How to Afford a Sustainable Closet

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re looking to update your wardrobe. But, you’re not heading to the usual places – Zara, H&M, Express – for a quick and cheap fashion update. Instead, you’re looking to create a more lasting wardrobe, from brands that don’t rely on unethical and destructive manufacturing practices. 

Determined to vote with your dollar against fast fashion, you find and browse through some ethical brands, only to feel like that dollar of yours isn’t going as far as you expected. When you see your cart total up to more than you’re used to spending (or more than you can afford at the moment), you might feel like you’re getting ripped off, or like you simply can’t afford to shop sustainably. 

Still, you might not need a pay raise to have an ethical and sustainable closet.

Shopping at Kotn

Before we move on, we need to establish that the price of most ethically made clothing is higher than traditional fast fashion because you are paying for fair wages (nobody was abused to make your shirt) and responsible manufacturing (your purchase won’t contribute to the next major chemical spill). 

Fast fashion is sold at such a low price point thanks to the abuse of garment workers and the environment. Once you understand what manufacturing your clothing entails, you see that no t-shirt could ever possibly cost only $5 if everyone who took part in its production were treated fairly. You can see exactly how bad it is for yourself here.  

Here’s how to afford your conscious closet: 

1. Set a budget.

When it comes to clothing, most of us spend first, and count expenses later. Disproportionately cheap prices enable us to buy more than we need, and more often than necessary.

Grab a calculator and estimate your yearly spending on clothing. You might be surprised to see how high that number is (I certainly was). If you feel good about what portion of your income is spent on clothes each year, then you can keep this number as your ethical closet budget. If not, adjust accordingly. 

2. Make a shopping list.

To avoid going over your budget, only shop for the clothes you need. Because “need” means something different for every person, try to determine which clothes you need in the same way you determine which groceries to buy. 

Just like you would look in your fridge to see what’s missing, take a look inside your closet. Do all of your socks have holes in them? Is winter coming, and you only have one or two pairs of long pants? Is your closet very blue and grey, so you might go for something orange next time you shop?

Write out a shopping list or take mental notes. The more specific your “needs” are, the less likely you are to buy things outside of your shopping list.

Here’s an example of my shopping list for the coming season: 

  • Coordinated loungewear (pandemic life. If I have to live in it, I want to feel good in it)
  • Brighter colors (my closet is very black and grey)
  • Pleated pants (hopeful, for when I begin working in person again) 
  • Brown sandals (I have only one pair in black, and Spring is upon us!)
  • Socks and underwear (it’s time!)

Unlike grocery shopping, however, don’t go out and buy everything at once. Because purchasing an item of clothing is a larger financial commitment than pasta sauce, wait to find the items you’re looking for over time. This way, you have more time to reflect before you buy, have the chance to shop more often, and are more likely to catch sales. 

Reviewing your closet more often can also give you a better understanding of what you actually own. You might find you have something really cool that you forgot about, or figure out a way to wear something you weren’t sure how to wear before. Creating a shopping list will also be easier when you really know your closet!

3. Create and follow criteria.

Eco-Stylist’s Shopping Criteria

Now that you have your list, create criteria to follow while shopping. You don’t have to follow a flow chart every time you want to buy a pair of socks, but having guidelines will help you stop spending money on items you ultimately won’t wear. 

For example, my personal criteria for buying new clothes (apart from “Is it a certified, silver, or gold brand on Eco-Stylist?”) are: 

  1. Is it on my shopping list? 
  2. Do I already own something like it? 
  3. Will it work well with other pieces I own?
  4. Is it within budget limits, leaving room for other clothes I need? 
  5. Is it too much maintenance for me (i.e. dry clean only?) 
  6. Will I like it on myself as much as I do on the model? (Will it fit me well and will I feel confident in it?) 
  7. Is it a passing trend that I won’t want to wear in 5 years? 

This list is a good starting point for anybody, but you can add more criteria according to your needs. 

4. Buy less.

Because ethical clothing tends to be pricier, it can feel prohibitive. But, not splurging on as many pieces as you’re used to might just be in your favor. 

Think about the pieces you own that are very similar to one another (personally, I’m guilty for repeatedly buying turtlenecks and things in the color black). Because we buy things we like, we can sometimes end up buying versions of the same thing over and over again. The result is ten, for example, pieces of clothing in your closet that all achieve the same thing. In other words, you’ve spent 10x the amount you needed to in order to achieve an outfit. If you already own it, don’t buy it again.

We’ve all seen this before.

Owning fewer pieces of clothing can also make life less complicated. 20-30 pieces in your closet will yield more, and more interesting, outfit options than the mountain of clothing your A.M. brain tries to make sense of each morning. Travel becomes easier, too, with fewer pieces. If your closet is comprised of only items you wear, you don’t have to sift through as much before choosing what goes in the suitcase.  

Owning fewer, ethically sourced, pieces amplifies your impact by giving each piece more exposure and limiting extraneous waste. How many pieces do you own that you never wear anymore? Do you shop for new items anyway?

People like to update their closets and shop often, so when we own too many pieces at a time, we’re not even able to wear out what we own before we go shopping again. On average, a piece of clothing will be worn only 7 times before it is thrown out. That’s ghastly. If you calculate how often you wear each piece of clothing in your closet, is it something similar? Owning fewer pieces might feel limiting at first, but because you probably need fewer clothes than you currently shop for, all you’re limiting is how much ends up in the landfill. 

5. Consider all options.

If your budget is on the low end (hello, most people), searching secondhand options will save you some money. Swap, thrift, or rent through a store, or directly from other people via garage sales, family gatherings, and social media marketplaces. 

These are good options if, for example, you’ve spent a large part of your ethical closet budget on things you need, and then your brother decides to get married. You can thrift or rent second-hand formalwear for a lower price. Or maybe you factor secondhand shopping into your budget from the start – you thrift most of your basics, and save the other portion of your budget for new, more interesting pieces, like a statement jacket, or some durable boots. Or, if you’re buying clothing for kids (who grow way too fast), consider thrifting a portion of their clothes. 

Tailor these options to meet your needs. But beware: some sellers on resale sites like Poshmark actually perpetuate fast fashion by buying and selling enormous quantities of new fast fashion items. A look through a seller’s page can help you tell whether you’re actually buying secondhand or not. If a page shows something like 1,000 active listings, most new with tags, and in many different sizes and styles, it’s not truly secondhand! 

In general, secondhand shopping is time-intensive because of the quantity, variety, range of quality, and lack of verified information about the clothes you’re sifting through. But, it is a wonderful low-cost option when shopping for your ethical closet.  

You can afford a sustainable closet!

Most people don’t have the funds to swap fast fashion for ethical fashion if all they are doing is opting for ethical brands. However, people can have the funds to shop ethical fashion if they also opt for more sustainable shopping habits.

Although it might seem like an adjustment, changing your shopping habits will not only enable you to easily shop sustainable fashion by changing how you spend your money, but will also naturally help you better maintain your closet. And of course, shopping sustainable brands will support the missions and commitments each brand makes to manufacture clothing in an ethical and sustainable way. 

What do you think – ready to start building your ethical closet?

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1 thought on “How to Afford a Sustainable Closet”

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