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How to Dress Sustainably on a Budget

If you follow fashion trends, chances are you’ve noticed a growing concern for sustainable and ethical industry alternatives over the last few years. Big name brands are changing the way they make and package their products, disclose their wages, and communicate with their consumers. In the garment industry in particular, there’s a growing conversation about fast fashion’s environmental impact – a conversation that Noonday Collection has been leading since the company was founded over nine years ago! But why should we consider sustainable alternatives?

What is “Fast Fashion?”

Fast fashion is a little bit like fast food. It’s cheap and easy, but not always the best for you. The fast fashion industry provides us with cheap clothing from both a price and quality perspective, allowing us to keep up with constantly changing trends, but at what cost? Cheap clothing and short trend cycles create a constant desire for more, an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality. This approach to clothing creates massive amounts of waste; based on EPA statistics, it is estimated that the average American contributes 81 pounds of textile waste to landfills yearly.

Not only does fast fashion significantly contribute to landfills and other environmental concerns, it is often related to unethical work standards. Big companies have to deliver cheap products, and in many cases, factory workers pay for it. The best-known tragedy and the event credited with shedding light on the unethical garment industry practices is the Bangladeshi garment factory collapse in 2013. Rather than halt work to make necessary repairs, factory owners continued operations until the building literally collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers.

Fast fashion presents numerous environmental and ethical concerns, and I believe many companies are making efforts to change the way they make and distribute clothing. But how can we as consumers make a difference? As a college student who has been attempting to slowly convert my wardrobe for the past two years, I’ve outlined three primary ways you can dress sustainably without breaking the bank.

1) Shop ethical and sustainable brands.

As I’ve mentioned briefly, there are many companies who have listened to consumers like you and are attempting to change the way they do business. Research your favorite brands to see if they’re up front about their labor and environment practices. Continue to support those who publish these details and consider reaching out to those that don’t.

When looking for sustainable clothing, look for products made with natural materials such as organic wool, linen, silk, and my favorite, bamboo. Natural materials are better for you and, unlike synthetic materials, do not release harmful microfibers into the environment. Also be aware of industry certifications like B Corporation and Fair Trade (Noonday Collection is both!) that tell you the company treats employees fairly and responsibly sources materials.

An Artisan in Guatemala crafts the Pescado Earrings

Finally, utilize brand directories that have already done the research for you! My favorite is Dressember’s Ethical Fashion Directory. This is a great place to start when trying to find sustainable alternatives to your current brands.

Shopping sustainable brands may be the simplest way to dress sustainably, but it really isn’t the most cost effective. My advice to those on a budget: start saying no to cheap clothes. Every time you pass over that $10 graphic tee, keep track. When you’ve saved enough, go buy yourself a quality top from a sustainable brand! It’ll be better for the environment and last you longer too.

Ambassador Ashley Crunk wears the Summer Skies Earrings from Noonday Collection and the Peyton Top from Elegantees

2) Shop secondhand.

While I love saving up for those fancy, organic, fair trade clothing items, the truth is that those purchases are few and far between. How can you update your wardrobe responsibly on a budget? Shop secondhand! At this point in my life, the majority of my clothing is thrifted. Shopping secondhand is not only a cost-effective way to update your wardrobe but doing so also keeps clothing out of landfills longer. Plus, you don’t have to say “no” to trendy clothes. 

Head out with friends for the day and rummage through your local Goodwill and Salvation Army or find a local secondhand boutique for those really important purchases. You’d be surprised what you can find used; I’ve purchased all my interview clothes secondhand! Shop gently used clothing from online retailers like Poshmark, and consider renting clothing for more than just formal occasions. Get creative and find alternative clothing sources like a clothes swap! For example, my friends and I hosted a pop-up thrift store on Clemson University’s campus. We raised funds for our campus’ International Justice Mission chapter, spread awareness about responsible purchasing, and all got to take new clothes home too.

IJM at Clemson’s first “Threads” Pop-Up

3) Shop your own closet.

Finally, the most environmentally responsible choice you can make is to love what you already own. Using what you already have decreases both the amount of clothing you’re purchasing and throwing away. This practice also helps you break that “out with the old, in with the new” cycle I was talking about earlier and encourages you to purchase something new only when you need it.

The best way I’ve found to make my clothes last longer (and to avoid getting bored with what I have) is to rotate clothing. Rather than leave all my clothes in my closet, I move portions out of sight for a few months, just like I normally do with seasonal clothes. And just like seasonal clothes, I feel like I’m unwrapping a box full of new clothes when I pull out those pieces again in a few months. By refusing to throw out clothing regularly, or by choosing to donate instead of throwing out altogether, we can help drastically reduce textile waste.

Ambassador Ashley Crunk models a sustainable interview outfit. Every part of this look was either purchased secondhand or owned for more than four years.

A Final Note on Dressing Sustainably

Everyone’s story looks different. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the concept of sustainable clothing and feel bad for not making a complete, holistic change. Don’t let these fears keep you from making a change; perfection is the enemy of progress. If you’re interested in shifting your buying habits, start small. Pick one or two areas of your life that are within your power to transition and take all the time you need. For me, that has been clothing and jewelry. My job as a Noonday Collection Ambassador has made it easy for me to choose ethical accessory alternatives, and I’ve slowly begun the process of converting my clothing too. Using this article as a starting point, learn the facts about the sustainable fashion movement, and decide for yourself what changes you can make. What will your “sustainable story” be?

Meet Ashley Crunk

A student at Clemson University, Ashley is passionate about improving global economies and labor standards – when she discovered Noonday, she knew becoming an Ambassador would be the perfect platform for making the change she wants to see. Ashley’s also your girl if you’re looking for affordable ways to dress sustainably or DIY projects anyone can do!