sustainable fashion that doesn't break the bank

Photo by YIMING TANG/Pexels 


I spent a lot of time at the mall between the ages of 13-20. 

I worked there in college, I went every day after high school for an entire year with my BFF, and I begged my parents to let me go, chaperoned, in middle school (where I bought my very first Hollister shirt and thought that SOCAL was “social” spelled wrong). 

For you fellow millennial mall rats, mall culture might be gone but the mall itself has moved online. Now, we have access to every single item of clothing we could ever have wanted. 

Good for dopamine, bad for the planet. 

You’re ready to build a sustainable wardrobe and incorporate more sustainable fashion, but you’re on a budget. We got you! 

What you’re not going to do is start buying everything from ‘sustainable’ brands. Instead we’re going to talk about the fastest and cheapest way to build a sustainable wardrobe: mindful consumption

Because the real problem behind Big Fashion, fast fashion, and the whole industry is consumption. We all have too much shit. 

Let’s talk about ditching the endless cycle of trends and embracing a more sustainable fashion in our lives. 

the problem with sustainable fashion

Photo by Vladimir Srajber/Pexels 

Fast fashion is problematic at best, you know this. 

  • garment workers aren’t getting paid livable wages
  • they aren’t working in safe conditions
  • the industry as a whole is one of the top carbon polluters
  • the sheer amount of waste from fashion is choking the planet and polluting our neighbors’ homes.  

It’s a dumpster fire but we also have to be real: sometimes fast fashion is all that's available, fits the budget, or comes in the right size. 

And there's no shame in that; I'm wearing Target pants right now!

Shopping with "sustainable brands" is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the ultimate solution. The issue isn't about replacing one type of consumption with another. It's about reducing consumption altogether.

Sustainability is a spectrum and no brand can be perfectly ethical and eco-friendly across the entire supply chain. 

Let’s talk about some of the major issues with sustainable fashion. 

what even is sustainable fashion?

Sustainability is a spectrum in that there are a plethora of things you can be doing to be more sustainable while also doing things that are not sustainable. There’s also no definition or even regulation around ‘sustainability’. A brand may be using organic cotton while still exploiting workers. 


Self-regulation leads to greenwashing. That’s when we find things like tags labeled ‘recycled content’, natural colors and images, and words like ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘conscious’, and ‘safe’. 

lack of supply chain transparency

85% of the fashion industry does not report on how much they're actually producing. This lack of transparency makes it extremely difficult to control or monitor the entire supply chain of a garment. Those that do put in the time and effort should be paid for it which increases the final price. 

recycled confusion

Using recycled materials, like water bottles, is super innovative but they come with a catch: creating new microplastics. Other brands brag about using recycled fibers or future recyclability but that technology is still underdeveloped, expensive, and not accessible to many. 

When Paulina was looking for a manufacturing partner who could bring her vision to life with 100% recycled plastic, well, it was a lot harder than she thought it was going to be to find an honest, willing partner. 


Sustainable fashion is all about valuing quality materials, ethical labor practices, and responsible production which unfortunately, makes the final product quite expensive. These garments are unique and they are built to last but we want to acknowledge that it is expensive. 


Your time is valuable. It should not be your responsibility to do investigative journalism just to buy a t-shirt. This is where increased regulations and certifications can help create trust in the industry. 

the real key to sustainable fashion is mindful consumption

At first it’s going to be hard, then it’s going to be freeing. You’re going to (try to) stop chasing the latest trends or constantly buying new clothes.

But what will I do on the weekends?!” Trust me, you’ll find something.

The true key to affordable sustainable fashion lies in mindful consumption. Kinda like what you might have experienced when making sustainable changes elsewhere in your life. 

My sustainable journey started with plastic and that initial urge to ditch all plastic from my life. That’s obviously not possible but I really had to take a look at my impulse purchases and ask:


  • Do I really need this? Can something already in my closet work?
  • Are there eco-friendly alternatives? Could I choose a more sustainable fabric, buy pre-owned, or save up for a small designer?
  • Can I resist the pressure to buy? Can I appreciate the trend without being forced to buy into it?

It may feel like it, but it’s not about depriving yourself of something you want — you’ll never be able to maintain it if that’s how you see it. 

  • it is about empowering yourself to see beyond instant gratification.
  • it is about seeing the broader effect of your decisions. 
  • it is about recognizing society’s peer pressure towards constant consumption.
  • it is about developing a new skill of conscious consumerism.  

And the best part is you can mindfully consume whatever you want. If you need to shop fast fashion because that’s what’s in your budget or size, that’s fine

The problem comes with too much consumption: Hauls, buying a new outfit for every time you step out of the house, or throwing away (donating) your clothes after less than 25 wears.

building a sustainable wardrobe on a budget: 5 ideas to get started

Photo by Liza Summer/Pexels

Incorporating more sustainable fashion into your life is multi-faceted. There are an infinite number of ways to do it. But we’ve narrowed it down to these 5 that you can do simultaneously or one at a time, however they fit best into your life. 

stop buying into trends

Trends move at a lightning-fast pace, especially with TikTok. The best way to be more sustainable is to cut yourself off from them. It’s just a cycle of spending. 

Yes, that strawberry barrel bag is adorable, but for how long?


  • Are you still going to like it in 3 weeks after the internet has moved on?
  • Do you really want the same thing everyone else has?

This also applies to high-end, luxury designers (sorry). Luxury brands used to be more sustainable but now many of these “luxury” brands use the same factories as fast fashion companies. 

There are 3 ways we recommend getting out of the cycle of trends: 

  • put the trendy item in a list/on a board. Close it, leave it, don’t revisit it for 7-14 days. Then come back and see how passionately (or not) you still feel about it. 
  • good friends don’t let friends make bad decisions. Unfollow influencers and brands who are just promoting overconsumption. Red flags for anyone using phrases like: 
    • “walk don’t run” 
    • “literally, this changed my life” 
    • “this is now available ____” 
    • “Y’ALL”
  • LOOK AROUND. Seriously, go outside and look around. Spend time in spaces you like to spend time in and see how many people really have this item compared to how your feed feels.

stop buying & consuming so much

Photo by Kei Scampa

This also applies to thrifting (sorry!) and buying from other sustainable brands, the point is to consume less. And to do that, you need to stop buying for a while. Especially,

  • last minute purchases
  • items on sale (or limited stock)
  • from social media
  • late at night 

There is no magic number for how many items of clothing you should own, everyone is different! But as a whole, we all have SO.MUCH.STUFF (also, read that article).

    • since the year 2000, clothing production has doubled
    • we buy 60% more clothes than we did just 15 years ago
    • 33% of people (from a study) think that a garment is considered old after being worn twice
    • 15 million secondhand garments arrive in Accra, Ghana from the Global North every week.
    • 85% of all garments made end up in a landfill. 

I know! You need clothes for…. You fill in the blank. But do you? Just cut back for a while and observe how much better you feel, how much time you have back, and how much money you save. 

use what you already have

Do you know everything you have in your wardrobe? Do you still find items with the price tag on them? The most sustainable thing you can do (most of the time) is use what you already have

You’re going to do this in 3 steps: 

a. re-visit your clothes

Clean out your closet. Take everything out if that feels right to you, and make three piles. A keep, a mend, and a giveaway. As you’re going through everything, you’ll want to follow a similar process to creating a sustainable capsule wardrobe

Essentially, think about each piece and ask yourself: 

  • when was the last time I wore this?
  • how does it make me feel? 
  • can I pair it with multiple other items?
  • can I wear it to multiple types of events?

b re-familiarize yourself with your stuff

Get familiar with what you have. I live in a small city condo, I can’t access all my clothes at once so I take it a season at a time. Knowing what you have can help curb impulse purchases and help you make better decisions when buying something new. 

c. re-organize

Lastly, put it all back away in a way that makes sense for you to use it. Whether that be by color, by type, by shape, whatever works for you. Knowing what’s there and knowing where it is will majorly help you to wear what you already have. 

take care of your stuff

We’re not often taught how to take care of our things, we’re just told to do it. Kind of like being an adult. We don’t take classes to file taxes or understand what a non-compete contract means in high-school. 

But we learn and we will learn to take better care of our clothing because doing extends its life, saves us money, and keeps it out of a landfill (for longer). 

Taking better care of your clothes looks like: 

  • follow the correct wash and dry instructions (if it says no high heat, don’t use high heat! And TBH air drying is better anyway).
  • dry clean if necessary.
  • follow the care labels for ironing, water temperature, bleach, and washing.
  • treat stains immediately.
  • use the correct amount of detergent.
  • consider if the item really needs to be washed (unless you’re working and sweating in them you could probably wash your jeans less).
  • avoid overloading the washer or dryer.
  • use a delicates bag when necessary.
  • store things properly (air tight when needed).
  • find a tailor to take things in and out as your body changes.
  • learn to mend, or go to that tailor, to fix minor things like worn out elastic, broken buttons, loose button holes, holes, and so much more! 

shop better with these sustainable fashion tips 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya/Pexels

And finally, if you do want to shop or need to buy something, that’s fine! This is an ongoing, imperfect process. Shopping better, or more mindfully, is also a way to surround yourself with better quality things, even on a budget.

a. shop for better materials

Wherever and whenever you’re shopping, look for natural materials. I’ve found a 100% wool sweater at a thrift shop, a 100% cashmere sweater at a (free) clothing exchange, and a 100% linen shirt at Zara.

Do what you can to minimize polyester and other synthetic fabrics for the most part. Synthetics will definitely out last natural ones in the worst way possible, but natural fibers have more longevity, they come with better quality and construction. Plus it’s easier to recycle natural fibers into new products.

b. shop small designers

As a non-fashion girlie I had no idea how many small designers there were, even in Chicago! I’ve been able to find a handful of sustainable designers that prioritize natural materials, have an extended range of sizes, and even offer alterations. 

Even if a designer doesn’t call themselves sustainable, they’re likely doing 100 things better than big fashion, assuming they’re not dropshipping or outsourcing. 

The sustainable benefits to shopping with a small designer include:

  • you’re putting food on the table for a small local business
  • you’re putting money back into the local economy
  • you’re supporting creative, time-consuming art
  • you’re getting clothes that no one else has
  • you’re supporting a designer that is not creating fast cheap items at a large scale and creating less textile waste
  • you’re (likely) getting a higher level of service and a higher quality of garment
  • you’re (likely) getting a more ethical supply chain
  • you’re (likely) supporting fair wages

Sustainable events and social media are great places to find designers. And even if you can’t afford anything, follows, likes, and shares help to support their businesses. 

c. shop for better construction

Finally, look for items constructed well as they will hold up better over time. Everything that goes on a garment has a price. Everything that’s done to a garment has a price. Looking at the small details can give you an idea of the overall quality of the garment. 

You don’t have to know any about garment construction to keep these tips when in mind when shopping! 

P.S. I consulted Paulina for these garment quality tips:

  • Take a look at the inside seams and stitching. If you see any frayed ends or pieces of thread sticking out PUT IT DOWN. 
  • In the inside seam you want to see the ends of the fabric stitched closed or even better you want to see the fabric folded over itself then stitched closed. 
  • Take a look at stitch per inch. The fewer stitches per inch the higher the chances of the garment falling apart are. 
  • If there’s a zipper, look at how it’s sewn on and the quality. Test out the zipper a few times, a cheaper zipper will have a hard time moving correctly. 
  • Any puckered fabric around the zipper stitching is also a red flag and will affect how well the zipper works. 
  • A coil zipper (which is usually made from synthetics) is usually the best quality. Metal zippers can be good but only high quality ones — which is where you’ll want to look at the stitching and test it out a few times. 
  • P.S. zippers are hard to replace so if you plan on just sending it to a tailor know that it could cost upwards of $50 to have a zipper replaced. 
  • 4 hole buttons are better than 2 hole buttons are better than underhole buttons. An underhole button immediately becomes a dry-clean only piece.
  • If you take a look at how well the button is stitched on (like how many times it’s been threaded) that’s a good indication of quality. 
  • Take a look at the eyelets as well (button holes). Pull them apart and look for how well they’ve been stitched together. There should be stitching at the top and bottom and give it a tug to see how well the inside is stitched. 

taking the first step 

The first step towards sustainability is your habits, how much stuff you have, how much stuff you buy, and how often you’re pressured to buy. Take a critical look at your closet and begin to question the constant pressure to buy new clothes. 

the sustainable brands of it all

Before we wrap it up, we want to clarify that supporting ethical, sustainable, small designers, and small businesses (like us!) makes a difference! 

But it’s not just on brands and companies to be the solution. It’s important to recognize that mindful consumption and prioritizing quality over quantity are key to achieving a more sustainable wardrobe and a greener future. 

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