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What If You Can Only Afford Fast Fashion?

A few articles ago, we defined sustainable fashion as the conscious use of natural resources and the respect of animals and people. Basically, the fashion industry is sustainable when it prioritizes not having harmful impacts on the planet, society, or animals over making money.

All very nice in theory, but in practice what happens if one buys a bunch of sustainable clothes? Is this a sustainable behavior? Well.. no, it’s not! Sustainable fashion isn’t about buying, it’s about buying consciously. Unwisely bringing home tons of sustainable clothes is anything but sustainable. Instead, I prefer to praise those who can only afford fast fashion and mindfully buy a few staples and keep them for years.

And if you can’t afford sustainable fashion and at the same time want to take care of the planet, people, and animals, we’re here to help you be more sustainable on a budget, starting right from your fast fashion wardrobe.

We all can do more and better! Let’s see how.

Is sustainable fashion elitist?

A sustainable price tag, on average, is higher than a fast fashion one. But what’s behind that price? Usually, it at least ensures:

  • A living wage for workers
  • An environmental policy
  • An animal welfare policy

On the other hand, the price on fast fashion tags hides:

  • Bad working – or better to say exploitative – conditions
  • Poor fibers quality
  • Cruelty and pollution

So yes, on average, sustainable fashion is more expensive than fast fashion – and for good reason, I’d say. But let me also add that arguing that only a chosen few can afford sustainable clothes is a false myth. Sure, there are expensive brands that offer premium quality clothes, but there are also tons of brands that strive to design and create sustainable clothes at a very small price.

In other words, if you don’t buy sustainable fashion because the higher prices shot you down, go and check out the 50 affordable ethical fashion brands to dress consciously on a budget we recommend. I’m sure you’ll find great alternatives to your favorite fast fashion brands.

If these brands don’t suit you, if you still prefer fast fashion styles, if they’re still too expensive, or if you just want to know how to be (more) sustainable while buying fast fashion, keep reading.

How to buy fast fashion mindfully

If you can only afford fast fashion and if you’re still reading this article, you probably know that fast fashion isn’t the best choice you can ever make, and maybe you want to know how to “limit the damage”. The good news is that by following some precautions you can become a sustainable consumer. The secret is to approach shopping with mindfulness: don’t let fashion trends and ready-to-wear styles guide you. Instead, be master of your choices and start with a few simple moves:

  • Don’t use the brands’ shopping apps: filling a virtual shopping cart is much easier and faster than filling a real one. The apps are designed to get you to buy more: pop-ups everywhere draw your attention to the perfect accessories and other items “to complete your look”.
  • It’s indeed always best, if you can, to go to the stores in person and try on clothes: this will allow you not to buy unnecessary things and also to reduce shipping emissions. And always carry a reusable bag with you – a tote bag would be ideal. Even a small act like this is a big step forward.
  • Plan ahead: go shopping with clear ideas and buy only what you need and when you need it.
  • Unsubscribe from brands’ newsletters: they are meant to push you to buy on repeat. Do yourself and your wallet a favor: press the “unsubscribe” button.
  • Stay away from trends: there’s no need to buy new clothes every week – yeah, fast fashion brands create an average of 52 machine-made collections per year, 1 per week! Choose timeless pieces you can mix and match. You can also try to create a capsule wardrobe: having a limited number of essentials and basics you can wear and mix for multiple seasons is a great starting point for a sustainability journey.
  • Prefer conscious collections: even the big fast fashion brands – H&M is an example – are trying to create more sustainable collections from organic and recycled fibers.
  • Check out secondhand apps: you may find what you were looking for at a very small price. Moreover, you’ll give a second life to clothes that are still in excellent condition while avoiding buying and consume new resources.
  • Last but not least, stop buying: it might sound rude… but the first way to be more sustainable is to stop adding stuff to our life and to value what’s already on board. We may have already bought what we need… it might just be sitting unloved in our wardrobe.

How to be sustainable on a budget

We shouldn’t be measuring a garment’s value by its price tag, but by the purpose it has in our life. We should own it because we love it, and because we love it we should want to keep it forever, consume it, wear it to death.

– Orsola de Castro

No one is perfect. What matters here is that we can be sustainable on a budget simply by learning to love and value the clothes we own, even though they’re from fast fashion brands and, as such, unsustainable by definition. You just need to:

  • Wear your clothes for as longs as possible: did you know that only doubling the useful life of clothing from 1 year to 2 years reduces emissions over by 24%, while reducing the longevity of a shirt from 1 year to only 1 month increases emissions by around 550%? Crazy, right? (Pssst: You can also save a lot of money. Have you ever heard about the concept of cost per wear?)
  • Wash properly: the durability of your clothes is also up to you. Of course, fast fashion clothes are made with poor quality fibers that wear out quickly, but with a little care you can slow down this process. Only wash your clothes when dirty – and no, I don’t mean some stains as you can remove those even without using the washing machine – at low temperatures. Reducing the number of washing cycles also lowers the impact that clothes have on the environment: each cycle releases more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the water. Can you believe that synthetic microfibers have been found all the way to the top of Mount Everest?
  • Learn to mend: it is often easier – and also cheaper – to throw away a broken garment (or with a defective zip, for example) than to repair it. And this should make you understand even more how fast fashion clothes are made: how can a new item be so cheap? Easy, it’s made with poor materials and in deplorable working and environmental conditions. And the satisfaction that comes from fixing something ourselves is peerless!
  • Organize a clothes swap: it doesn’t have to be an event with many people, you and your friends are enough to organize a nice afternoon of chatting and swapping clothes. It’s free, fun, and sustainable.

Bonus tip

At this point, I can’t help but recommend you a few enlightening books that will help you even more to create a new sustainable relationship with your wardrobe. Here are our top 5 ethical fashion book recommendations that are a must-read for anyone who wants to know more and better about the fashion industry, how to take care of clothes, and how to create a wardrobe you love.


Alberta Bernardi
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Alberta Bernardi is a Ph.D. in Management, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. She likes to call herself a “sustainability warrior” because she aims to spread knowledge on the environment, ethics, and plastic pollution day after day. Her love of nature and battle against plastic around the world are on Instagram @together_no_plastic