A title that is simultaneously literal and paradoxical. Ethical fashion: hooray! Save the planet! Treat human beings better! Get nice new things! But see also, ethical fashion: it costs HOW much? That’s the price for ONE thing? Why is it SO expensive?
Anyone who tries to tell you that ethical fashion can be just as cheap as high street fashion is usually considered a liar or a lunatic. It’s the poor ethics of fast fashion that make it so damn affordable, I say as I sit here in my guilt-laden H&M tshirt. Clothes that are mass-produced by people who aren’t paid enough will always be cheaper than their more ethical counterparts. When I put out a request for companies to get in touch and let me know about their affordable, eco-friendly and human rights-friendly clothes and accessories, I was inundated with luxury guff.
A company who make $300 jackets contacted me. A store that sells dresses starting at $280, a handbag retailer who charges from £250 per piece – yes, if you have lots of money and shop at fancy shops all the time, this probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable and valid amount of money to spend on a nice bag. But ethical fashion does not have to be high-end. It doesn’t have to be luxury, aspirational, save-all-your-pennies-and-ask-nicely-at-Christmas pricey. Some of it is actually quite affordable.
But how can it be?! We all ask ourselves. How can someone pay their workers a fair wage, treat them like human beings AND make their products out of stuff that doesn’t pollute everything within a ten mile radius, AND do it all for not-a-million-dollars-a-thing? Here are some awesome, affordable, ethical brands and stores I’ve gathered together from around the world.
Ethical Fashion from the USA & Canada
Let’s start with Lemur Bags. Because who doesn’t love lemurs?! Made from canvas and cotton, with recyclable polypropylene straps, 15% of the profits made by Lemur Bags are invested into organisations working in lemur conservation in Madagascar. Why is that good? Because lemurs are one of the most endangered species on earth, thanks to illegal deforestation, and the brains behind this bag company want to do something about it.
Lemur Bags make drawstring backpacks, duffel bags, totes and bucket bags, and they are genuinely good-looking pieces. With prices starting at $13 and ranging up to around $25 they’re actually cheaper than lots of fast-fashion equivalents – the only downside for those of you reading this in Europe is that this is a US brand and they don’t currently ship to this part of the world. (But please let me know about any amazing UK bag brands I can mention here! No leather, please unless it’s vintage/recycled)
Known Supply say that they “re-imagine apparel production in a way that honours and celebrates the people behind the clothing we buy”. Big claim. How do they do it? Their creators are people from underserved populations, and through their collaboration with Known Supply they get not just meaningful, fair trade employment, but a chance to actually put their name to their work. Every item you buy from this outlet comes with the signature of the person who made it.
Though some ethical fashion brands can fall foul of looking ethical – and by that I mean, looking like a lot of crinkly beige linen that screams “tofu!” – Known Supply make stylish modern basics, with prices from around $25 to $70 an item (£20 to £53 at the time of writing). Working to build pathways out of poverty, and to boost social services and education in the areas where they employ, Known Supply are clearly a brand with a lot of heart. And as they ship worldwide, you can still shop here even if you live on my side of the planet! (But – for shopping that doesn’t need international shipping, keep on reading…)
Modern, mindful and meaningful, feminine and fashion-forward. That’s how Lolë describe their clothing, and it’s pretty much spot on. They have a Yellow Label program through which you can fund food banks in North America by buying second-hand outerwear, and while their prices do vary between high-street and high-end-street, there’s plenty in their range of sustainably-produced clothing that doesn’t break the bank.
This company adhere to a lot of things I’d never heard of before, like Bluesign Standard – meaning air and water emissions are strictly monitored, they use eco-friendly processing techniques and look out for their staff. Not bad.
An estimated 3.5 million refugee children are out of school in developing countries because of a lack of funding. For every item purchased from Joggo, 10% of the proceeds are put towards refugee education initiatives – and every bag is made from fair trade, sustainably sourced cotton canvas by a women’s co-operative in Nepal. Serious credentials.
Mohamed, the founder of Joggo, says that “businesses have a responsibility to create positive change”, and with such cool-looking backpacks helping to raise money for youth refugee education it seems like he’s doing a pretty good job. Items range around the £40-£60 mark, not dirt cheap but also not expensive for gorgeous accessories that help to make a difference.
Ethical fashion from the UK and Europe
Thought kept cropping up on picks of affordable eco fashion, and initially when I looked I thought, pffff, this is not that affordable. But with a little digging, there are some good bargains to be had. Organic cotton, bamboo and hemp never looked so darn pretty – there are absolute steals in the sale section, and comfy everyday items like patterned tees and soft sweaters are no more expensive than sweatshop alternatives from Topshop.
As well as using eco-friendly fabrics, Thought pay fair wages and invest in skills and training for their creators. They’re founding partners of the Ethical Fashion Forum, a network championing ethical production and while they are not a fully vegan brand (as with others on this list) it’s easy to search for Peta-approved vegan clothing items for men and women via their site.
Know The Origin
I was particularly happy to find Know The Origin online because there’s so much clothing in stock here that I want to buy. While there are some more high-end pieces in the range, the majority of what’s on offer here is reasonably priced and doesn’t limit you to a particular style – there are comfy cotton basics, slinky dresses and playful jumpsuits alongside smart officewear and running gear.
The founder of KTO wanted to start a fashion brand “free of weird itchy tree jumpers, £££ price tags, sweatshops, human trafficking, environmental destruction and super secretive supply chains” and it seems like she’s managed to do just that. The fair trade, organic clothing she stocks is made using sustainable fabrics, reclaimed fabrics, vegan-friendly and eco-friendly processes. Some of it is KTO’s own, some is sourced from suitable outside suppliers – but all of it is created with ethics and sustainability in mind.
Based in London and Ipswich, Idioma make on-trend tees, sweatshirts, caps and bags that range between about £18 and £58 at the time of writing. These guys have a unique twist, which is that their products take inspiration from multi-lingualism and part of their ethos is built around multiculturalism and communication. Their first ever product was a multi-language table mat!
Items in Idioma’s range have Fair Wear certification, meaning makers have reasonable working hours, fair wages and safe conditions – and you can rest assured that child labour and forced labour have no place in the process. Most products are made from organic and/or recycled materials, but all are at least created with sustainable fibres.
Well, it wouldn’t be a very good list of sustainable fashions if nothing on here was totally, 100% second hand. While some of Rokit’s offerings are damn pricey, they have such a huge, seemingly endless supply of rad vintage fashion that it’s just as easy to find something great for under £20 as it is to have your jaw drop at a £200 coat.
As well as taking production out of the equation by buying second-hand, you can buy stuff here that you’re unlikely to ever see anyone else wearing. I’m a huge fan of charity shop and thrift store shopping, funnelling money into getting more wear from products that are already in circulation and still fit for wear, rather than in buying something brand new. And without wanting to sound like someones grandma – we all know that vintage clothing is often more durable than modern fast fashion. A new dress from Primark might only last you one summer, but a killer 1960s item from Rokit could become a permanent fixture in your wardrobe!
Ten points to my stepmum for bringing Rapanui to my attention – although I’m sure my bank balance won’t be as pleased with me. Rapanui have products and designs created to raise awareness of all kinds of important issues, from marine conservation to climate change.
Described by everyone’s most beloved old white dude, David Attenborough, as “a most valuable and interesting project”, Rapanui’s clothing is – of course – produced in an eco-friendly way and made with sustainable fabrics. Their cotton supplier gets power from their own wind farm, the Rapanui factory is run on solar power – and you can even send your old garments back for recycling and score yourself store credit in the process.
There are baseball tops and crew neck tees for less than £20, and they do clothing bundles at a discount where you can get combinations like a tee, sweatshirt and hooded surf towel for £65. And as you filter through, you’ll see a number of different causes that you can support just by buying a great new piece of clothing. I don’t know about you, but I’m totally sold.
If there are any cheap ethical fashion brands you think deserve to be featured here, please do let me know! Affordability is the name of the game, so please – nothing with a hella big pricetag unless they also stock budget-friendly items.