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Affordable ethical clothing

With the UK in a cost of living crisis, how can we shop both ethically and within budget?

Here, we look at whether ethical clothing can be affordable, discuss brands to look out for, and share our key tips and tricks for staying ethical within budget. 

The average UK household spends around £750 on clothing and footwear each year – a big chunk of our disposable income.

While ethical clothing has a reputation for having a high price, and with costs on the rise in general, many of us will be questioning whether we can still afford it.

Is ethical clothing affordable?

In the last decade we’ve seen the rise of ultra-cheap, ultra-disposable fast fashion brands. Boohoo, I Saw It First and others are retailing tops starting at £1. But, the price is paid elsewhere – by the environment, by workers in the supply chain, or by your future self when the item very quickly falls apart or goes out of fashion.

Ethical clothes reflect the true cost of production, ensuring, for example, that those working in factories are paid a fair wage. Because of this, they undoubtedly retail at a higher price than the cheapest of high street brands.

So can ethical clothing be affordable?

The answer to this question will of course depend on your own personal finances.

Fast fashion items are designed for quick sale and quick disposal, meaning that they often are not well made and may lose their shape, fall apart or otherwise look shabby quickly. They are also often linked to fast passing trends, which means they may look dated within months. Studies in recent years have found that many items of clothing are only worn 7-10 times before being disposed of.

On the other hand, ethical clothing is often better made and can be designed with repair in mind.

This means that it may be affordable if you can keep using it for many years to come. If you buy a t-shirt from men’s ethical clothing brand Brother’s We Stand for £30, you’d only have to wear it 31 times for it to become better value than many £8 fast fashion tops (if worn only 8 times).

Of course, this means paying out a greater upfront cost, which we can’t all always afford.

Below, we explore tips to buying more ethical options at an affordable price.

Two women looking at clothes on rail on street

What ethical clothing brands are cheapest?

The cost of ethical clothing varies greatly, depending on the brand. Here we give the cheapest price for some ethical basics. We looked at just a few of the brands from our ethical clothing guides.

We only included items not on sale – but lots of the brands offer up to 70% off at certain times.

T-shirts and jeans

Ethical t-shirts and jeans example costs
  T-shirts/tops Jeans
Brothers We Stand (men’s only) £20 £104
Earthmonk £25 -
THTC £15 -
MUD - £85
Beyond Retro (second-hand) £12 £10
Oxfam (second-hand) £2 £5

See more companies in our shopping guides to ethical t-shirts and ethical jeans.

Underwear and socks

Ethical underwear and socks example costs
  Underwear Socks
Brothers We Stand (men’s only) £15 £7
PACT £18 £11
PICO £18 -
Y.O.U £12 £10

Read up on 28 ethical brands who feature in our shopping guides in our A to Z of ethical clothing companies article.

6 top tips for buying affordable ethical clothing

1. Buy it second-hand

Buying second-hand is undoubtedly the most ethical thing you can do if looking for new clothing. Buying and selling second-hand makes significant climate and other environmental savings, by cutting out the need for us to keep on producing new clothes.

Luckily, it is also often up to 50% cheaper than buying the same item new, particularly for high-quality long-lasting items.

If you like the look of some fast fashion, resale apps like Vinted can be a good way to buy used versions without directly funding the industry (although you may not make much of a saving given the ridiculously low original price).

Shoes can be a great example. Cheap shoes usually wear through quickly. But resale apps are full of people selling really durable shoes like Dr Martens that are barely worn, often because they were just the wrong size. This can be a great way of making an ethical choice, avoiding any ethical issues associated with the original brand, and saving money.

Of course, buying second-hand is only more ethical if it replaces buying an item.

If you’re someone who likes to follow fashion and gets bored of your clothes quickly, can you sell items on second-hand too, to make sure they stay in use? It can also be an easy way to make back some money.

We have a handy article to buying second-hand clothing with lots of top tips.

2. Buy it in the sale

Sales can be a way to hook us in and make us buy things we don’t really want. But they can also be a way to get long-lasting well made ethical items that we might otherwise not be able to afford. Some ethical brands offer up to 70% off in their sales, including on items like pants and socks.

The Ethical Clothing website allows you to sign up to a weekly email alert to let you know which brands are on sale at that time. Ethical Consumer hasn’t rated all the brands on there, though, so you may want to cross-reference with our clothing guides to make sure you’re choosing one that definitely is ethical. (We also have a handy A-Z of some of the ethical clothing brands.)

Two women sorting clothes in boxes

3. Buy less but better

Our current rate of clothing production, sale and disposable is unsustainable. Buying less is an essential step towards a more balanced clothing industry. It is also the most obvious way to save money!

Ethical brands are often better made and longer-lasting than fast fashion equivalents. If you can afford to make a few longer-term investments, you may well save money over time.

Switching to less but better can be a bit of a culture shift. Why not think about how it might work for you?

If you’re into fashion and clothing, you could spend a bit of time at the start of a season thinking about what one item would really work with lots of your existing clothes while also making your outfits feel new.

It could be a brightly coloured pair of shoes, or a jumper that is good for layering. If you’re focused on one key piece of clothing, you may well then have both the time and money to search for the right ethical or second-hand option.

You could set yourself a budget for clothing, which would help you to know you’re not overspending even if you’re buying more expensive individual items. As a ball-park, the average UK household spends 3% of their outgoings on clothing and shoes.

4. Check the quality

Clothes aren’t really ethical or good value if they fall apart quickly. If you’re buying something new from an ethical brand, make sure to check that it feels well-made. It’s a good sign if the fabric feels heavy and thick (particularly for jumpers and jeans), and you can’t see through it. Any design features should also be sewn rather than glued on.

Orsola de Castro from campaign organisation Fashion Revolution says, “The first thing to do when you’re looking at a piece of clothing is turn it inside out and pull at every piece of string you find. When clothes are cheaply made, the seams are often shabby. If it starts to unravel – don’t buy it.”

Checking the quality might also be a way to talk yourself out of buying a poor-quality but temptingly cheap item that won’t be good value in the long-term.

5. Learn to alter and repair your clothes

Being able to alter and repair items can be your best friend if trying to buy both cheaply and ethically. Repairing items can make your existing clothes last longer, meaning that you don’t have as many replacements and can afford to buy better ones when you do. Alteration can also open up a world of cheap second-hand fashion.

Many of us are hesitant to buy second-hand items like trousers because it can be so hard to find the right fit. This is particularly true if buying off resale websites and apps online. Learning how to alter can give you much more choice. For example, you could buy a pair of jeans you know will be slightly on the big size and take in the waist, or make a too-long t-shirt more boxy and cropped.

WRAP's Love Your Clothes website has great information on upcycling and repairs.

Our article on buying second-hand and upcycling clothes also includes top tips on repairs and buying second-hand.

6. Buy from a brand offering repairs

A growing number of brands are offering repairs for their clothing (sometimes for free), particularly for jeans and outdoor gear. If you’re spending a bit more to buy an ethical item, on the basis it will last a long time, you might want to look for a brand that offers repairs.

This way, paying a bit more upfront will be more worthwhile from a long-term value perspective.

One example is the organic jeans retailer Nudie Jeans. Our outdoor clothing guide has a handy table listing some of the brands who do repairs and what is covered.

Shopping guide to ethical clothing brands

Find out more about ethical clothing brands in our shopping guide which reviews 27 brands. We look at key areas such as use of sustainable fabrics, climate impact, fair wages and working conditions, animal rights, and supply chain transparency.

Shopping guide to ethical clothing brands

Shopping guide to sportswear

Our shopping guide reviews the ethics and environmental record of 26 brands of sportswear. We also look at workers' rights, materials used including synthetics and the problem of microplastics and size inclusivity.

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Shopping guide to ethical t-shirts

We look at the ethical and environmental record of 20 ethical t-shirt brands. We investigate sustainable fabrics, forced labour, sweatshops and recommend ALL the brands in the guide!

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