How can I shop for clothes more ethically if I can’t afford them?
At face value, this question suggests that ethical consumption under capitalism is possible when it’s not. Some level of exploitation and/or negative environmental impact occurs during the production, sale, and end of use/disposal of our products and goods.
There’s no absolute, feel-good solution to where you leave every purchase or transaction feeling and being ethically in the clear.
But not everything is equally unethical.
First, try to avoid shopping from big box retailers like Amazon, Walmart, or fast fashion sites with a history of exploitative labor practices. Where you can, support smaller, more local businesses. If you shop in person at stores closer to you, you may make a lesser environmental impact than relying on next-day shipping from international distributors. You can also explore secondhand retailers (whether thrifting in person, or using apps like Poshmark) to find something already loved.
Also, notice whether or not you need to buy something new at all. Overconsumption drives environmental hazards of cheap goods. Whether I’m shopping for a wedding guest dress on a fast fashion site or a more ethical brand in my budget, I’m ignoring the three viable options hanging in my closet. Try to rewear or upcycle something into a new fashion statement or swap clothes with friends nearby.
In the piece on the futility of relying on electric vehicles to fix the climate crisis, I argued how engaging in capitalism to solve a capitalism-induced issue will always have winners and losers. And the greater global good benefits when we transition away from it, either entirely or partially. The same applies here.
Viewing consumerism through an ethical lens is meant to make us feel better about our purchases and even appear better to society about said choices instead of looking into the behavior itself and asking if this is even necessary or worth the impact.
This isn’t meant to shame us for being consumers or remove the responsibility off of corporations, but rather shift how we engage with them and capitalism as a whole.
Definitely do your research to find the more ethical option available within your price range, advocate for improvements in the clothing and labor industries, and consider shifting your approach to buying what you need, when you need it (not opting for same-day delivery), and buying less.
But don’t feel bad if you can’t. The reality is that it’s really expensive to be alive. And things like food, housing, and even clothing and some tech are necessary to survive and are integral to our daily lives. And being on a budget puts additional strain on not only the ethical options available to us but also the cheaper, often less ethical alternatives.
While individual solutions can’t fix systemic problems, a mass societal shift in our habits and values can create pressure and change on industries and governments to enact sizable change.