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Guide to building an ethical wardrobe on a budget

Swahlee creates a handmade capsule wardrobe of clothing essentials made ethically in India using sustainable production and natural fabrics.

Image credit: @adaypack + @mochiesnyder featuring the Brave dress in black

Originally published 11 April 2019

“Purchasing is always a moral and not simply economic act.” [i]

You’re probably reading this blog or are a fan of Swahlee because you know purchasing is a moral act and you want to make a difference with the purchases you make. At the same time, purchasing is also an economic act and most of us are on some form of a budget. How then do we reconcile the two? We’ve put together 8 steps for building an ethical and sustainable wardrobe on a budget.

1. Start with what you have.

When we first learn that much of the clothing we own was not made ethically, it’s tempting to want to throw everything out and start from scratch with a new wardrobe filled with pieces from ethical brands. But this would be very expensive and wasteful. Already, we have a throw-away culture when it comes to clothing. 10.5 million tons of clothing are thrown away in landfills every year in North America.[ii] Enjoy, wear and re-wear what you have until it wears out. Then slowly over time as items wear out, they can be replaced with ethically and sustainably made garments.

2. Repair what you have.

Alterations and repairs to extend the life of your clothing take time, but so does shopping, and they are much better for the environment and your wallet. We’ve found grandmothers and moms often know the best tricks and methods for treating stains and mending garments.

3. Buy second hand.

There is nothing quite like the delight of a surprise perfect vintage or thrift-store find. Buying second hand, rather than brand new, is a great affordable alternative for buying ethically and sustainably.

More and more consumers, primarily millennials and GenZers, are buying second hand. In the past three years, the clothing resale market has grown 21 times faster than the retail clothing market.[iii]

Some great pieces can be found in local thrift shops. Plato’s Closet can be found throughout the US. Second hand shopping can now be done online through resale sites like thredUp and Poshmark. You can even buy and sell secondhand through social media. For example, @selltradeslowfashion creates a space for selling and trading garments and shoes from  ethical fashion brands.

4. Rent, rather than buy, for special occasions.

Often we want a special dress to wear to a wedding, anniversary, performance, or other special occasion. Many times these are garments we only wear once. Instead of investing in a fancy item you will only wear once, considering renting through sites like Rent the Runway.

5. Do your research.

While there is still a long way to go, it has gotten easier to research how ethical your favorite brands are. Making clothing ethically (as all clothing should be) is not cheap. In addition, many ethical brands are quite small. Because they produce in small batches, these brands do not have economies of scale.

That being said, the good news is that some of the well-known global brands we are familiar with are ethically made.

The annually researched and published Ethical Fashion Guide, just released for this year, grades brands on how ethically they are sourced.

The Good On You app is also a great resource for learning about ethical and sustainable brands as it gives ratings at your fingertips.

6. Before you buy, conduct an inventory and make a plan.

When you do make clothing purchases, whether second hand or from an ethical brand, be strategic. We’ve all made impulse purchases we’ve come to regret later. Maybe a dress we never wore or a top that doesn’t go with anything else. Take an inventory of the clothing that you have (and actually wear) and identify any gaps in your wardrobe. What is needed to complete any outfits? What pieces would help in getting more wear out of what you already have?

7. When you buy, buy multi-purpose clothing.

Have you ever looked into an overflowing closet and thought, “I have nothing to wear”? Maybe you have many dresses, but none that are appropriate for a certain event. Look to fill your wardrobe with clothing items that are versatile and can be worn in a variety of settings and situations. Purchase staples that can be mixed and matched to create multiple outfits.

8. When you buy, buy fewer, better things.

In addition to being ethically made, most ethically-minded companies also produce a great quality product. They know their products are an investment and they want them to last. When you shop, look for better quality fabrics and better construction. Look for garments that are really well made and will last longer. The idea is, “Buy less, choose well, make it last.” [iv]


[i] Pope Benedict XVI

[ii] Loved Clothes Last, Fashion Revolution

[iii] GlobalData Market Sizing via threadUp

[iv] Vivienne Westwood

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