lillian fallon

What To Do When You Can't Afford Ethical Brands

lillian fallon
What To Do When You Can't Afford Ethical Brands

There is subconscious "us" vs. "them" mentality when it comes to ethical shopping.

As sustainable living becomes more mainstream, it's easy to unintentionally create a division between those who shop at places like Everlane and those who shop at Target. I know that whenever I say, "I only shop ethically" I sound as if I'm looking down on those who don't. I always try to make it clear that I'm not judging anyone who hasn't made a commitment to an ethical wardrobe, because I know how difficult it is to make the switch. 

The truth is that most women and men would be 100% on board with shopping at ethical brands. Who doesn't believe in fair pay and who doesn't want to stop pollution? The biggest factor that's stopping people from shopping ethically is price.

Ethical brands do have a much higher price point than the places we've become accustomed to shopping at. Ethical brands are more expensive because the quality of their products are exponentially higher and every person in the brand's supply chain is getting paid fairly. But that doesn't make it any more affordable for the average shopper. If the average consumer isn't provided with affordable ways to ethically shop -- they won't. They may want to, but they don't know how to without spending money they simply don't have. 

So, realistically speaking, what is the average consumer supposed to do when they want to shop ethically but can't afford it?

01. Rethink Your Shopping Mentality

A huge part of the issue is that most of us approach ethical shopping with the same mentality we have with fast fashion. We see $100+ price tags on Amour Vert and we immediately dismiss it because who can drop that kind of money? But the thing is, ethical brands don't expect their shoppers to be able to buy their products frequently or easily. That's why most ethical brands produce only a couple collections a year with less than 30 items per collection. Ever notice how Everlane just sticks to a few classic styles? Ethical brands are doing everything they can to end the impulse purchasing mentality of our modern culture. It's the same mentality that has led people to discard and lose the value of their clothing while demanding for more to be made. It's an appetite created by fast fashion corporations to make money off of people like you and me while ignoring the social and environmental repercussions. This mentality is actually a quite new phenomenon, since before the 1970s, men and women didn't have half the size of wardrobes as we do now. Back then, clothing meant an investment in quality and duration. Now? Not so much

Ethical brands are seeking to remedy this behavioral problem in order to make global impact and reclaim a healthy approach to shopping. They want their customers to be thoughtful about their purchases. The goal is that we become so thoughtful about our purchases, that we only buy an item when we're 100% confident in the quality and wearability of the item. If we approached every purchase that way, we wouldn't be dropping $15-20 at Target/Forever21/Zara/H&M so frequently. If we stopped those impulse, convenience buys, we'd actually save money so we could afford ethically produced products that will last us for the next ten years. 

02. Make A List Of What You Actually Need In ORDER OR PRIORITY

Many women who exclusively shop at fast fashion stores feel as though they have nothing to wear. But it's true -- fast fashion stores primarily produce cheap, trendy items that aren't versatile and can't be worn easily with other items and often fall apart after a few uses. Oftentimes, we use stores like Forever21 as a bandaid to quickly find something to wear for one specific event (or maybe something just caught our eye and we're not even sure when we're gonna wear it!) But wouldn't life be easier if we had a wardrobe full of clothes we can count on for every event and can repeatedly wear?

To get started, take a moment to evaluate your lifestyle while doing a brief wardrobe inventory. What items do you find yourself always reaching for in the morning? When attempting to get dressed for an event, what items do you constantly wish you had to complete a look? Is it a simple pair of black skinny jeans that would go with every top you own? Or perhaps an easy trench coat you could wear over every outfit for a polished appeal? A pair of brown oxfords that you can wear with jeans and dresses? 

Start making a list of the items that you could wear with everything else in your wardrobe and to numerous events. Jot them down in order or priority -- which items do you need pronto? Forget about trendy items that get your heart racing for a moment and just focus on the items you know you'll be able to wear over and over again and more than once a week. It's takes a little self-control, but the pay-off is massive when you can depend on your wardrobe and end up saving money. 

03. Shop Second Hand

Now that you've made your list of items you need, which items could you find second hand? This might seem like a no-brainer, but the no.1 ethical shopping method is the thrift store. With the textile industry coming in as the 4th most polluting industry (bumped up from 2nd, so that's a small win) the most obvious way to combat this waste is to start re-using what's already been produced and to hold onto it. Thrifting isn't glamorous, but it's actually really fun once you get over the ick-factor. If you're really not into scouring through racks of used clothes at your local Salvation Army, consider online second hand. Etsy is a mini heaven of adorable vintage finds at totally do-able prices. Do a quick search into Etsy of things like, "navy blazer," "white long sleeved button down," "trench coat" "510 levi's" -- just be sure to specify "vintage" in the filter. You'll be amazed at the wardrobe staples you can find for under $30

The more you develop an eye for unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that best represent your personal style, the less you'll be attracted to cheap, mass produced fast fashion items. In fact, most fast fashion stores create tacky versions clothes from the past, so why not get the real thing second hand for a an authentic look? Not to mention, items made from the 90s and earlier tend to be made with higher quality which means the construction and fabric will last longer.


If you have a few items that you can't find at the thrift store, start scouring the ethical labels. Of course, this can be hard to adjust to when the prices are higher. Understanding what something is really worth can be a confusing feat after years of being conditioned to only shop the best bargain. When you can get a dress for $10 at H&M or one for $1,000 at Barney's, it's easy to lose any idea of what a normal price is. But we often base all of our purchases off of a too low price tags, thinking, "Well, I could find this same style dress at Forever21 for $10 so I'm definitely not paying any more than that." The thing is, just because we can buy a super cheap dress, should we? As one of my favorite ethical brand founders, Zane Wilemon, said, "If you're not paying for it, someone is." Meaning, someone along the supply chain is not getting paid for their work when the price (and quality) is so cheap. 

Of course, a thousand dollar dress from Barney's is also not an accurate gauge for price. Largely it's inflated because a famous designer made it and you're mostly paying for the label. So, how do we find the true worth of an item? Luckily, we have brands like Everlane that break down the price of each item they sell: "We reveal the true costs behind all of our products—from materials to labor to transportation—then offer them to you, minus the traditional retail markup." By offering how much the production actually costs, you can get a sense of what those items are really worth -- not the dirt cheap or super inflated prices. The majority of ethical brands also ensure quality fabrics and clothing construction, so you're getting the most for your dollar. 

So the general prices for ethically made pieces hover around the $50-$200 price point. Intricate designs, luxurious materials, or rare details may call for a higher markup, but in general the true value of a normal garment is in this range. Keep in mind that you will be paying extra than the raw production price breakdown because the brand itself still needs a cut in order to continue producing clothing. 

05. Create Purchasing Goals

Similar to the previous points, it's important to be patient with building your ethical wardrobe. It can't all happen at once. Create a calendar with purchasing goals so you can save up money and buy items one at a time over the course of the year (or more!) Think about when you'll need certain items and plot out a time in which it's financially feasible to spend the money. If you know summer is coming up and you want to purchase a blouse from Reformation, aim to purchase it by the end of June and save money until then. You might find that by excluding fast fashion purchases, you automatically save. Maybe you want to own a quality trench coat by October, so put "buy trench coat" on your calendar at the end of September. 


I hope this helps you on your journey to an ethical wardrobe! Please feel free to ask me questions by e-mail or through direct messages on Instagram.