Ethical Shopping on a Budget

By Rachel Wong 

8062468299_acd09844ea_zA woman with perfectly manicured nails cries in a Cambodian sweatshop, lamenting, “I can’t take it anymore!” Featured on the reality show “Sweatshop,” she is part of a group of fashion bloggers sent to overseas to live and work where many of their clothes are made.

Even while watching the promo of the series, it is important to remember that consumers rarely pay for the full cost of what we buy. Shirts for $5, jeans for $15, the list goes on.

I, like many people I know, delved into horrors that accompany mass production. Food Inc. shows how mass consumerism not only affects our health, but the health of the planet, all for the sake of saving a bit more money. But while many approach the concept of ethical shopping, few commit to it. Why? The price tag speaks for itself.

A single work-appropriate, ethically produced dress can range from $150 to $450. Organic milk can cost double the amount of conventional milk. The costs amass to the point that one wonders if the only way to live ethically is to be rich. But how can consumers on a strict budget also become more ethical in their spending?

Slow your Consumer Impulse

Consumerism pulses through almost everything we do: where we drink, what food we eat, and more. But what if we slow it down?  Instead of buying, say, 20 shirts at $15 a piece per year – many of which ends up collecting dust, being donated, or thrown away – why not invest the amount you would have spent in 8 ethical, higher quality shirts (that you know you’d wear) at $37.50? Decreasing your instinct to buy things “for a steal” not only make you more conscious of your spending, but allows you to support companies more dedicated to ethical production.

la fleur

Credit: M.M. LaFleur

Think Quality over Quantity

The cost of an item isn’t always indicative of the quality, but ethical brands work hard to make sure that production remains ethical while maintaining a quality product. An ethically-sourced product that is poorly made won’t do well in the market. Similarly, consumers would likely stop purchasing a high-quality product if the company stopped producing the materials ethically– especially if that was part of their sell. M.M LaFleur is a work-attire brand that employs seamstresses within New York at a wage suitable for their skills. Though their prices may range outside the “everyday purchase,” the quality and ethical production of this brand makes me excited for future purchases.

Find Small Brands

sweet nothings

Credit: Sweet Nothings

Many indie designers make their product by themselves or source jobs locally, lowering chances of it being unethical in its production. Of course, this isn’t a clear-cut rule, but this can be found out easily by brands’ website or a quick email. Some bigger brands may also be considered ethical, though they tend to lack the transparency that accompanies lower brands.

To discover smaller brands, browse neighborhood boutiques. You can also discover indie designers by following bloggers that match your lifestyle choices (like biodegradable materials) or your aesthetic (like minimalistic lines). Sweet Nothings is a blog I regularly read because it provides amazing recipes and photos, while also providing posts about young brands I have yet to discover.

Build Relationships with Favorite Indie Brands

Smaller brands have the likelihood of producing a more intimate shopping experience. There are a handful of small brands that are dear to my heart, partly because of their amazing product, partly because I’ve developed a relationship with the founders – it produces a consumer experience that is rare and priceless in our culture of disposability.

tap short

Tap shorts by Evgenia

Recently at a NYC pop-up by Underhaus, I met the Founder and Designer of EVGENIA: Stephanie Bodnar. I had been following her SF-based company for several months and jumped at the chance to meet her since she was in town for the pop-up and to send a dress down the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. She gave me quite the personalized fitting, assisting me with sizing, and even talked about where she sourced exquisite star lace she used for this season’s collection. (Stephanie even personally fixed the strap on the bralette I bought when, during my fitting, it was discovered that it was sewn the wrong way.)

The products I bought (like the tap shorts to the left) weren’t some items mass-produced in a different country, but a product that someone you know made, just for you.

Get on Social Media (No, Seriously)


Satisfaction necklace by Aroha Silhouettes

If you can’t buy things from ethical brands at full price, take advantage of seasonal sales. Subscribe to their social sites and newsletters get the first heads-up to drops in prices. Smaller brands frequently do giveaways and contests for those who follow them on social media as a way to boost their page and post shares. I once assisted in helping Aroha Silhouettes name her gorgeous “Satisfaction” molecule necklace, and she graciously sent me one for my own!

One caveat though: brands, especially smaller brands, depend on customers purchasing their items, at full price, in order to smoothly run their business. Therefore, if you can afford to do so, show your favorite indie brands some love with some purchases.

Regard Ethical Shopping as a Commission, not a Purchase 

You wouldn’t expect an artist to cut corners, to use anything less than the best for their work. You would also respect whatever price that artist decides to charge. Instead of viewing the purchase as “a means for a consumer to get something s/he wants,” consider it a commission– “a means for a producer to support themselves.” In many cases, small businesses are artists. Though their price tags may be higher than those I’d see at the mall, I know that what I buy from small brands are an artist’s livelihood. I’m helping someone live as an artist and, as a writer, that means a lot to me.

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