Eight ways to dress more sustainably without breaking the bank

5 min • 9 Mar 2021
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*Our latest episode of the Your Real Money Stories podcast looks at how you can shop sustainably. So we asked Lauren Bravo, author of How to Break Up with Fast Fashion to give some tips on how you can get started

  • Four out of five people think environmentally friendly products cost too much. As sustainability becomes the buzzword du jour and a proliferation of ‘responsible’ brands with frankly reckless price tags fill up our social feeds, an eco conscience looks in danger of becoming yet another must-have accessory we can’t afford.

A green garment industry?

But can we afford not to have one? With the garment industry responsible for a whopping 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and time running out to counter the impact of climate change, it’s pretty clear the planet can’t afford to support our throwaway fashion habits any longer. So how do we balance our personal finances with nature’s economy, and still look good to boot?

The good news is that whatever the ads might suggest, ethical fashion is not the preserve of the wealthy elite. In fact, it’s important to understand that we can’t buy our way to sustainability at all.

Natural fabrics, greener processes, recycling technology and low-carbon supply chains all have important parts to play, but the truth is that – with some 300,000 tonnes of clothing waste going into landfill each year in the UK alone, while we’re buying more than two tonnes of new clothes per minute – quantity is a much bigger problem than quality. Until the fashion industry scales back its overproduction and consumers stop clamouring for more, no amount of £500 hemp smock dresses will solve things.

The cost of clothes

But though sustainable fashion has a way to go before it’s accessible to everyone, the fact remains that clothes need to cost a certain amount in order to ensure they’re being made without cutting serious ethical corners. Only 2% of the world’s garment workers are paid a liveable wage, with most working in terrible conditions and trapped in abject poverty. It’s an uncomfortable truth to confront when our own purse strings feel tight – but when brand new clothes are sold for the cost of a high street sandwich, it’s because somebody, somewhere is paying the price.

While nobody should be shamed for buying cheaply when it’s the only option they have, many of us could do with redressing our perception of ‘value’ before we redress ourselves. When we say we can’t ‘afford’ sustainable fashion... do we really mean we can’t afford to buy it at the same rate as we’re used to buying fast fashion?

Re-thinking our shopping habits

It’s amazing how much more you can save to spend on a few carefully chosen garments once you stop believing you need to refresh your wardrobe every season. Not to mention the fact that bargain clothes can be a false economy – more likely to fall apart in the wash, or look tired and feel dated after only a few wears. And so the cycle of shopping continues, just the way the fast fashion bosses like it.

Technically, then, the most sustainable thing we can do is buy nothing at all. But let’s be real; we’re human, nudity is impractical and we still want a new outfit every once in a while. So here are eight ways to give your wardrobe a sustainable makeover, without stretching your budget too far...

1. Put secondhand first

By giving other people’s cast-offs a new lease of life and reducing the demand for new stuff, one of the most sustainable things we can do is #chooseused. Happily, it’s also cheaper. I like to live by the ‘secondhand first’ rule: before buying anything new, try to find a preloved version first – whether that’s hunting down the same item on sites like eBay and Depop, finding a vintage equivalent or even just asking around friends and family. How many of those barely worn outfits for weddings, holidays and job interviews could have been borrowed for free instead?

2. Sweet charity

Charity shops do good in so many ways: raising vital funds, keeping tonnes of clothes and goods out of landfill while also providing low-cost clothes for those who need them. Many have started selling online during lockdown, which helps to take the effort out of the trawl. Check out eBay, Depop, Thrift+ and Oxfam’s own digital treasure trove for everything from unworn high street finds to pristine vintage from decades past.

3. Resale is the new retail

As we finally shake off the stigma of a hand-me-down wardrobe, it’s becoming easier to buy high quality labels at a fraction of their RRP, via dedicated consignment sites like Vestiaire Collective, Vide Dressing and Vinted. And of course there’s also the option to sell some of your own unloved clothes, keep them in circulation and make a little cash back too.

4. Borrow ’til tomorrow

Once upon a time the sole preserve of occasionwear, clothes hire is no longer just for tailcoats and ballgowns. The new generation of rental services are all about wearability and sustainability, with eco-friendly cleaning and low-carbon couriers increasingly built into the service. At HURR, ByRotation and MyWardrobe HQ you’ll find many of those pricey ethical brands available to borrow for as little as £4 a day – so you can enjoy the thrill of new threads without the commitment.

5. Swap, don’t shop

Remember your teen years, when a new outfit was only a rummage in a friend’s wardrobe away? Clothes-swapping is still one of the most sustainable ways to get a style fix, but these days tech is making it easier. With the Nuw app, you can earn credits for uploading your own items, then spend those credits on other people’s unwanted garms. All you pay is postage.

6. Shop small

As a basic rule of thumb, smaller brands are nearly always going to be more sustainable than companies churning out thousands of products a week – and the very smallest operations can be more affordable too, since they don’t have overheads or marketing budgets. Etsy, Depop and Instagram are filled with individual makers selling made-to-order, often size-inclusive designs for little more (sometimes less) than high street prices. Look out for those using deadstock fabric (unused ends-of-rolls discarded by other brands),or upcycling vintage pieces into something brand spanking new.

7. Make do and mend

Did you know that around 30% of our clothes’ carbon footprint comes from the way we wash and care for it? Sustainability starts at home, and that means taking care of what you’ve got. Luckily for those of us who’ve never quite mastered needlework, apps like SoJo and The Seam have arrived on the scene to help us find local tailors who can mend, alter and even transform our clothes – without having to leave the sofa. Meanwhile skipping the tumbledryer and washing our clothes less often (steam or hang outside to freshen them up instead) is the laziest way to earn a few environmental brownie points and keep them looking good for longer.

8. Wear it out

As the motto coined by global campaign group Fashion Revolution goes: the most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe. You’d be surprised how often a shopping itch can be satisfied with a good old-fashioned dress-up session, trying on new combinations of items you already own.

But likewise, if you’ve tried everything above and fast fashion still feels like your only option, don’t beat yourself up – just love it, look after it, and wear it for as long as you possibly can. Extending the lifespan of a garment by just nine months can reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 30%, so the great news is that anything in your wardrobe can become more sustainable, purely by committing to it for the long haul. As a wise woman once sang, love don’t cost a thing.

Lauren Bravo is a freelance fashion, food and lifestyle journalist and the author of How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: A guilt-free guide to changing the way you shop – for good.

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