These days, it’s not hard to dress like a superstar on the cheap. With the proliferation of bargain brands and inexpensive knock-offs, you can have a red carpet-ready outfit shipped to your house for less than it costs to fill the gas tank of an SUV.

Recent books and movies such as “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” and “The True Cost” have educated consumers on the true cost of bargain clothes—and the answer isn’t pretty. Rock bottom wages, environmentally-unfriendly production methods and other immoral business practices are the norm. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is just one example of this culture.

The methods that allow bargain brands to offer unbelievably cheap products are the same methods that make their business unethical. So as nice as it would be to always shop with your heart, shopping ethically is an inherently more expensive endeavor.

So how can a budget-conscious consumer navigate these tricky waters? Read ahead for some tips on how to balance your conscience and your bank account.

Clothes made by employees earning a fair wage tend to be more expensive, and high prices scare off even the most concerned shoppers. Going to thrift and consignment stores solves both problems, since clothes are less expensive and you’re not contributing to the production of fast fashion. Plus, for the cost of a Target t-shirt you can find one from Banana Republic instead.

Secondhand stores like Buffalo Exchange often carry mall and designer brands for more than half off while Goodwill is also popular with treasure seekers. Sites like ThredUp and Poshmark let you buy from individuals who sell their own clothes and accessories.

Family finance expert Catherine Alford said she recently started buying her kids’ clothes on ThredUp and is amazed at the quality and price. The cost is similar to what she paid before, but she’s getting items that last much longer. Photographer Kelley Jordan Schulyer said she tries to buy used at every opportunity, hitting up yard sales for great deals on dishes and cookware.

“Before buying new, I always try to find what I need at thrift or consignment stores,” Schulyer said. “Since it’s already been purchased and used, it’s like a free pass to buy any brand you want, even if they don’t treat their laborers well or care about the earth.”

Swap with your friends and neighbors

Major cities often have clothing swaps where strangers bring in unwanted apparel and trade it for something they do like. If your town doesn’t do that, you can organize a meet with your friends and loved ones. What’s trash to you might be the perfect dress for your coworker.

Swap meets don’t have to be clothing-exclusive. Invite people to bring whatever they don’t want, including kitchen accessories, books, movies, and more. Trading with your friends will be more eco-friendly than tossing those well-loved goods.

Buy less often

Often, minimalism and shopping ethically go together, especially for people on a budget. When you can only afford to buy one tank top, you want to ensure it’s a shirt you’ll wear for years.

Schuyler suggests simplifying your wardrobe is less expensive and ensures a timeless, not trendy, wardrobe.

“It’s less expensive in the long run to have items that won’t go out of style next month, especially if you’re trying to purchase ethically produced clothing,” she said.

It also helps to create a physical list of what you’re looking for. Before you start shopping, go through everything you own and see what you’re missing. Are you looking for a new pair of jeans or a neutral maxi skirt? Write down a list of what you need so when you’re out, you only shop for what’s necessary and not what looks good on the mannequin.

Learn to fix what you have

You don’t have to dump your closet if you’ve made the switch to ethical and sustainable fashion. One way to reduce your impact is to learn how to fix clothes so you keep them around longer.

Many sewing stores offer basic alterations classes where you learn to sew a button, hem a skirt, or mend a tear.  YouTube also provides free tutorials that range from the simple (how to tie a knot) to the complex (how to mend a hole in the crotch of your pants).

Schuyler said she tries to fix anything she has before dumping it, no matter the item.

“I got my vacuum second hand, and it stopped working, which I was really disappointed about,” she said. “Vacuums are so expensive, and this was one of those old work horses. But then I found a vacuum repair store and bought a $3 piece that fixed it.”

Give yourself a break

If you’re truly committed to sustainable shopping, it might be disheartening to learn how difficult it is to find products completely made using fair labor and materials. A report from NPR’s Planet Money found that trying to make a shirt completely in the US is impossible, even for those determined to support local workers.

To quickly see which companies are abiding by sustainable and ethical standards, Schulyer uses the Better World Shopping Guide. It grades companies from A to F on the issues of human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. Plus, a physical copy of the guide is small enough to fit in a purse or bag, so concerned spenders can take it with them.


Schuyler admits it can take a while to change your shopping mentality, but she said it’s best for everyone in the long run. There are items she hasn’t found a sustainable substitute for, such as heels and bras. In those circumstances, she buys the highest quality product she can so she replaces it less frequently.

“The first big thing is shifting from the American consumer mindset of buying everything cheap to quality over quantity,” she said. “Well produced products will always be more expensive, but also more valuable to the consumer and producer.”

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