Enjoy Fashion

How to Build a Sustainable Wardrobe Without Going Broke

Javacia Harris Bowser  |  May 12, 2021

Sure, fast fashion is bad for the planet, but sustainable wear seems bad for your budget. Here's how to build a wallet-friendly wardrobe.

When Lacey Woodroof started her career as a financial adviser, she never thought her job would eventually lead her to a career in fashion. 

“I was working in finance and started learning about companies and how they make their money,” she explains. Then she had what she calls her “eureka moment.” She wanted to know how companies selling $12 t-shirts were pulling in billions of dollars in revenue each year. 

Searching for answers, Woodroof began to learn more about “fast fashion” and the negative impact it can have on people and the planet. 

“I learned so much during that time period and it felt like it was a greater conversation that needed to be had across the board, but particularly in the South,” says Woodroof, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama. “I decided to leave my job as a financial adviser and pursue talking to people about how they spend their money full-time.”

Today Woodroof is the owner of basic, “a slow fashion shop, founded on basic human rights.” With locations in Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama, and an online store, Woodroof’s shop only partners with brands and designers who use ethically-made garments and disclose their production process. 

Chances are you know that your fashion choices have an impact on the environment, on workers and on animals. But what is “fast fashion” really? It’s cheap, trendy clothing made as quickly as possible in order to meet customer demand. Yes, the items are affordable (which, other than the club music and cute displays may be what brings you through the door in the first place), but as any fast fashion aficionado will tell you, the clothing rarely lasts for more than three or four wearings, if that. Maybe you’ve been thinking it’s time you ditched disposable clothing brands and built a sustainable wardrobe – but you just don’t think you can afford to do so. 

Slow and sustainable fashion is pricey. Basic items can range from about $75 to $500. But you can have a cruelty-free closet without going broke, and with the right care, the items in your closet will last years (if not decades) to come. Here’s how you can get started on building your sustainable wardrobe today – and why you should. 

The Skeletons in Our Wardrobes 

If you think spending your money on fast fashion is no big deal, think again. Fast fashion may help you sport the styles you see on the runway or in magazines without spending much money, but the cost is high, nonetheless. 

As many consumers discard these clothing items after just a few wearings, fast fashion creates a cycle of overproduction and over consumption and leads to lots of waste. According to a report by Business Insider, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year. Also, fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions. That’s more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The fashion industry also is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.

People like Bridgett Artise are on a mission to change these staggering statistics. Artise is the co-founder of Sustainable Fashion Week. Last year, this 6-day event showcased collections from sustainable designers and vintage collectors. Artise and her team have also hosted slow fashion workshops and upcycling contests for designers. And she created one of the first sustainable wardrobe fashion classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Artise believes awareness is the first step. 

“The more the consumer knows about how damaging the fashion industry is, the more they can make better, more ethical choices when shopping,” Artise says. “If all these initiatives weren’t in place to uncover the garment workers mistreatment, chemicals used in our fabrics and the amount of clothing that ends up in the landfills, a lot of the horrors of the fashion industry would still be unknown.” 

For Woodroof it was awareness of the human cost of fast fashion that pushed her to speak out. Many garment workers in the fast fashion industry are not paid a fair wage, they’re given no health benefits, they’re not allowed to unionize, and their working conditions are unfathomable. 

“People are sitting on top of each other and wearing diapers because they’re not given breaks,” Woodroof says. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the global impact of fast fashion, check out the 2015 documentary The True Cost. Director Andrew Morgan was inspired to make the film after the 2013 collapse of a clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 workers. 

“People are dying because of this,” Woodroof says. 

Extreme Makeover: Sustainable Wardrobe Edition

Before you revamp your wardrobe, your mindset will need a makeover first. 

Joining the slow fashion movement means buying clothing that’s made from high quality, sustainable materials and that’s produced in a way that treats people (and the planet) well. Slow fashion is usually found in smaller, local shops instead of big chain enterprises. 

A slow or sustainable wardrobe costs more because the garments are made from higher quality materials, the garment makers are paid more, and efforts have been made to reduce the environmental impact of the production process.  As the name suggests, with slow fashion, you have to slow down. You can’t be so quick to jump on every trend. 

We don’t need to have a new outfit for every Instagram picture or a new outfit for every wedding or a new outfit for every season,” Woodroof says. “I used to be a part of that,” she admits. 

Woodroof says that for some people fashion can become an addiction. 

“People get addicted to having to keep up with the Joneses and keep up with the trends and you feel like you have to have the thing that everybody else has,” she says. “People can be a lot more sustainable if they just wear what they want instead of trying to wear what other people are. Everybody looks their best and makes the best choices about the clothes they buy when they’re comfortable in them.”

This does not mean you need to throw away everything in your closet and start from scratch. If you do that, you’re just adding waste to landfills. Be patient with yourself. 

“There is no timeline to becoming a sustainable shopper or consumer,” Woodroof says.  

Artise says the key is to shop with intention. “When we love the items we buy, we keep them longer,” she says. So, paying a little more for a classic piece that you will keep in your closet for years is an investment, not a waste of money. 

When building a sustainable wardrobe, you must plan your purchases.  Let’s say you buy eight new pieces of clothing a year. Woodroof recommends you save up and budget for two or three new pieces from sustainable brands. 

Artise is a fan of supporting independent and emerging sustainable brands. In fact, she recently held a Virtual Vintage Pop-Up with the Fashion Institute of Technology to highlight 16 new sustainable brands.

You can also find sustainable brands that fit your style, by visiting the Good On You website and downloading the Good On You app. Founded in Australia, Good On You is a group of campaigners, fashion professionals, scientists, writers, and developers working to revolutionize the global fashion industry to make it sustainable and fair. 

“Once we have bought our classic pieces, accessorize via thrifting,” Artise suggests. “Thrifting is always an easy and cost-effective way of adding pop to your wardrobe. Get that wide metallic belt or tie-dye bucket hat from a thrift store instead of buying new.”

Woodroof is also a fan of thrifting, and says if you’re looking for a totally free clothing option, consider searching your grandmother’s closet (of your mom’s!) for fashion finds. “Look for the stuff that was made 30 or 50 years ago,” Woodroof says. “That stuff is never going to break down.”

Artise, who has been dubbed a vintage fashion expert by The New York Times, is the author of Born-Again Vintage: 25 Ways to Deconstruct, Reinvent, and Recycle Your Wardrobe

Upcycling is now one of the coolest ways to stylishly transform a garment,” Artise says. “Luckily, there are now so many ways to easily learn how to mend or upcycle, so getting started is right at your fingertips.”

All in all, think before you shop. The money you save on foregoing impulse buys can be used to purchase high-quality clothes that will last a lifetime. 

“I don’t buy a ton of stuff,” Woodroof says. And before she purchases an item, she asks herself, “Does this serve a purpose in my closet and is this something I can wear in a bunch of different ways and style in a bunch of different ways?”

In addition to the Sustainable Fashion Week website, Artise recommends the following resources to get you started on your slow fashion journey: Fashion Revolution, The New Fashion Initiative, Conscious Fashion Campaign, and Global Fashion Exchange. A host of resources can be found at basic’s website as well

“The most power that we have as individuals is the power of our dollar,” Woodroof says.

“We can have a say in what somebody else’s life looks like with just how we spend our money.”

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