lifestyle in a very profound way. My magical thinking was blown into a million particles of magical dust that revealed a truth I simply could not deny.

So I’ve recommitted to voting with my dollars. I need to rethink how I shop and where I shop, but how do I do it on a tiny budget? And the answer for me most of the time, is to buy vintage or second hand. It takes a little more time, it takes patience, and sometimes it means buying a leather bomber jacket in the heat of the summer, or a linen dress in the dead of winter, but these things seem totally worth it to me and I’m willing to take the time and have the patience to do it. And while 80% of my wardrobe these days comes from the local thrift stores, it’s not always possible for me to find what I’m looking for or to be able to wait until it finally appears. Sometimes I have to buy new things. And so how do I stop myself from shopping at Old Navy? Because I know they have the item I want at a price I can afford. It’s also, like the ONLY clothing store in Moscow, ID that’s not second hand. But I also know that they have little regard for the human beings risking their lives, slaving away in unsafe factories in order to bring me a sweater for ten dollars.

When I need something that I can’t buy second hand, two more challenges arise when trying to shop ethically and stay on budget. One is that it’s hard to know what products and companies are being ethical and socially responsible, and two, the products brought to the market in an ethical fashion tend to be more expensive.

To help in the effort of finding ethical companies and products that align with my values, I started using an app called buycott. With the app, I can join specific “campaigns” for causes I’m concerned about. Then I can use the barcode scanner to scan products and see whether or not any of my campaigns are aligned with, or in conflict with, the product or the company making the product. I can also search brands and companies to see whether or not they generally align with my values. I found this app works a lot better in the grocery store than in areas of fashion, but it does have some information about clothing companies. The website is another good source for finding ethical companies to shop with.

In the short term, it does seem more expensive to shop ethical brands and companies than, say, Gap or Old Navy, but I have to remember that I’m comparing apples to oranges. The cost of the sweater at Old Navy is really much higher than the ten dollar price tag suggests. In the long term, it’s actually less expensive to buy fewer, quality pieces from ethical companies than it is to buy a new wardrobe every season at Old Navy. And that’s even without considering all of the hidden costs.

I’ve researched quite a few fashion brands and companies that are committed to ethical practices, here are several I feel have stylish products that are relatively affordable:

Bridge and Burn
People Tree
Fair Indigo
Alternative Apparel
Krochet Kids

For those with a larger budget:

Eileen Fisher

For times I’m really wanting vintage but can’t find it locally, I turn to Etsy. Here are a few Etsy shops I love for affordable vintage fashion:

Blossom Vintage
Windy Peak Vintage
Dear Golden

It’s not always easy or convenient to shop ethically, especially if you live in a small town in Northern Idaho, but it is possible. With the popularity of the capsule wardrobe and the growing movement of simpler living, my bet is that it will get easier and easier. Especially as more and more conscientious consumers start voting their values with their dollars.