Sustainable Shopping on a Budget *In This Economy*

Sustainable Shopping in This Economy

With inflation rates as high as 9% over the past year, it’s a wonder any of us are getting by.

While last summer’s exorbitant oil prices have gone down, essentials like food are still more expensive. And, though the housing market is cooling, millions are still struggling to pay egregiously expensive rent.

I accepted a two-year salary package at the beginning of last year with no cost-of-living increase. As a result, as prices on oil, food, toiletries, and clothing increase each month, I’m left with less and less to put into savings (or pay off my student loans).

I know that I am fortunate to have job stability, and it certainly helps that my mother-in-law moved in with us last year and contributes to rent and groceries.

But my story is just one of many. Many, if not most, Americans are struggling to make ends meet these days.

close up shot of eggs in carton

Inflation and Wage Inequality

Inflation isn’t the whole story.

Wages for middle class and low-income earners have been virtually stagnant since the end of the 1970s. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in the absence of increasing income inequality, middle class households would be making up to $20,000 more per year than they actually are.

Even worse, the income of low-wage workers has actually fallen by 5% since 1979. This, while high-wage worker incomes have increased by 41%.

Is Shopping Sustainably Possible in this Economy?

In the face of such blatant injustice, pursuing more ethical or sustainable products can seem kind of silly. Who has the time or money to dedicate to sustainable goods when rent is due and there are groceries to buy?

It has become popular to justify going back to fast fashion like Shein when affordability is a concern.

But this “solution” only pushes the problem to the most vulnerable. Because cheaper goods mean that factory workers are being paid even less for their work. It also opens the door for safety violations and a reduction in material quality.

And though profit margins can be as high as 70% in fashion, most ethical and sustainable brands are already operating at the smallest profit margin possible without putting a burden on workers.

protester holds sign that reads "over worked, under valued, exploited"

Lack of Affordability is Systemic and Requires Systemic Solutions

The only way we’re going to be able to seriously confront affordability issues in the fashion industry is by doing something about wage inequality and high inflation here in the U.S.

First, we have to deal with income inequality at the organizational level.

A company’s highest wage earners should have salary caps that ensure they’re making a reasonable multiplier over the lowest-paid workers in the company. This has been put forward by Democratic legislators like Bernie Sanders, but it’s still a long way to implementation.

Next, the federal minimum wage should be increased to a living wage.

Third, we should require companies to justify price increases instead of using inflation to justify increasing their profits.

As long as we allow greed to go unchecked, we will always be chasing the cheapest thing, at a horrible cost to the farm and factory workers who live in precarity to make our clothes.

black sheer blouse hangs on peg in dressing room

How to Pursue Sustainable Shopping When You Don’t Have Much Money

I truly believe that our best bet for a more sustainable garment industry is remembering that we are all tied up in the same mess: farmers, factory workers, retail workers, and consumers.

We don’t need to feel ashamed for being burdened by economic injustice. By the same token, we don’t need to be cruel to others who are making different financial choices than us.

But there are some ways to pursue sustainable shopping without breaking the bank. Use the information that’s helpful to you and adapt the rest.

1. Buy less stuff.

This one is easy on the surface, but it can be hard to do in practice. Our society tells us that we deserve to “treat ourselves.” So we use consumption as a coping mechanism for stress. The popularity of fast fashion hauls is telling.

Try this instead: when you think about buying something, take an inventory of what you already have that might suit the occasion or fill the hole. It may not be perfect, but it’s almost always better than buying new.

For instance, one of my fitted sheets just tore and I almost purchased a full replacement sheet set. But then I saw that (affiliate link) Quince sells sets with just a fitted sheet and pillow cases. I saved money by only replacing the torn component (well, plus pillow cases).

2. Don’t take fashion risks.

This sounds un-fun, but when money is tight, it’s best to only buy what you know will work for a long time. Trend items are ultimately a waste of money.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a personal sense of style. Find a few things that are personal to your aesthetic and let that be enough.

I really enjoy defining my style by pairing unusual colors together and by cutting my own hair, two things that cost nothing to upkeep!

3. Buy secondhand in person or online.

There are always limitations when shopping secondhand. But you may be surprised to see how many things are available at a better price on the secondhand market.

When I’m looking for a specific item, I always check Ebay, Poshmark, and Thredup first.

4. Buy the best thing you can in a style, size, and price point that suits you.

Ethics and sustainability is ultimately about appreciation: for the garment itself and everyone in the supply chain. My somewhat controversial take is that this might mean purchasing a less ethical item if it means that it will be loved and worn.

Especially when money is tight, it makes sense to buy something that really works for you rather than something you think you’re supposed to buy. Be picky about fabric, finishing, and ease of laundering to ensure that the item will be well-loved.

5. Shop in person when possible.

On a similar note, reduce impulse buys and regret purchases by shopping in person when you can. This will ensure that the product fits, and looks and feels the way you want it to.

Even if you prefer to shop online, see if you can find the item locally first and then order it once you get home. (I do this a lot for items I like at Target. I can try on the item in person and then shop a greater variety of sizes and colors online.)

The added benefit is that this process will reduce returns, which helps reduce waste.

Ultimately, only you can determine what tips and adaptations work for you. Trust that your care and attention matters even if you can’t single-handedly transform an unjust garment industry.

It’s not up to you. It’s up to all of us.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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