Where to find sustainable fashion on a tight budget

I grew up on welfare. In Australia, being a welfare kid does not disadvantage you as much as it does in the US. We still had a safe (rental home), access to fresh unprocessed food, and a good public education. But the budget was tight. We never ate out. We only went on camping holidays in national parks (which were free or close to free). We often shopped at charity stores. Both my parents had a penchant to finding good quality items second hand or on sale. I was very aware that we were poor. But I didn’t feel deprived.

I was 26 before I would ‘graduate’ from the welfare system. But I’ve never lost the valuable skills that my parents passed on. A talent for finding high quality items at affordable rates. And if I hadn’t grown from a tiny XS at 19 to a solid M now as a mama in my mid-30s, I would probably still be wearing some of those good quality garments that I found on sale as a dirt poor university student. There are beautiful dresses that I only reluctantly decluttered a couple of years ago, finally admitting to myself that I have a different body shape now.

If you take the search out good quality items on sale, then you can love and wear them for years (especially if your body shape stays reasonably stable). Even on a tight budget, it is possible to make a commitment to sustainable fashion. Perhaps not for everything (sustainable underwear and stockings will be out of reach when you have very little budget for clothing), but you can at least find some sustainable fashion for part of your wardrobe.

Before I launch into this how to, I just want to note this: I know what it is like when people don’t understand how difficult it is to be poor. Some of these strategies are out of reach for people living on the breadline. I know this. I will never forget how insensitive my middle class friends were to my situation as a welfare student. So please don’t feel that there is any judgement or insensitivity in these tips. If they don’t work for you, then they don’t work. If your poverty is such that you can’t take advantage of some of these strategies, then society has let you down. Just take what you can from this post, and ignore the rest.

(This post contains some affiliate links. Should you choose to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. This helps to sustain my writing and my activism. Thanks for your support)

How to find sustainable fashion on a budget:

1. Shop Secondhand

Don’t be ashamed of shopping second hand. You are doing the environment a service by making use of other people’s waste. When I was growing up, shopping secondhand was a marker of being poor. But these days it is also a market of pride and environmental activism. You only need look at the song Thrift Store as evidence of this. With distressed denim, punk influences on modern fashion, and the resurgence of respect for the beauty of mending, worn clothing can look right at home with today’s fashions. You can shop thrift and be chic at the same time.

Vegan ethical fashion boutique Bead & Reel also sells good quality ethical garments secondhand with their rescued collection. This is a great option for affordable vegan shoes and other garments that might normally be out of your price range.

Bead & Reel Rescued Collection

2. Attend a clothing swap.

If you have very little, you might not have anything to swap. But if you (or your family members) have outgrown some special garments, you might have something to swap. Some clothing swaps don’t mind if you turn up late and empty handed. Often there are more garments left over than are wanted by the contributors. Most clothing swap organisers are socially-minded and plan to donate the excess anyway. There is no harm in explaining your situation and asking if it is ok to attend after everyone else has had their pick. Because I keep my wardrobe a minimum, I have been in this situation too.

Check out Harlem Undressed, Clothing Exchange in Australia, Swishing in the UK, or google clothing swaps to find one near you.

3. Save, save, save.

People living on a tight budget deserve to have good quality garments too. I remember what a tight budget was like. As a student I had $20 each fortnight, which was left after rent, food and bills. That means $10 a week to spend on luxuries like clothing (or coffee with friends)!  $100 for a good quality tailored jacket on sale might seem out of reach in this situation, but it may be possible. Saving $2 a week for a year will get you there. As a credit card obsessed society, we seem to have lost the art of saving and planing ahead for special purchases. If you choose your garments carefully, you only need own one good jacket and it will last you a decade or longer.

4. Team up with your friends.

If you get together with your friends you can put in an order together and reach the order minimum to get free postage. If your friends are a similar size, you can swap or borrow each other’s garments to get a bit of variety. You only need own one or two special outfits, but teaming up with your friends will give you access to a few more.

5. Shop the sales

Know your sales and plan ahead for them. You can find sustainable fashion at deeply reduced prices if you look at the right time. End of season sales happen at least twice a year, and make items much more accessible to those on a budget. Many online boutiques have garments in their sale category most of the year round. Check out the sale collections of People Tree, Amour Vert and Bead & Reel for a reliable source of ethical fashion on sale all year round.

Here are a few of my favourite sustainable fashion bargains at the moment (click the photo to be taken to the garment.

1. Raina Wrap Coat in Organic Cotton and Fairtrade by People Tree (Only $50.30)

People Tree Sale raina-wrap-coat-in-dark-blue-melange-80f11e3ad3e3


2. Adina Dress Organic Cotton and Fairtrade by People Tree ($39.31)

People Tree Sale adina-dress-in-navy-stripe-a8c0b7a529b3


3. Romy Dandelion Dress in silk by Amour Vert ($78)

Amour Vert Sale Romy_Dandelion_719_web_1024x1024


4. Neve Ponte Sheath Dress in Organic Cotton by Amour Vert ($98)

Amour Vert Sale DRESS_PLUM_2590_1024x1024


And here are many more sustainable fashion garments on sale:



  • ellenr2907

    Hi Summer, I noticed that you have included a link to an Icebreaker item. I like Icebreaker and would love to shop there but as I understand it they are rated as “not good enough” on the “good on ya” app due to ‘greenwashing’. Do you have further information about this?
    Could you let me know where do you get your information on product ethics?
    regards Ellen

    • Hi Ellen, Thanks for pointing me to the Icebreaker issue. It seems that the company has become a lot less transparent in the last 3 years. I previously researched them, and they had much more detailed information about their labour standards and code of conduct, and environmental standards and certifications. Their websites lacks any of this information now, and they only use ‘ethical sourcing to refer to the raw wool, and not it’s manufacture into garments. Upon following up with new research, I no longer consider them as ethical, and their environmental credentials are greatly reduced.

      That being said, I also have a major problem with ranking standards that hold companies using virgin synthetic materials at a higher environmental ranking that those using renewable natural fibres. There are a number of global materials sustainability indexes that use this, and brands like Nike use them to make material choice in their product range. However, these ranking standards use a cradle to gate assessment that penalises natural fibres due to their land use footprint, even when many of these can have a positive impact on soil quality and/or be farmed on marginal land. The other problem with these cradle to gate assessments is they completely ignore the effects of the garment once they leave the factory. This means that the impacts of synthetic micro fibre pollution in waterways is completely ignored, as the the impact of non-biodegradable synthetics dumped in landfill.

      I will no longer recommend Icebreaker on my blog. However, I own two pairs of Icebreaker thermals which were such high quality that I could wear them as tights under skirts every winter for more than 6 years. They now have holes in the knees (which I have mended poorly) and I can still wear them under my jeans/ski-pants when I go to the snow. So they are still getting use after so many years. I also have a thermal top which I have owned for just as long, and it is still useful and looks good.

      Last year I bought a couple of Icebreaker garments and wondered if the quality had reduced a little. The fabric seems to pill a little, whereas the older garments have never done this. They are still high quality, but perhaps not as high quality as they once were. However, I am still getting more much more wear out of my new merino tights than I would organic cotton.

      It seems, though, the global expansion of Icebreaker has lead to a decline in their ethical, environmental and quality standards. After all this research, I agree with Good On You that they are not good enough for me to recommend anymore.

      However, I also noticed that Good On You rates Adidas as good for their environmental standards. I simply cannot agree with this assessment when they still use so much synthetic fabric and conventional cotton. There have been quite a few brands that Good On You rank highly that I cannot agree with. Having independently verified waste or carbon reduction standards is transparent, yes. But if they already have a huge wasteful impact then these reduction standards alone do not give a company sustainable credentials. Especially when they are using virgin synthetics.

      All the decisions we make in the sustainable space have serious trade offs. Organic cotton tights don’t last nearly as long, and growing the crop takes a great deal of water and land away from food crops. Quality wool farming can actually sequester carbon into the soil and improve the soil quality. It is really impossible to make the perfect decision in this case. Furthermore, many ranking systems simply rank organic cotton poorly due to water and land use, and wool poorly due to land use, whereas some virgin synthetics are still receiving a higher ranking!

      We make our purchase decisions in a really imperfect world. So if you can’t find a good replacement for Icebreaker, then one or two garments that last you 3-4 years or more may be an ok decision for the environment. If you are in Australia, though, check Smitten Merino. Tasmania merino and Tasmanian manufactured merino garments.

      Thanks for keeping me on my toes with your question. I have major issues with many of the ranking standards that currently exist because they unduly preference synthetics over renewable natural fibres. I cannot support synthetics unless they are recycled. We can’t take anything at face value. I do my best to be thorough, but I don’t usually revisit a brand once I’ve researched them the first time because I simply don’t have time. I am really glad that you picked it up.

      Good luck in deciding the best decision for your wardrobe needs. Check Smitten Merino just in case they suits your requirements.

  • Cassisi

    Hi Summer,

    I’ve been reading through a lot of your posts recently and loving them, but as an Australian size 18 am having trouble finding ethical eco clothing that doesn’t cost $150+ for a tshirt. Any advice or recommendations for a poor uni student?

    • Great question. I am sorry I don’t know a thorough answer, yet. But I will do some research on the topic and try to write something up for you soon. In the meantime, Jennifer Nini has started to address this topic on her blog (but we are still waiting for Part II with the actual brand suggestions)

      Another brand you might look into is Sotela for sustainable clothing that is more inclusive (their size 3 fits US sizes 14-18). You will need to ship from the US to Australia, so you might want to share the postage with some friends, or save up for a larger purchase in a few months time. They are a really awesome brand, and I plan to buy from them down the track.