How to Shop Sustainably on a Budget

When shopping on a college budget, taking time to consider how the clothing is being produced is not always a top priority, especially when it’s the style you want for an affordable price. 

Unfortunately, the fashion industry has been a menace to the earth. After oil, the fashion industry is the world's largest polluter, says Global News. Often times, clothing is the last switch to become more sustainable that people make, meaning that even the most eco-friendly people still contribute to the fashion industry's harmful impact.

The fashion industry’s damage is far reaching, touching four different areas including waste, water, toxic chemicals and energy. Just looking at one of these areas, it is shocking how many resources the industry uses. Take water for example: according to the World Wildlife Foundation, it can take 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt.

There are, however, options to begin shopping more sustainably. From clothing brands that focus on eco-friendly production to thrifting, there are ways to make a change, and on a budget too.


Brands that are Sustainable and Affordable

In recent years, a number of ethical fashion brands have emerged, vowing to use eco-friendly products and non-toxic dyes while paying their workers fairly. Ethical fashion, however, comes with a catch: it is usually expensive. 

One way to justify buying a pricier clothing item from a sustainable brand is that it will most likely last longer because the material is better. If you are like me, however, spending $60 on a plain white t-shirt is just not something I see myself doing, so here are some affordable options for my fellow college student fashion lovers.

1. Pact

Pact’s focus is building a guilt-free fashion brand, meaning that they use organic cotton, are Fair Trade Factory Certified, use zero harmful chemicals, and use a process that wastes significantly less water. Most of their clothes ranges between $20-60 with their basics landing on the lower side of the spectrum. Check out these leggings and this basic tee!

2. Alternative Apparel

For this brand, there is no need to look past their catch phrase: Soft. Simple. Sustainable. While perusing their website, I found that though some things were above my preferred price point, there were a lot of items that were not only affordable but also really cute. In regards to sustainability, all their items are shipped in oxo-biodegradable mailer bags and they have created a vendor recycling program. Alternative ensures that they provide fair, safe and clean conditions for their workers. The clothes themselves are produced using organic cotton, post-consumer recycled polyester, and low-impact dyes. 

3. Girlfriend Collective

While Girlfriend is a little on the pricier side, I included them in this list for three reasons: they are very focused on sustainability, their sizing is extremely inclusive, and I know for a fact there are many people out there spending the same amount, if not more, on trendy athletic brands like Lululemon. This brand focuses on leggings and sports bras and has sizes that range from XXS to 6XL. Each compressive legging they make starts with 25 post-consumer recycled water bottles and they use recycled waste from oceans to create a lightweight stretchy fabric called LITE. In regards to labor, they pay living wages to their workers in Vietnam and ensure they provide fair working hours and safe condition. 

4. Krochet Kids intl.

This brand not only sells affordable and stylish clothing, this non-profit empowers women artisans in poverty in Uganda and Peru. They provide jobs at anti-poverty wages to improve these women's circumstances, and they hope to educate the next generation of shoppers. Each piece is hand signed by the woman who made it, and there is a page on their website to meet the makers and read about each woman. Check out this t-shirt and dress from the Krochet Kids website!

Best Thrift Stores in DC!

The most affordable option if you are looking to become more sustainable is to buy from thrift and consignment stores! The difference between a thrift and consignment store is that thrift stores use donations to try and sell as many items as possible, while consignment shops choose what they want to sell and split profits with the original owners. This means that consignment shops are often more expensive but can at times have more unique items. 

Here is a short list of some of the best thrift and consignment stores in Washington!

1. Meeps

Meeps is located in Adams Morgan and offers a wide variety of vintage clothing items from the 1960’s onwards. They also have a large costume selection in the back filled with wigs, hats, and well, costumes. When I first stumbled across this place I found so many items I loved. However, it is definitely on the more expensive side of thrifting.

2. St. Albans Church Opportunity Shop

Of all the thrift stores fellow students have recommended to me, St. Albans name comes up most frequently. Located right near American’s campus, this thrift store accepts clothing donations along with home goods. While some online critics have said it is hit or miss, most students have spoken highly of their successful thrifting trips to St. Albans and recommend it to any serious thrifters.

3. Rosario’s 3 Por 10 Tienda

This small thrift store in Columbia Heights is well worth a visit if you are looking for some great, inexpensive finds. Most items are marked as 3 for $10 as the name suggests, although some jackets and brand name items are marked up for more. 

4. Georgia Avenue Thrift Store

This thrift store is said to have amazing vintage finds to satisfy all your edgy hipster needs. Not only does this store have fairly low prices, but all the proceeds go to AMVETS, a charity that supports veterans.

5. Buffalo Exchange

In Washington there are two different Buffalo Exchange locations with one at Logan Circle and the other in Georgetown. Buffalo Exchange is known for being very selective in what they buy as they follow what is on-trend very closely. While some items might be more expensive than a traditional thrift store, there are usually some great vintage and trendy pieces that can still be found for a bargain.

6. ThredUP

While this is not a store in D.C., ThredUP is the largest online fashion resale marketplace. Online you can shop from a selection of over 35k brands ranging from Gucci to Gap. This company provides an easy way to thrift from the comfort of your home and reduce the amount of new clothes bought.


One final option that is neither buying from a sustainable brand or thrifting is to rent clothing. There are so many events that we buy clothing that we wear once, maybe twice, then push to the back corners of our closet and forget about it. Companies such as Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee offer a way to change up your wardrobe without having to commit to purchasing something you’ll only wear a few times.

In all, there are many ways to begin living a more sustainable lifestyle beginning with your closet! It is often believed that wearing sustainable clothing comes at a high price, but there are options that can help you look cute, help the planet, and not break the bank all at once.