More than ever before, we’re buying garments just to throw them out after a few wears. Each year, over 12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills around the world, according to a report by ShareCloth. Unfortunately, that’s not even accounting for what’s not sold by retailers. Unsold textiles create 92 million tons of global waste annually.
Blame it on fast fashion: trendy, mass-produced clothing sold at a low cost by large chain retailers (we’re looking at you, $5 T-shirt). The quality is on the low side, but so are the price tags—and with such an array of stock and a quick turnover each season, it’s genuinely hard to buy anything else.
The hefty cost of cheap clothing
Cheap clothing leads to mass amounts of waste, since the cheaper fabrics used to keep costs low end up ruined after a couple of wears and washes (it’s estimated that over 50 percent of fast fashion is discarded in under a year, according to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation). But fast fashion retailers have also been known to use ethically questionable production standards, taking advantage of workers in developing nations where jobs are scarce. There have been many reports of these factory employees being treated unfairly, underpaid, and overworked in unsafe conditions (like in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than 1,100 workers and made global headlines).
“Within the past decade, more of us have started questioning our food. Is it good for us? Where was it grown?” says Clare Press, sustainable fashion journalist and author of Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion. “In the same way, we can ask questions about origins and transparency behind [clothes] manufacturing.”
This has led to a movement called slow fashion, where a smaller selection of garments is made with higher-quality materials, intended to last much longer in your wardrobe.
If you’re looking to change your shopping habits but aren’t sure where to start, check out brands like TenTree, Pact, and Kotn, all of which are gaining popularity for their high-quality and versatile pieces (plus their transparent production line). One of the biggest challenges with sustainable fashion is that it is less affordable per garment—especially for students on a budget. Below are a few tips for making this work for you:
First, shift your mentality away from the desire to fill your closet to the brim. Look up how to curate a “capsule wardrobe” with a focus on maximum outfit combinations using a minimal number of garments. (Bonus: It’s way easier to get dressed with fewer pieces hanging neatly in your closet.)
Choose quality over quantity
Invest in just a handful of basic pieces that fit you incredibly well and are made to last—the sticker shock might make you cringe, but you’ll likely end up saving money if you can get into the habit of shopping for quality over quantity.
“I try to invest in key pieces that will last a long time and can be worn with many things,” says Jennelle D., a first-year graduate at the University of Ottawa in Ontario.
From there, fill in the gaps with vintage or thrift shop finds, which are often made with better-quality materials or at least are being given a second home and therefore lessening the waste problem.
Swap with friends (or strangers)
Consider clothing swap parties (when it’s safe to gather) and consignment apps. Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist can also be great resources for secondhand fashion.
“I shop secondhand at a consignment store or online through apps like Poshmark,” says Dominique E., a second-year graduate at University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I also host clothes trading parties with my friends. We have food and drinks and swap clothes.”
Does it seem like way more effort to find a vintage piece you love? That’s actually a good thing. Not only will you love that perfect piece even more once you find it, but also you’ll think twice before throwing it out—something that is just too easy to do when a piece was $10 and you added it to your cart to reach the free shipping minimum. And when you are done with a piece, whether it doesn’t fit you anymore or it’s time to upgrade your style, donate it to second-hand shops or clothing donation centers instead of tossing it (as long as it’s still in decent shape).
“Giving garments multiple lives is now more important than ever,” says Press. “We can mend things instead of just throwing them out. Shop vintage. Shop markets. We can do all these things and still look stylish.”
Need some inspiration? Here’s how conscious shoppers look fashionable while on a budget.
Concordia University in Montreal, Canada
“I like investing in versatile, high-quality basics, like this solid white cotton tee, and pairing them with more colorful or patterned vintage finds. Other basics I will spend a little more on are a good pair of jeans, a well-made sweater, a cardigan for layering, a beautiful handbag, and outerwear.”
“I recently watched The Queen’s Gambit and just loved the main actress’s retro style. I often find myself inspired by TV characters.”
Comfort and convenience
“I’ve been working from home a lot these days, so I’ve invested in some amazing, ultra-comfortable cotton loungewear.”
“I’ve saved so much money by not shopping in physical stores and instead doing most of my shopping online. I’m no longer tempted by the instant gratification of buying something on my lunch break.”
Plan complete outfits
“For each piece I buy, I’ll try to picture it as part of three different outfits using items already in my closet. If I’m struggling to imagine them, I know I probably won’t wear it enough.”
Swap with a friend
That garment you wanted to love but just doesn’t fit properly? Ask a pal if they’d like it. Not only will it give you satisfaction to see that piece living up to its potential, but your friend might even repay the favor sometime.
Buy a high-quality coat
It will last you for years and do a way better job at keeping you warm in the winter.
Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland
“I love this outfit because I’ve put my twist on almost everything. I distressed the pants with a cheese grater and used a seam ripper to make the holes. The patterned tights are for the peekaboo effect. The tank top was originally a onesie; I cut off the snaps and sewed the hem. I took in the waist of the shirt and cut off the sleeves. I love feeling feminine while also being comfortable and realistic. I feel better about the day when I’m excited about my outfit. Shoes are the one thing I spend money on. I’ve had these for more than eight years.”
Men’s sales racks
“I’m 5’10” and I love looking different from everyone else. I have made men’s collared shirts into really cute dresses.”
Sewing machine, needle and thread, and scissors—and maybe a cheese grater
“You can really reduce your carbon footprint by repurposing or fixing your clothing. You shouldn’t throw something out just because there’s a hole in it.”
“It is a great source of ideas for clothing modifications.”
“Most girls on campus wear the typical North Face jacket with Ugg boots and yoga pants. Creating your own style opens up so many possibilities, and you spend less money. I love when other students ask me where I bought something and I tell them I actually made it.”
Take an inventory of your clothes at the end of each school year
“If you haven’t worn something, brainstorm ways to make it cooler.”
Don’t be put off by garments that are too small or too big
Think creatively about modifying them.
Modifying doesn’t have to involve sewing
Lots can be done with scissors (e.g., cut off sleeves or make a new neckline).
Invest in decent shoes:
It’s worth it, since shoes get more wear and tear than clothes.
Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“This is the first blazer I ever bought, and it was to wear on my 21st birthday. I had a good time that night because I knew I was stylish and felt good about myself. I was one of the best-dressed people out that night, but I didn’t spend a fortune.”
The classy, clean, sophisticated look
“I stand out from the crowd. When I go out with my friends, I’m often the only one wearing a tie.”
“I first saw this classy look on people I knew and realized they were grabbing more attention this way. This is why I decided to begin dressing like this.”
“If my peers can’t buy something really nice and expensive, they won’t buy anything at all. They don’t seem to think outside the box.”
Earmark a set amount of money for clothes
Jaysel allocates 10 percent of his earnings.
Look online for deals
Shop at physical stores only when they have sales.
Choose compatible accessories
If you’re buying a watch or necklace, be sure it works with your wardrobe so you’ll wear it often.
Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon
“I would never have gone into those thrift stores that hipsters always rave about. But I fell in love with a morbidly overpriced velvet skirt at Urban Outfitters and thought I might be able to find something similar. After visiting two thrift stores, I found something just like what I’d seen, and bought several bags of other cool items for the same price I would have spent on one skirt.”
The varied, low-budget, “shabby chic” fashion scene in Portland, Oregon (Betty’s hometown)
“Now I realize that thrift stores are not overrated, and I’m always exploring other inexpensive fashion options.”
“This is what got me into fashion. I started following people, seeing what they were wearing, and replicating their styles in a way that fits with my student budget.”
“Students don’t look for clothes in the right places. They seem to go to the big-name stores and spend too much money.”
Buy basics out of season
A winter jacket is often much more affordable if purchased in the spring or summer, for instance.
Do your research
A few extra minutes searching online could save you a lot of money. Talk with other people and explore the local shops to find great alternatives to brand-name stores.
Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida
“I am a huge advocate of thrifting as a way to help reduce clothing waste while saving money.”
Mix and match
“I love outfits that mix distressed and soft elements, so I paired the distressed denim with neutral boots and a lacy black tank top underneath.”
Special statement pieces
“The red flannel shirt symbolizes home to me (Minnesota), and it adds a bright pop of color to the outfit.”
Buy one garment, create multiple looks
“What I love the most about this outfit is that each piece is so versatile and can be used to create infinite other styles.”
Make a thrift piece your own
“I found both the denim jacket and shorts (originally full-length pants) at Goodwill, and I cut them both to fray the bottom hem.”
Bianca Cooper, Baltimore, Maryland.
Natasha Dhesi, Montreal, Canada.
Clare Press, sustainable fashion journalist and author of Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion. Sydney, Australia.
Ally Sharbo, St. Petersburg, Florida.
Jaysel Shah, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Betty Yu, Portland, Oregon.
Apparel and fashion overproduction report with infographic. (2018). Retrieved from https://sharecloth.com/blog/reports/apparel-overproduction
CampusWell survey, November 2020.
Clean Clothes Campaign. (n.d.). Rana Plaza. https://cleanclothes.org/campaigns/past/rana-plaza
Ellen Macarthur Foundation. (2017, January 12). A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report_Updated_1-12-17.pdf
Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, October 7). Textiles: Material-specific data. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data
Good On You. (2020, November 18). What is fast fashion? https://goodonyou.eco/what-is-fast-fashion/