Ultimate Guide to Buy Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Clothing on a Budget

While most consumer goods, such as food and medicine, have grown more costly over time, clothing has become cheaper. The statistics are shocking.

According to KQED News, in 1960, the average U.S. household spent more than 10% of its income – the equivalent of about $4,000 in today’s dollars – on clothing and shoes. By 2013, that number had dropped below $1,800 – less than 3.5% of the average household budget.

Lower prices are driven by overseas production where labor is cheaper. In 1960, 95% of clothing Americans wore was made in the USA. By 2013, it was less than 2%.

Cheaper materials, such as polyester, have also helped keep prices low. Quartz reports that polyester production has risen sharply since 1980, vastly outstripping natural fibers such as cotton and wool.

Unfortunately, cheap clothing has a high cost for people and the planet. Synthetic fabrics like polyester require vast amounts of energy to produce, while the chemicals used in production are often toxic. The working conditions in foreign clothing factories can also be dangerous. The 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which left more than 1,000 workers dead and more than 2,000 injured, is the best-known example. However, it’s far from an isolated case.

Today, there are several ethical fashion brands attempting to address these problems. They pledge to use eco-friendly fabrics and non-toxic dyes while paying their workers a fair wage. Unfortunately, this adds to costs, with higher prices passed down to consumers.

Can most people afford to be eco-conscious? How can you remain true to your principles without busting your budget?

One approach is to choose sustainable clothing, but buy less of it. Today, because of lower-cost “fast fashion,” people buy far more garments than they used to. KQED says Americans today buy 70 new pieces of clothing per year, compared to just 25 in 1960. If you shop less, you can afford to spend more on each garment.

There’s another solution too: Instead of shopping less, shop smarter. If you know where to look, you can find clothing that’s both good for the planet and for your wallet.

What Makes Clothing Sustainable

What sets sustainable clothing apart from fast fashion is that it’s both planet-friendly and worker-friendly. Sustainable clothes are durable and suitable for many seasons. They’re often made from eco-friendly fabrics which can include reused or recycled material. Typically, sustainable clothing companies pay their workers a fair wage and provide decent working conditions.

Eco-Friendly Fibers

Many people assume that natural fabrics such as cotton are greener than synthetic fabrics like polyester. This isn’t always the case.

Conventional methods of growing cotton use vast amounts of potentially toxic fertilizer and pesticides. While it is possible to grow cotton without these chemicals, even organic cotton still requires large amounts of water.

The greenest fabrics consist of renewable fibers which are easy to grow or produce. They use limited water and energy to produce and are recyclable.

Look for:

  • Linen. Made from flax – a plant that needs far less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than cotton – linen requires little energy to manufacture. It’s also easily composted or recycled.
  • Hemp. Another crop that’s easy to grow, hemp doesn’t need much fertilizer or pesticides. It can also be made into a wide variety of fabrics. However, hemp is illegal to grow in most U.S. states, so it’s typically imported, adding costs and growing its carbon footprint.
  • Bamboo. A fast-growing plant that uses almost no pesticides. It produces soft fabrics that are easily maintained. However, turning its fibers into fabric often requires toxic chemicals. The greenest type of bamboo fabric is “bamboo linen,” produced without chemicals. It can be difficult to find though.
  • Lyocell. Commonly sold under the brand name Tencel, this fabric is made from wood pulp – typically eucalyptus wood – which grows quickly with little water and chemicals. Unlike rayon, another wood-based fabric, lyocell doesn’t produce a lot of pollution. The fabric is naturally wrinkle-resistant, so it’s easily cared for.
  • Alpaca. A mammal native to Peru, alpacas have long hair that produces beautifully fibers. Alpacas are hardy creatures that don’t eat or drink much and can stay healthy without antibiotics. Alpaca wool is more eco-conscious than cashmere, which comes from a type of Asian goat. Heavy breeding of cashmere goats has led to severe over-grazing in Mongolia, slowly turning much of the country into desert.
  • Organic Wool. When it’s done right, sheep farmers can use the animals’ manure to nourish the soil, leaving the land stronger. However, some sheep farms use toxic pesticides on their pastures, treating the animals with toxic dips. Organic sheep farms avoid these harmful chemicals, managed to keep both the sheep and pastures healthy.
  • Silk. This natural fabric is produced by caterpillars known as silkworms. It’s lightweight and durable, breaking down naturally at the end of its life. Commonly used for evening wear, it also makes surprisingly warm thermal underwear. Many ethical vegetarians do not wear most silk because producing it usually involves killing the silkworms. However, peace silk, also known as vegan silk, is a cruelty-free alternative.

Fewer Chemicals

Another problem with most fabrics is the dyes used to color them. Many traditional dyes contain harmful chemicals and require large amounts of water to process. Much of the dye washes out of the fabric, polluting rivers throughout the developing world.

This doesn’t mean that white fabric is a cleaner choice. In most cases, that pure-looking, snow-white fabric is bleached with chlorine. This process releases dioxin, a chemical that can cause cancer and damage the body. Also, nearly all “permanent press” fabrics, whether white or colored, are treated with toxic formaldehyde.

Natural and low-impact dyes offer a greener alternative. Natural dyes such as indigo and cochineal are derived from plants, animals, or insects. Low-impact dyes are lower in toxic chemicals and require less water to process. Another green option is unbleached fabric which has a natural, off-white color.

Recycling and Reuse

Another way to make clothes eco-friendly is to make them from recycled materials. For example, fabrics such as fleece are often made from recycled plastic bottles. This turns a waste product into something useful, reducing our dependence on non-renewable oil.

These days it’s possible to make new polyester fabric by recycling old polyester garments. Recycling uses less energy, producing less pollution. An analysis published by the University of Delaware shows that recycled polyester is a more sustainable fabric than cotton.

The greenest choice of all is to reuse and recycle clothing. Recycling reduces waste and energy use, but reusing clothes eliminates waste products altogether.

The easiest way to reusing clothing is by passing on old clothes to new users. Simply shop at a thrift store or use hand-me-downs.

However, even when clothes start to wear out, it’s often possible to salvage usable material. Some sustainable clothing brands have made a business of reconfiguring old clothing. This type of reuse is often called “reworking.”

Worker-Friendly Workplaces

The primary focus of sustainable fashion is to protect the environment. However, many eco-conscious designers are also concerned about human rights. To be truly sustainable, clothes must be made in ways that are safe and healthy for workers.

One way to find worker-friendly clothing is to look for American-made brands. The USA has much stricter health and safety standards for factories than most developing countries. When you buy clothing made in America, you know that the people who made it work limited hours, have a reasonably safe workplace, and earn at least minimum wage.

You can also look for clothing that bears the Fair Trade label. To earn this label, manufacturers must promise to pay all their workers a living wage. They must also guarantee that their factories are safe and their production is eco-friendly.

If there’s a specific brand of clothing you love, visit its website and look for information about its labor practices. Try to find out where the clothes are made, how much the workers earn, and what kind of standards the company has for its suppliers. If you can’t find this information easily, send the company an email to ask for details.

Where to Find Eco-Friendly Clothing

The biggest problem with sustainable clothing is that it often comes with high price tags. For example, women’s tops from Eileen Fisher, which are made with eco-friendly fabrics and fairly paid labor, range from $200 to $700. Apolis, a “sustainably motivated lifestyle brand,” charges $34 for a plain white t-shirt and $230 for a men’s cardigan sweater.

Fortunately, there are ways to shop sustainably on a budget. At thrift stores, you can find like-new clothes that require no new material to make – all at a deep discount to new clothing. You can also seek out less expensive eco-friendly brands that are both easy on the Earth and on your wallet.

Secondhand Sources

For shoppers who are both eco-conscious and budget conscious, used clothes are the best option. Because second-hand clothes are reused, they require no new materials to produce: No extra energy, water, or toxic chemicals are added when they change hands from their previous owner.

Keeping used clothing out of the waste stream means there’s less need for new landfills. It also saves on energy used to collect and dispose of trash. Best of all, used clothes cost far less than new ones. In some cases, you can pick up perfectly good, new-to-you clothes for no money at all.

Sources of secondhand clothing include:

  • Thrift Stores. At the low end of the thrift store scale are nonprofit shops run by charities such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and local churches. Clothes at these stores cost as little as $1 per item, but quality can be iffy. At the upper end of the spectrum, consignment stores specialize in high-end, designer clothes. They often cost as much as or more than new clothes from a chain store, but they’re usually better made and more stylish.
  • Garage Sales. You can’t always find clothing at garage sales, but when you do, the prices are hard to beat. Even designer clothes often cost no more than $10 per item, with no-name brands costing $1 or less. You can also find shoes in good condition for a few dollars a pair.
  • Online Sellers. Thrift shops and yard sales don’t always offer clothes in your size. Online sellers such as eBay offer a much wider selection, and the prices are just as good. The biggest downside is that you can’t try on the clothes before you buy. To minimize sizing issues, read item listings carefully. Look for clothes that have detailed measurements. Other online sellers include thredUP, an online consignment store that promises savings of “up to 90%” on designer brands, and Swap.com, where most items cost $20 or less.
  • Online Swap Sites. Swap sites are a bit different. Instead of buying and selling clothes, you trade your old clothes for someone else’s. For example, at Rehash you can post a picture and description of an item you want to give away. If someone else likes the item, they can click on “Request a Trade”, enabling you to look at their posted items to negotiate a swap. Once you reach an agreement, you both mail your items to each other. Swap Style, the oldest online swap site, allows you to post an item and assign a price. To make a swap, another user must offer you an item – or a batch of items – with the same price. Most prices are between $5 and $50, but some are as high as $450.
  • Swap Parties. Swapping clothing in person is even easier – and more fun – than swapping online. At a clothing swap party, friends bring their unwanted clothing. After trying on each other’s discards, you select the ones you’d like to take home. You can get rid of all your old clothes and obtain new ones you’ll actually wear without spending a penny. Clothing swaps are particularly good for kids’ clothes, which are often outgrown before they wear out. A swap lets you pass on these still-good clothes to younger children and get larger clothes for free.
  • Freecycle. A final way to trade clothes with others is through the Freecycle Network. You can post your unwanted clothes on your local Freecycle group and offer them to people in your area who can use them.

Eco-Conscious Brands

It’s not always possible to fill your whole closet through thrift stores and swaps. That’s where eco-conscious brands come in. You can use them to fill the gaps in your wardrobe without sacrificing your principles.

As noted above, many sustainable brands are costly. However, there are a few brands out there that are much more reasonable.

Here are several brands that are both eco-friendly and wallet-friendly:

  • Alternative Apparel. Based out of Los Angeles, Alternative Apparel features casual, urban styles for both men and women. The company claims to make over 70% of its garments with sustainable materials and processes, including organic and recycled fabrics and low-impact dyes. All of its factories follow the Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct, which sets standards for “decent and humane working conditions.” Typical prices are around $50 for a pair of leggings, $21 to $40 for a T-shirt, and $108 to $158 for a pair of jeans. You can buy Alternative Apparel online and at stores in New York City, San Francisco, and Venice, California.
  • PACT. This American company is a certified B Corp, which means it meets strict social and environmental standards. PACT sells underwear, socks, and casual clothes like t-shirts for men, women, and children. All are made from organic cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), meaning it’s sustainably farmed and made in factories that protect workers’ rights. They promise to avoid forced labor and child labor, pay fair wages, and provide safe, clean conditions. PACT clothes are sold only online. The site charges around $16 for a T-shirt, $34 for a simple wrap dress, and $55 for a pair of sweatpants.
  • People Tree. This UK-based company deals mostly in stylish women’s wear, plus a few basics for men. Over 80% of its clothes are made from organic cotton, and all of them are dyed with non-toxic dyes. All its products meet Fair Trade standards. In 2013, People Tree became the first clothing company to receive an official Fair Trade logo from the World Fair Trade Organization. The People Tree site offers dresses priced from $85 to $170, trousers from $89 to $147, and handmade jewelry between $9 and $70.
  • Fair Indigo. This online retailer sells cute, casual clothing for women, plus a limited selection for men. It has a Fair Trade certification from Fair Trade USA and is currently working to achieve GOTS certification for all its products. Fair Indigo offers organic cotton pants and skirts for $50 to $100, dresses in the same fabric for under $100, and alpaca sweaters for $80 to $250.
  • Maggie’s Organics. Maggie’s Organics sells socks, T-shirts, and a few clothing items made from organic cotton and wool. It buys these fibers directly from farmers and knits them into fabric in its North Carolina warehouse. Over 65% of its products are made in the USA, with the rest produced elsewhere in the Americas. The company follows Fair Trade practices with all its foreign suppliers. On the Maggie’s Organics website, you can buy socks for $8 to $17.50 a pair, leggings for $26, and pants and skirts for $35 to $55.
  • prAna. California-based prAna began selling yoga gear. Today, it offers a broad range of casual daywear for women and men. Its line includes clothing made from hemp, organic cotton, recycled polyester, recycled wool, and repurposed down. The company offers a limited number of Fair Trade Certified garments and works to increase that number each year. Most of its tops, pants, and dresses are priced below $100, with outerwear ranging from $100 to $250. PrAna has seven retail stores in the US, but its clothes are also available at various sporting goods stores such as Eastern Mountain Sports and REI. You can find a store near you through the prAna store locator.
  • Patagonia. Best known for its rugged outdoor gear, Patagonia says its “love of wild and beautiful places” inspires its commitment to protecting them. The company uses only organic cotton and makes many garments from recycled polyester. It also aims for safe and humane conditions in all its factories and works with Fair Trade USA to provide a living wage to workers. In 2015, the company offered more than 190 garments that were Fair Trade Certified. Its prices aren’t exactly low, at around $100 for a pair of men’s jeans and $50 to $140 for a fleece jacket. However, its sturdy products should last for years, so they provide good value in the long run. Patagonia has retail stores in 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Its goods are also sold at other stores that you can find with its store locatortool.
  • Urban Renewal. The Urban Renewal line from Urban Outfitters takes vintage, surplus, and “deadstock” (unsold) garments from around the world, making them into edgy, modern pieces. Because all the work is done by hand in the United States, each re-crafted piece is unique. The line targets young, urban women with pieces that have a harsh, gritty vibe. Examples include an $89 pair of tie-dyed frayed jeans and a $79 vintage camouflage jacket. Urban Outfitters has stores throughout the country, but you may not find Urban Renewal pieces at all of them.

Final Word

There’s no way around it: Sustainable clothes made with eco-friendly fabrics and fairly paid labor cost more. If you’re used to paying $9 for a T-shirt or $30 for a pair of jeans, you’ll inevitably pay more for eco-conscious labels.

However, higher costs can be avoided. You can shop at thrift stores and pay even less than the discount store price. Purchases from eco-friendly brands are a bit costlier, but with the money you’ve saved buying used, you can easily afford to splurge on a few new, environmentally friendly pieces. And you can feel good knowing your money is going to support businesses that are doing good in the world.

To use this two-tiered shopping strategy, start by getting to know your local thrift shops. The stock at thrift stores changes often, so if you don’t find something one week, you might the next. If you visit your favorite stores often, you can keep on top of their changing offerings and catch the best items when they appear.

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