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How to Shop Sustainably When You’re On a Budget

By Anna-Karina Yuill

More than $500 billion is lost each year due to under-use of garments and the lack of recycling, say the Ellen MacArthur Foundation who focus on creating a circular economy. With mass production of cheap fashion increasing by the second, we as consumers can’t help but be encouraged to splurge on yet another £3 T-shirt. And who can say no? For those on a budget, online sites such as Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing, and high street chains such as Primark have been hailed as saviours. Cheap but not so cheerful, fast fashion has made it possible to keep up with the latest styles without breaking the bank.

In this modern age where the average UK consumer will purchase 27.6kg of clothing a year (10kg more than any other nationality) yet the average garment lifespan is just 2.2 years, the amount of waste generated is increasing exponentially. According to WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) more than 300,000 tonnes of clothes are destined for landfill in the UK each year. But habits are unlikely to change until sustainable alternatives become cheaper.

With increasing environmental awareness, fast fashion brands are having to heavily rely on their low prices to generate sales. But these low prices are often due to the lower wages given to garment workers as well as the lower quality of the products themselves. Sustainable brands, such as TALA - an athletic-wear company who boast products which are 92% up cycled - retail at prices which the average consumer may deem as too high. Still, the prospect of contributing to saving the planet, and the assurance that the item will be of higher quality (and will therefore last longer) is worth the investment for those with the privilege of being able to afford these slightly higher prices.

Sustainable brands, such as Lucy and Yak, Reformation and Weekday, and new eco-friendly lines at existing stores are aiming to re-aestheticise fashion and consumer habits to be greener, meaning ethical shopping does not have to compromise style and will in itself become a fashionable way to shop. Swimwear, shoes, underwear and everything in between can be made sustainably. However, these brands aren’t promoted as widely and therefore require more research online and even when sale periods are taking place at these stores, they cannot always compete with the super cheap prices of online fast fashion sites.

Other more sustainable brands worth investing in are independent local retailers, such as Syd and Mallory, a clothing store based in Sheffield, and Chunky Resin, an online jewellery brand. Independent brands have less funding and so often rely on promotion through social media, word of mouth, sites such as Etsy, and local art fairs. Items from these stores don’t have the carbon footprint of products manufactured in various different countries and are often created by local artists. Supporting the local economy instead of big corporations can be extremely rewarding and grow the market for this kind of business, as well as giving the consumer handmade, bespoke products. These are often not as expensive as brands which go for upcycling and can rival high street prices, and so can be easy for a consumer to support.

As well as increasing awareness about environmentally conscious brands, many consumers are turning more towards second-hand shopping - a cheaper way to spend their money more ethically. This is a huge market which was valued at $24 billion in the US in 2018, with the fast fashion industry valued at $35 billion there for the same year, according to GlobalData.

There are many options for shopping second hand, but a popular one, which has capitalised on the technological boom is Depop. Depop is an app on which its 10 million users come to sell and buy pre-owned clothing and products. Many of the items are new or hardly worn, and so it can be easy to discover items which are just as fashion-forward as pieces on the high street but for a better price. Vintage stores have also taken to Depop to promote items that, with the natural fashion cycles, have come back à la mode. This means that more unique items, which are of high quality (as seen by their ability to last decades), and aren’t as wallet-emptying, are available to purchase at the click of the button.

If Depop isn’t your thing but you’re still interested in purchasing vintage clothes, there is the option of kilo sales. These take place in cities across the UK, throughout the year. For around £15 a kilo, a customer can buy as many items as they wish, which has made them popular with young people who, with consumerist culture, tend to want multiple new products all at once.

Another second-hand alternative which is beneficial to others as well as the planet is charity shopping. Charity shops are easy to find in most towns, and it is a very convenient way to donate clothes, as well as buy them. Funds made from the clothing goes to the respective charities, so the ability to donate to a charity, something which many people may be unable to afford to do ordinarily, whilst getting rid of unused clothes in a sustainable way, is the perfect solution for many people looking to shop ethically.

Clothes swaps are also becoming more commonplace. These are happening not only among friends but are also being held by bigger institutions such as University Unions throughout the country. For every product donated, you can obtain a free item for yourself. With more and more communities holding these events, the access to free, new fashion is now easier than ever.

In order to combat the devastating downsides of fast fashion and fashion waste, we as consumers need to increase our awareness of cheaper alternatives to buying sustainably and disposing ethically. Looking good whilst doing good for the planet shouldn’t mean compromising on price. Consumers have the power to change the industry, and so we need to ask ourselves each time we want something whether it could be bought in a more sustainable way - the planet will thank us for it.

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