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Ethical Shopping on a Budget

From affordable fashion to food saving ideas, welcome to our guide on shopping ethically while saving money and the planet, with over 100 ideas to help.

With the cost of living crisis looming and inflation rising, we have gathered tips and tricks for shopping ethically on a budget. During the pandemic and lockdowns we asked our readers for their top tips and received lots of ideas and life hacks to help save the planet for less. With growing concern about rising costs, we issued another call for ideas for saving money whilst being an ethical consumer, and received many great new ideas.

There are now over 100 suggested ideas for shopping ethically on a budget that we think are the most useful and easy to achieve. Let us know if you have other ways of saving money while shopping ethically.

We start with 5 golden rules, then look at some general advice, before taking a more in-depth look at a range of sectors from ethical fashion to energy saving.

The 5 golden rules for savvy, money-saving, ethical consumers

These top five tips were suggested by many of our readers:

  1. Buy less but better quality, especially clothing and household items
  2. Go to the shops less often and avoid shopping as a leisure activity or retail therapy
  3. Buy second hand where you can  
  4. Buy things that are easily repairable   
  5. Before you buy, ask yourself if you REALLY need it?

Buying second hand

As we say above, buying second hand is always a great option. Hundreds of people who responded to our survey suggested this along with finding things for free or swapping items. Platforms mentioned include: Ebay, charity shops, Freecycle, Gumtree, Freegle, or Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

“Bought 2 good armchairs from Ebay for £25 and still using them 10 years later. Steam-cleaned them and they came up beautifully.” – Susan from Ely.

“I set up a neighbourhood Facebook group and people share things and post when they're looking to buy something second hand (managed to get a pestle and mortar this week after ours broke...from the back of a neighbours kitchen cupboard who had never used it!)” – Clare from Portsmouth @southseamum.

You can also sell things to other people.

Grant from Barnet said "have a spring clean and de-clutter the house – sell unused or good quality items to raise some money."

Below we list some more specific tips and tricks sector by sector.

Clothes shopping on a budget

When it came to clothing, the overwhelming message from our readers was BUY LESS.

image: sewing machine leicester fast fashion

“I have implemented a shopping ban on new clothes.” – Hannah (@betternotstop) from Glossop.

“If I need to replace an item then once the charity shops are open I can look in them. Otherwise no new clothing for the next 12 months." – James from Bristol.

Other suggestions included buying second hand from Depop, Ebay and charity shops such as Oxfam (which also has an online shop, so can save a trip to the high street).

Clare from Portsmouth went a step further and "Organised a school uniform swap table in our local library" – a great idea as kids often grow out of school uniform while it’s still in good condition.

Some people, like Jane from Nottingham always waits “for the sales to get reductions on online ethical clothing companies (e.g. People Tree).”

However, some companies choose not to have sales for ethical reasons, believing a fair price should be paid for the item. If it weren't for sales, companies might come up with other solutions for stock that doesn't sell - including making less stock to begin with. Ethical Consumer Best Buy THTC (clothing company) deliberately does not use sales "as an excuse to make a load of money by burning through dead stock. If something's not selling well, we carry it onto the following seasons. We try to only print what we know we're going to sell.""

If you do need to buy new (such as for underwear), we have article on how to find affordable ethical clothing.

Some are also repairing old clothes, learning to sew and patch up old clothes. Our article on upcycling clothing may give you some tips on this.

Jacky from East Northants said "Buy remnants of fabrics (or buy ethical swatches of fabrics) to make or mend your clothes or other items."

Many people also recommended washing clothes less often (particularly jeans), and on cooler wash cycles, and reducing the spin cycle speed.

Food and drink that doesn’t cost the earth

This is an area where cutting consumption can be tough: we all need to eat! But the good news is that we had lots of recommendations by readers. For food and drink, it is about refocusing spending and of course cutting down on expensive meat consumption – which not only saves money but also the planet.

Tips fall into categories of what you eat (and grow), shopping habits, and food waste.

We also have a separate article on how to shop ethically in the supermarket.

buying an apple

What you eat

“Eating meat-free has hugely reduced my food bill, but if we get meat it is from a local butcher and free range. This is more expensive then the supermarket so only ever a treat.” – Hannah from Glossop.

Many others had cut out meat completely, with recommendations to buy pulses (including British-grown), and batch cook dried beans etc.

Lots of people suggested cooking from scratch. Phil from Kendal, Laura from Christchurch and Jane from Nottingham all reduced their spend by cutting out ready made meals and sauces.

Sue from Kendal said “Grow bean sprouts they are nutritious and cheap, good in packed lunches or salads.”    

Several people are saving money by reducing spending on “junk food” such as “sweets, chocolate, processed carbohydrates and biscuits”.

Harriet in London said “I've found that using spices (bought loose in paper bags) stops me from adding cheese to tomato-based sauces” and saves money.

When you cook, Rosie from Leicester said “Fill the oven when baking e.g. 3 loaves bread, 2 flapjacks, 1 roasting tray of veg” to make the most of the energy used. 

Ruth from Inverness said “Take flasks of tea and coffee when going out for the day, travelling, meeting friends in the park, instead of buying expensive take away drinks.” This also reduces packaging waste.

One person said “challenge our assumptions and reduce use of dairy or plant milk in tea and coffee – it's not really needed.”

Price comparison between meat and plant-based proteins

We had a look on a supermarket website to check out the price difference between beef and tofu.

Mince beef: the cheapest was £7.56/kg, while a 450g block of tofu was £6.77/kg.

Red lentils were £2.40/kg and butter beans £3.60/kg.

However, you may want to compare protein levels. 

Prices from Morrisons on 29/06/2022

Making your own

Many readers recommended making your own plant milk. Brian from Birmingham makes oat and hazelnut milks, Anna from Poynton makes hemp milk, and Clare from Exeter makes soya milk. This reduces packaging and costs. Anna also said “it stops me having to go to the supermarket where I will buy stuff I don't need.”

Clare said “My local health food shop ordered and delivered the soya beans for me, all 25kg, in a brown paper sack. Each jugful, nearly a litre, costs 21p in beans + some electricity costs.”

Brian said “We also make oat crackers from the ground-up oats and hazelnuts left over from making milk. Mix in some herbs, spread them thinly on a baking tray, and bake for half an hour. Simple home-made crackers.”

Switching supermarkets

If you usually shop in a supermarket and there is choice near you, switching supermarkets may save you some money. None of the main high street supermarkets score very highly in our supermarkets guide, with both Lidl and Aldi only a point behind Waitrose. Depending on your ethical preferences, you may find that stocking up on essentials in a different supermarket saves money.

One reader suggested “If you have neighbours who use the same supermarket, offer to combine orders to save on delivery charges. Particularly helpful if you have elderly neighbours and can reduce carbon emissions.”

Shopping smart

“Use magazine and other vouchers, for things you are going to buy anyway” said Roger from Surrey.

Buying in bulk was recommended by many readers.

Many supermarkets have 'BOGOF' (buy one get one free) offers and other deals often on bulk purchases. If you don't need large amounts of certain things, see if you can go shopping with a friend or have an arrangement with a neighbour to bulk buy but share the food.

If you don't need the produce straight away, some items can be frozen immediately, or chopped and then frozen.

If it's an option, shopping when the shops mark up reduced items can save you money if you buy the reduced price fresh items like breads and fruit and vegetables.

Brenda from East Sussex takes a slightly different approach and said “Ask yourself 'what do I need as opposed to want?' Only buy essentials, have a shopping list and stick to it.”

And although we had many recommendations for buying close-to date and reduced price products, Diane from London said “reduce supermarket trips and only go for specific items. No BOGOF offers and no 'yellow stickers' (reduced 'bargains').”

Some people might agree with this tip from an ethical point of few, as reduced priced products are sold for less than they are actually worth, and may impact on the producer. Special offers like BOGOF deals can also be at the expense of the producer rather than the retailer.

Peter from Stroud created a local group to buy wholefoods direct from co-operatives like Suma and Essentials, at wholesale prices. “Needs a minimum order of £250, but several households can easily reach that total if they shop together each month” he told us. Best Buy company Suma can give individual invoices under one order going to one address, so you can easily work out who paid for what. It’s great for cupboard groceries such as chickpeas or pasta. It also helps to cut down on packaging.

One person said “Do a spreadsheet to work out where is cheapest to buy in bulk, comparing local refill shops as well as online stores.”

You may have enough interested friends and neighbours to do what Henry from Bristol recommended: “Form a food coop - see”

You can also save pennies (which add up!) by taking your own bags when shopping, rather than paying for plastic bags. This not only saves over time, but reduces plastic waste. 

Cutting food waste

Some people found that moving to online grocery shopping helped to cut shopping bills and waste.

“Ordering groceries online has the advantage that you only buy what you need. It means less food waste.” – @anushaiyer from Cambridge.

Several readers suggested using food waste apps like Olio or Too Good To Go, where locally reduced food is available. Others recommended learning how to store food properly to reduce wasting food you have bought, for example, which things are best not kept in the fridge.

Many others also recommended using local surplus food projects, often run by community groups, volunteers or charities. “Check if there is a community fridge in your area. They distribute free unsold fresh food that would otherwise be thrown away. It is for anyone to use.” said Anna from Norwich. Search online and ask locally as surplus food projects/community fridges may be called different things in different areas.

Several people recommended following Jack Monroe aka @bootstrapcook on Twitter, and using their recipes from Monica said “Take ideas from chefs like Tom Hunt or Max La Manna, or websites like Love Food Hate Waste for ideas on how to save money while avoiding waste.”

For fresh fruit and veg people were turning to local shops.

Giulia from Dorchester told us that she has cut food bills this way and helped save the environment. “I now buy fruit and veg from the local farm shop, and only once a week ... by buying once a week only I ensure I use up what I have. I noticed I have wasted less food and saved money.”

“Be flexible in habits depending on what ethical items are available cheaply at the time. For example, buy seasonal fruit and vegetable not imported items.” Jenny from Pyworthy.

Other people were very keen to use up all leftover food, so there was no money wasted. “On the day before you shop, use up every veg you can by making soup or a ratatouille or a vegetarian casserole. Once new veg are in the fridge the older ones look unappetising and get left,” said one reader.

Growing your own to save money

Growing your own veg is also popular among readers.

Mendi from Cumbria said “Grow mint and other things in pots and use for herb teas and instead of squash”, whilst others recommended getting an allotment either with neighbours or on your own.

Rowena in Devon told us, “I’ve grown all my veggies and plants from seed this year, and plan to save the seed for next year as I chose heritage type seeds. I’m also composting like mad and making leaf mould as well as comfrey and nettle fertiliser to reduce what I need to buy from a garden centre.”

Leann from Leeds said "75% of our veg and fruit comes from our allotment, we reckon it saves us nearly £1200 a year compared with buying organic produce, even factoring cost of rent, compost, seeds".

Meanwhile Laura from London ( @myfairladle ) is not letting anything go to waste. “Regrowing food (spring onions, lettuce, cauliflower) rather than throwing away the stalks.”

If you have saved seeds you can have informal seed swaps with friends and neighbours, or some places hold organised seed swap stalls and events.

One person recommended growing perennial vegetables to save on always buying more seeds/plants.

You can also make your own compost from your food waste, said Justine from London.

Also mentioned was by Barbara from Essex as a good source of information on growing fruit and veg.


“Get foraging” says Lucinda from London “It is possible in cities! There is wild garlic on Tooting Common in spring and the elder flowers are just starting to bloom. I'm going to be picking some on Monday to make elder flower cordial. Just remember to always leave some for others.”

You can forage for seasonal wild fruits, herbs and other foods. People suggested getting a good book on it or reading up online, and picking responsibly.

Saving money on household items

With household products there were a variety of ideas, including making your own products such as cleaning fluids, and looking into bulk refill options and borrowing.

image: ethical bathroom with bowl bath and wooden features eco friendly plants

A few of our readers mentioned soapnuts. Louise from Kendal said “I make laundry liquid from them (takes 20 mins once every couple of weeks) and a kilo bag (£12) lasts a year.” That’s a huge saving!

According to Jane from Surrey, you can also add them straight to the wash. She says “Just add 4-5 nuts in a small cloth pouch that can be closed. Throw the pouch in with the clothes and wash as usual. Each batch of the 4-5 nuts lasts 6 washes or more. When the nuts look faded and dry, chuck them in the compost. Clothes come out clean and smelling neutral without any detergent smell. Great for people with sensitive skin.” Easy as that...

Soapnuts’ big rival among our readers seemed to be Ecoeggs. According to @heatherlmichell from Stalybridge, they have “Excellent cleaning power and Fresh linen smells lovely. Even older family members (staunch traditionalists) have converted!”

Making your own products and buying in bulk

Others, such as Silvia from London, are making their own cleaning products. She re-uses empty bottles and says “no more waste and a saving of about £100 for the year.”

Julia from Buxton recommended Nancy Birtwhistle's book 'Clean & Green' to find out more on making your own cleaning products – ask your library to stock the book or others that are recommended.

Depending on the brand you usually buy and if there is a refill shop near you, some detergents and cleaning products may work out cheaper to buy in bulk in a refill station. Check the price per 100ml and see if a friend or neighbour wants to join you if you can't store a large amount at home – save previous bottles so you can decant the liquid.

In the home

If you like lots of plants indoors or outside, Mark from York recommended asking for cuttings from friends and neighbours, and making your own cuttings to offer, instead of buying plants.

Several people recommended reusable washable cloths for cleaning rather than disposable wipes or kitchen roll. These could be bought ones, or one person suggested that worn out sheets, pillowcases, towels etc can be cut up and re-purposed as cleaning clothes, baby wipes, handkerchiefs (replace disposable paper tissues) or other similar things.

A time and energy saving recommendation came from Mendi in Cumbria who said “Reduce ironing of clothes - saves money and time, smooth before dry and only do the essentials.” With 'work from home' a new feature for many people, perfectly ironed clothing may not be so essential, and many other items like tea towels function just as well without being ironed!

Grant from Barnet said “Don't buy daily newspapers. Look for free printed issues, or stay informed by radio, TV or online, or read the newspapers in the local library for free.”

And Justine from London said “unsubscribe from [product] mailing lists so that you are not tempted by sales or special offers for things you don’t need.”

The share economy – borrow don't buy

A 'library of things' is a community venture where people can borrow things, rather than buying them. This might save you money particularly for things you don't use very often e.g. a tent, or hedge cutters.

Our directory lists over 40 libraries of things – new ones are starting all the time so look locally if there isn't one listed at the moment. And if you fancy starting up a library of things, read the article for the top 10 tips on how to set one up.

There are also car clubs and other community transport options which might help save money on travel costs.

Ethical health and beauty on a shoestring

Our readers are finding alternatives and cutting down on their use of health and beauty products to save money and the environment.

image: soap bars ethical eco friendly bathroom products

Here are the 4 most popular ideas.

  • “Switch to soap in the shower – less packaging plus soap is generally cheaper, and lasts a long time.” – Sophie from Oxford.
  • “Switching from sani pads to a menstrual cup, no more waste and a saving of about £250 a year.” – Anna (@annafelixdixie) from Porthtowan.
  • “I no longer pay for haircuts. I use a Crea Clip and cut my own hair every 6 weeks.” – Hannah from Glossop.
  • “I have hugely reduced use of things like moisturiser and stopped wearing make-up except on special occasions.” – Aimee from Bonnybridge.

Others were ditching cosmetics altogether, but we know this a bit much for some people and isn't always possible.

In the bathroom

Jane from Farnham had a couple of useful suggestions. She has found that using a washable makeup remover sponge and appropriate soap/cleaner is easier to use, cheaper and more effective than bought cleansers or makeup removers. Sue in Kendal also recommended using natural sponges to clean the skin and replace buying body wash products.

Jane has halved the amount of shampoo and conditioner she uses when she washes her hair, saying “You need much less than you think.”

Along the same lines Chris from Stroud suggested looking for an ethical deodorant which offers 48 hour protection so you can reduce usage to every other day.

Mark in York suggested using a rolling pin to squeeze more out of toothpaste and other tubes.

Bruce from London had a number of recommendations, including swapping the bath for a shower, taking a quicker shower, or showering less often and washing using a flannel instead, saving money on electricity and water.

In a similar vein, a couple of other people suggested reducing the use of the hot water cistern, only putting it on if it's actually needed that day, or optimising the timing of it to use cheaper electricity during off-peak hours (which only applies if you have Economy 7 or similar multi-tariff rate.

To save water (and money if you’re on a water heater), Ruth from Twickenham recommended using a water saving device in the toilet to use less water each flush.

Ed from Cambridge suggested using ‘greywater’ i.e. water from baths to wash your car/patio. Ed said “You can even siphon it out of the bath straight through a hose to save carrying buckets", although we recommend reading up on if this is practical where you live as it sounds complicated!

Also in the bathroom, several people suggested using cloth wipes instead of toilet paper – this does require a bucket to put them in and you'd need a process for cleaning them.

Energy and tech with a lower impact

With the recent hikes in energy prices, cutting down on use is at the front of many people's minds. It is possible to reduce energy bills to save money and the planet, and many of our readers were doing this.

image: better digital events

Turning the thermostat down and putting a jumper on was suggested by a number of people. 18C was a temperature suggested by many readers that kept a balance between saving money and keeping the house warm in winter.

Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis notes that whilst he wishes he didn't have to write the advice to 'heat the human' rather than heating rooms, it is one option to save money on heating. However there are caveats around personal health and maintaining a good environment for the house e.g. so that damp doesn't build up.

Look at or the Energy Saving Trust for more advice on making energy saving changes.

Smart meters can help show you how much energy is being used, including by things left on standby. Turn things like the TV off overnight or when not in use.

Other suggestions included ditching the tumble dryer, not getting mobile phone upgrades and turning the wifi off overnight.

Some people were also swapping their cooking techniques to favour the microwave over the oven to reduce electricity use.

Chris from Stroud said “Cut the grass less frequently. Reduces carbon emissions, saves energy and is good for insects.”

Transport and fuel costs

Many people cut down on petrol costs by walking and cycling more, if this is an option, while Mary from Newport @MaryEFreeman even sold her car. Short distances of a few miles are manageable for some people, which might include small shopping trips and visiting friends. Switching to cycling can also save carbon emissions. “Shop locally and on foot to save fuel” said Alison.

Some people also suggested hypermilling or economy driving – our car guide has more information on this.

Monica suggested a way of reducing mileage was to rethink what we do in our spare time for fun/leisure. She said “Do we really need to take the car at the weekends to go somewhere we fancy? What about changing plans and go for a walk to a nearby park, bring your own lunch pack and you can have a nice day out.”

Beth from Reading suggested a similar thing “Reduce ‘treats’ but spend locally and more ethically instead e.g. instead of having Starbucks twice a week, go to a local independent coffee shop once a month.”

If you do reduce your mileage, Chris from Stroud said “check your car insurance to see if you are paying too much because you are now doing less mileage. Many insurers offer lower premiums for lower mileage.” See our guide to car insurance if you are due to renew.

Saving on tech

Several people recommended reducing use of mobile phones to only necessary texts and calls and switching to paying for actual use rather than monthly contracts. 

Some people recommended buying refurbished tech, and getting phones second hand from friends/relatives who do upgrade their phones.

Rather than buying a colour printer for home use, one reader recommended using the local public library for colour printing. Although there will be a small charge, depending on how much you need to print in colour, it often works out cheaper than buying ink cartridges for your own printer.

And one reader recommended using solar powered battery chargers and torches, along with wind-up torches, radios etc.

Making presents instead of buying

Lots of our readers had ethical gift ideas and many were making (or planting) presents for friends and loved ones.

“Make presents don't buy them - bake a cake, plant up some herbs, make a chutney...” - Rosie from Worcester @rosievenner.

“Making birthday boxes for friends/family with homemade bunting, biscuits, a compilation cd and peg dolls made by the children.” - Jane from York.

“Making your own gifts is really fun, much more thoughtful, and if you get creative it can basically be free. I made a friend an indigo tie-dyed t-shirt for her birthday, I've made body scrubs from ingredients in my kitchen cupboard and recycled jams jars, and I am propagating some of my plants to give to friends in recycled pots. Homemade chutneys and baked goods also make wonderful gifts. Making your own cards with pressed leaves or flowers costs next to nothing.” Lucinda from London.

You can also make your own cards, and use cloth material for gift wrap as it’s reusable.

Our favourite advice

Some of our favourite advice comes from challenging our ideas of spending.

Caroline in Loughton said, “Find joy in nature and walking, its free...”

And Clare in Exeter highlighted that we don’t need to buy things to feel good. She said “Recognising that contentment mainly comes from things that are free, like CLANK: 1. Connecting with other people 2. Learning new things 3. Activity – physical (even if just a walk) 4. Noticing things e. g. vibrant colours, and being grateful for them 5. Kindness and thoughtfulness – they can be so powerful."

Teresa of Newcastle-under-Lyme also had a great idea. She uses a combination of Ethical Consumer and Money Saving Expert websites to inform big purchases.

Whatever your budget, we hope these tips can help you to cut down your weekly or monthly spending while staying as ethical as possible.

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