Let's face it fast fashion is affordable, it's why we are enticed to shop all year round for things that we don't need and ones that will fall apart after only a few wears. When it comes to sustainable fashion the price is the main deterrent to making the switch. Today, I am sharing my top places on where to find Affordable Ethical Clothing On A Budget. We've come a long way and I am happy to report there are so many ethical brands to choose from.
Shopping for more ethically made fashion is more important than ever. According to the Recycling Council of Ontario "the average person throws out 81 pounds of textiles annually, while North Americans send 10 million tonnes of clothing to the landfill every year — most of which could be reused or recycled".
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What is ethical and sustainable fashion?
Simply put, ethical and sustainable fashion is defined as “clothing, shoes and, accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects." I wrote a really long post on this subject a few weeks ago. In it, I highlight the impact of fast fashion, how to choose ethical brands that align with your values, how we can make ethical fashion more accessible, how to care for your clothes and much more. Give it a read!
What are the most sustainable fabrics?
From Apple Leather (made from waste from the apple juice industry) to vegan wool (made from mushroom enzymes, hemp and coconut fibres) there are a ton of sustainable fabrics to choose from, but they are not always accessible, so for this blog, I am going to focus on the most common fabrics that affordable quality ethical clothing is typically made of.
Conventional cotton is the most pesticide-laden crop on the planet. These chemicals poison farm workers, drift into neighbouring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and kill beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms. Organic cotton is free from harmful, synthetic fertilizers and uses about 62% less energy and about 88% less water to grow, which makes it a more ethical fabric and a more sustainable one too.
When purchasing an item that claims to be made from organic cotton, its important to look for third-party certifications, this ensures that the growing process is free of chemicals and that the manufacturing process of the cotton is free of chemicals too, meaning the organic cotton is not been treated with chemicals once it becomes a garment.
Certifications are important because they also take workers rights and fair wages into account.
Bamboo is a cellulose fibre like rayon or viscose. It was super popular when it came out years ago and was used in everything from furniture to bedding to clothing. The bamboo plant is known for its sustainable properties, it's harvested by cutting lengths of bamboo stems, without disturbing the root or soil system. It's similar to other grasses in that it regenerates quickly and does not need replanting, unlike traditional forestry timber, hemp or cotton.
When purchasing items made from bamboo it's important to ask how the bamboo is manufactured. Although it's considered a sustainable choice, it needs to be processed without the use of chemicals. Bamboo that is mechanically processed is better for the planet. The stems are crushed and enzymes are used to separate the fibres. In contrast to the chemical method which extracts cellulose from bamboo pulp using one chemical and regenerates it using another.
But, even though it's fast-growing and no pesticides are used, there is still a pretty good chance that it's not being grown and harvested sustainably. Most bamboo comes from China where little to no information is available regarding this. Studies have shown that farmers are clear-cutting land to make space to grow bamboo thanks to the demand for it, which has very detrimental effects on both local people, wildlife and ecosystems.
Bamboo or bamboo viscose requires a lot of water and chemicals to plasticize the pulp into silk fibres. Whereas closed bamboo lyocell is not, making it the better bamboo option.
Bamboo Lyocell is also a man-made cellulosic fibre, like viscose, it's artificially made with cellulose extracted from trees.
TENCEL® Lyocell on the other hand is produced in a closed-loop system where they capture are reuse 99% of the chemical solution. TENCEL® is made of eucalyptus trees that are sustainably farmed. This fabric is known as Monocel®, this is what you need to look for on clothing labels. "Fake" bamboo is much more common, so again good to talk to the brands directly. And make sure to check out What Is Modal Fabric? For a more compressive breakdown.
Is a strong, durable fast-growing crop that is super sustainable. Hemp crops need less water and pesticides than cotton crops and they also have fewer pests. Hemp fibre holds dyes very well, unlike cotton, which means it can be dyed in a wide range of lovely colours, using way less dye and chemicals. Hemp, like Jute, is very versatile and can be used to make a wide range of products from bedding to cosmetics, to clothing and even furniture. Hemp is also naturally antimicrobial, which makes it a great fabric for a shower curtain. It's also known for its ability to capture CO2 from the atmosphere making it a carbon-negative raw material.
Hemp is a little on the pricey side, but I am hopeful this will change as more of us demand change from the fashion industry.
There are quite a few wool fabrics on the market, merino wool, sheep wool, alpaca, camel, and even yak wool. There is no doubt that the use of wool in clothing is a controversial one. Most sustainable wools are vegetarian, not vegan. I have to admit I find this a personal ethical conundrum. I am a vegetarian and an animal rights advocate, I've been working with World Animal Protection for years.
It makes me feel weird when I think that what I am wearing came from an animal, yet I have wool clothing, most of it thrifted, in my wardrobe, which can seem hypocritical at times. I also have to recognize that a lot of communities around the world rely on these materials to live, so it's certainly not okay to criticize them in any way. In a perfect, utopian world I guess I'd want animals to be free and not used by humans for anything. But that is not the world we live in, it's complicated and layered and not a simple solution to solve.
There is a slew of issues associated with the use of animals for their wool. Industrial agriculture is a major one, in the case of sheep, they are raised specifically for their wool, think factory farming. Animal welfare is a major concern.
Merino sheep have way more wool, but the practice of "mulesing" is a horribly cruel one.
This is why certifications and transparency are SO important.
Common certifications include Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Certified Organic Wool, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane® Label, Soil Association Organic Standards, Fibershed, ZQ Merino Standard, Woolmark, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fair Trade, Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) Sustainable Cashmere Standard, Kering Standard on Cashmere, Certified Organic Wool, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane® Label, and Oeko-Tex 100.
Recycled synthetics like polyester
I am all for recycling or up-cycling fabrics but there is (like with most things) more to this fabric story. Polyester is made from plastic, so on the one hand it's doing a great job of keeping all that plastic garbage out of our waterways and landfills, it's extremely versatile and can be made into a wide range of products. On the other, hand tiny bits of plastic can break off in the wash known as microplastic and we know there are major environmental and health implications to this.
It can also be used over and over again! Always opt for recycled polyester, not virgin polyester.
Affordable Ethical Brands From Canada below $50 and below $150
Designed in Canada Frank and Oak is an affordable sustainable clothing brand that offers fabrics that are mindfully sourced and are durable and functional, including recycled cotton, yak wool, recycled wool, hemp and even sea wool (quality yarn made from recycled polyester and oyster shell composites).
Started by two friends back in 2012 in a kitchen, Frank and Oak has become synonymous with sustainability and transparency. All their factories around the world adhere to the highest standards when it comes to workers' rights and fair wages. For example, they make all their footwear in Portugal on the outskirts of Porto in high-end ateliers that specialize in sustainable technologies and materials. Their Hydro-less denim is made in an eco-certified facility in Dubai, that recycles 100% of their used water and fabric waste.
They work closely with Earth Day Canada's tree-planting program to offset their carbon emissions created by online shipping and packaging. Even all their tags are made from recycled and recyclable materials.
They have a ton of fashion staples to choose from, that will help your build an affordable ethical wardrobe.
For: Women, Men & accessories
My top picks under $50
Long-sleeve Mockneck, $49.50
Fuzzy Beanie, $29.50
Basic White "T", $49.50
My top pick under $150
Cropped Cable Knit Sweater, $79.50
Cropped Wide-Leg Pant, $79.50
Mockneck Sweater Dress, $129
Kotn is a Certified-B Corporation and one of the most affordable ethical fashion brands that were founded in 2015. One of the things I love most about this brand is its dedication to education with the communities they work with. They've partnered with a local NGO in Egypt to provide every child in their farming communities with safe, convenient, quality education. They also prioritized a 2:1 female to male student ratio in an effort to empower young girls to experience equal opportunity.
They are well known for their direct trade, typically something you only see in tea and coffee industries, it allows them to source raw ingredients right from the farmer, cutting out the middleman. This allows them to provide the farmers with better prices and business practices, allows for better transparency and provides consumers with "prices that reflect the quality instead of the label".
They have very impressive sustainable practices in place when it comes to their cotton and is working towards ensuring that 100% of their natural fibres are certified organic within the next five years.
In Portugal and Egypt, they work with family-run farms to pick the best fibres, ensuring direct-trade practices, above fair pay, and safe working conditions along the way.
For: Men, Women, accessories & home goods
My top picks under $50:
Relaxed V-neck, $30
Ribbed Legging, $50
Square Neck Tank, $28
My picks under $150
Turtle Neck Mini Dress, $68
Corduroy Work Jacket, $140
Ribbed Lounge Pant, $65
tentree is affordable ethical clothing at its best. In line with the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, tentree advocates for "the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights which include the responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts, to address such impacts when they occur, and to seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships."
This women's affordable sustainable fashion brand is a certified B-Corporation and is partnered with NGOs like Eden Reforestation, Trees for the Future, Plant With Purpose, and One Tree Planted, so every time they sell 1 item, they plant 10 trees. These trees have provided hundreds of thousands of days of employment in underprivileged communities across the globe which equates to several hundred full-time jobs.
They have an Eco-log on their website that allows you to dig into the main factors of the environmental impact of their clothing, including waste, waste and carbon emissions.
They offer a wide range of affordable ethical clothing for nature & outdoor enthusiasts. Their clothing epitomizes what it means to be Canadian. Choose from hemp, organic cotton, recycled polyester and TENCEL. Look for ethical backpacks, sustainable hats and some of the best sustainable fashion for men.
For: Women, Men, kids & accessories
My top picks under $50:
Women's Lorax Speak For The Trees Shirt, $40
Cotton Waffle Scarf, $50
Juniper socks, $20
My top picks under $150:
Tencel Blouse, $78
Cropped Wide-Leg Pant, $98
Eco Loft Boyfriend Crew, $78
If you have no idea how to curate a capsule wardrobe, look no further than Encircled. They do all of the work for you. This affordable ethical clothing brand makes versatile capsule wardrobe pieces that are 100% Made in Canada.
They are a certified B-Corporation that reduces their carbon footprint by knitting and dying over 50% of their fabric in Toronto. By making clothing right here in Canada, they can ensure better working conditions and even have an ethical supplier checklist, they visit all of their factories, most companies don't! All of their sewing studios are less than 35km from their Toronto office, and you can see what is made in each factory too.
I also love the fact that they strive to be zero-waste in all of their production. They keep all the scrap fabric and upcycle it into cute accessories. Anything that is leftover is donated. Their client is so versatile and one-piece can be worn in many different ways, they've got ideas on the website to help. They are also learning and auditing their entire business for opportunities where they can do better to support inclusivity.
They believe in "designing clothing that can simplify your life by taking you from day to night, work to weekend, and New York to Tokyo."
For: Women & accessories
My top picks under $50:
The Fair V-neck T, $44
Fair Cabin Socks, $18
Recycled Cotton Beanie, $38
My top picks under $150:
The Wrap Skirt, $138
The Comfy Dress Shirt $134
The Dressy Legging, $138
Affordable Ethical Brands From Canada below $150
Hernest Project is another top ethical affordable clothing brand from Canada. They work with a company called Green Story which calculates a product’s total carbon emissions based on its material composition, where it is manufactured and transportation metrics. Each step of a product’s manufacturing process generates carbon emissions; especially when fossil fuels are involved. When you purchase an item you can see its exact impact.
This is an essential aspect when it comes to sustainable fashion in my opinion; it gives us real data which I believe makes us more comfortable paying a little more. I think it's imperative that consumers see the tangible impact of the purchases they make. This is how this information is presented on their website when you purchase an item. So cool!👏
Hernest Project creates sleep and lounge basics that dreams are made of. All of the fabrics they use are sustainably sourced, made from Tencel™ Lyocell fibres. All their fabrics are certified Oeko-Tex Standard 100. All garments are sewn in Portugal where strong (and regulated) labour standards are in place.
They carefully consider material choices and production processes and emphasize the value of utilizing the product right to the end. That's why they choose fabrics that are bio-degradable and use less water and CO₂.
100% of their packaging (including hang tags, labels, bags and shipping materials) are either compostable, biodegradable, reusable, or recyclable.
Hernest invests in renewable offset projects, they work with organizations who are helping new immigrants find employment and they plant a tree for every review on their site.
They offer a range of the cutest must-haves and are a size-inclusive brand too!
My Top Picks Under $150:
The Juut Jumpsuit, $150
The Veronica Tank, $69
The Betty Brief, $39
Terrera (which means "Our Time On Earth") creates thoughtful, timeless, and comfortable styles for sustainably conscious people like you. I really love this Ontario-based brand!
Their women-led team designs bi-annual collections of easy-to-wear clothing using high-quality fabrics like bamboo, organic cotton, and TENCEL. They really pay attention to the details, too: every thread, button, stitching, and fabric dyes are free of harmful substances and carry the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification.
Not only that, but they're conscious of the people involved in the production of their pieces as well. They build long-term relationships with their factory partners, which are audited in order to ensure they exceed standards for health and safety.
They also give back to a number of community non-profit organizations every year as well!
For: Women's & Men's Clothing, Bedding, Home Goods
My Top Picks Under $150:
Lauren Culottes, $80
Lawrence Crew Neck Tee, $40
Beckett Wide Sleeve Top, $85
Free Label creates and manufactures its entire collection right here at home. They pass their patterns and fabric off by hand, visit their factories often, get to know the people that make their garments, and verify that they work in clean safe environments.
Their fabrics are milled in Toronto and are organic, the labels and tags are also made locally and all of their packaging materials are 100% home compostable.
Their custom fabrics are knit and dyed in Toronto and they do all of the cutting and sewing locally in Vancouver. Most of the organic cotton and bamboo materials are sourced from India and the USA from eco-certified producers and then milled into fabric in Toronto. The fabric is also processed and dyed locally according to Oeko-tex eco-standards. Choose from natural fabrics, like lyocell, organic cotton, linen and bamboo.
This year, they launched the BIPOC marketplace and initiated a "$5000 Bursary and Mentorship program aimed at supporting a Black and/or Indigenous identifying entrepreneur to develop their brand." Gotta love that and the fact they are size exclusive.
My top picks for under $150:
White Duggan Long Sleeve Shirt, $98
Walnut Isabell Wrap, $118
Copper Bra, $89
I LOVE this brand so much! Tamga Designs is so beautiful, so boho, so chic. Founded by Yana and Eric after visiting Bangalshed and seeing the fallout after the Rana Plaza collapse, they were motivated to make a difference in the world of fashion.
They spent months on the road in Dhaka, building their own supply chain from scratch. This ensures the people who are making their clothes are working in safe conditions with a fair wage. Their Code of Conduct covers all the ILO principles.
Tamga also works with an environmental research firm Green Story to track the impact of their garments - from field to fashion. This means that they know the total water and energy usage, carbon emissions, and even chemical toxicity at every stage of production and transportation, SO impressive.
Their fabrics include eco-friendly materials like Tencel and organic cotton. By choosing eco-friendly materials, water-saving dyes and plastic-free packaging they can significantly lower the impact of a piece of clothing. "Take the Rosella Wrap Dress, for example, it saves 19 litres of water compared to a typical fast-fashion dress, that’s the equivalent of 12 days of drinking water for one person from one dress!"
They even have a collection that is carbon neutral and included the best ethical dresses. What this means is that they fund projects that absorb the same amount of carbon created by their garments – like planting a tree that sucks the carbon we create out of the atmosphere. From raw material to fibre, yarn to fabric, and final product all the way to your closet, they track the emissions created and buy Gold Standard carbon offsets.
For: Women & accessories
My top picks for under $150:
Lillie Cropped Pants, $109
Claire Maxi Kimono, $105
Ruby Babydoll Dress, $149
Located in Toronto, Franc was one of the first brands I bought in the ethical space, they offer so many great sustainable staples that will work perfectly if you are trying to create a minimalist wardrobe. All the clothing is made and sewn locally in a factory that they visit regularly.
It's no shock that the fashion industry creates a lot of waste. They use as much of their scrap fabrics as possible. They either use to bundle garments together for storage or donate larger pieces to other companies to upcycle fabric. During COVID that have used scraps to make face-maks and donate 100% of the profits to the Food Bank of Canada.
The fabric is all custom spun yarn from Korea. The yarn is manufactured ethically and made in a factory that looks after its workers. Once the yarn arrives in Toronto, their knitters used large knitting machines and knit the fabrics into bulk. It's then delivered to a local dye house in Toronto where it's dyed, washed, finished and tolled back up.
Franc uses the trademarked fabric TENCEL, which according to them "allows us as a small business to ensure our yarn supplier is also ethical. It is not easy as a small business to have our hands in every aspect right down to farming, primarily since we use blended yarn. So using a trademarked fabric allows us the peace of mind that this early-stage or our fabric production is done right."
At Frac choose from TENCEL, cotton (they are working toward switching to organic cotton) and Spandex (not perfect, but they are working to change this).
My top picks for under $150:
The T-Dress, $71
The Trouser Sweat Pant, $99
The Scoopneck Jumpsuit, $107
I've read a ton of blogs talking about how ethical fashion is not accessible to people who are poor, so that's why they buy fast fashion and although this might be somewhat true in some cases, I feel it puts the blame on the issues surrounding fast fashion on those people. Which is really unfair.
The issue is not poor people, the issue is privileged (usually white) people supporting brands they know are harming people and the environment. The other part is the brands themselves. Brands that choose to manufacture their clothing in factories that abuse their workers, where slave and child labour exits and where the waste and pollution creates endless issues for our world. Poverty is systemic and needs to be addressed, but blaming people who are poor or using them as a scapegoat is not the answer.
Ethical fashion needs to be available everywhere to everyone in the same way that fast fashion is and buying four affordable sweaters isn't more affordable than buying one really great sweater. Because with the four, someone else paid the price in ways we don't.
I will leave you with this, just because something is affordable doesn’t mean you need to buy it. Consider how many wears you can get out of an item, aim for at least 30.
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