How 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 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.

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:

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.

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.”

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.

sewing machine

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.

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:

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:

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.

What’s your favorite place to shop for sustainable clothing?

Categories: Go Green, Lifestyle, Shopping

Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, “And from that you make a living?” She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including,, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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