The Ultimate Guide to Creating an Ethical Wardrobe

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Are you worried that your budget combined with your love of fashion will overrule your desire to shop ethically? Scared of being forced to opt for cheap and nasty over ecochic? Never fear! Here are 8 tips to create a versatile and ethical wardrobe without breaking the bank.

Ethical Wardrobe: Fall Back in Love with your Wardrobe

There’s no use throwing out the clothing you already own and rebuilding your clothing collection from scratch. The deed has been done and it shouldn’t go to waste. Instead, it’s time to fall back in love with your wardrobe. Style your existing pieces with different accessories, reinvent them with a DIY project, or try combining that top with a different skirt. Find the hero items that always make you look and feel great and wear those babies as much as you can!
Ethical Wardrobe: Look After Your Clothing

Be mindful during the laundering process. This is actually where your clothing impacts the environment the most, not the production phase. For example, the washing and drying of a polyester blouse consumes around 6 times as much energy as that needed to make it in the first place.

Natural fibres tend to require less laundering, especially in summer. You can just hang your clothes out to air overnight, and they will be fresh as a daisy in the morning. Unless something is visibly dirty or on the nose, take the challenge to wear your garments at least three times before they hit the laundry.

Invest in some good coat hangers. Most plastic and wire hangers will stretch out the shoulders of your tops  and leave you with saggy clothing. Despite being a little more expensive, wooden hangers will last longer and take better care of your garments. For more tips on caring for your clothes, check out our Ultimate Guide to Making Your Clothes Last Longer.


The Good On You app helps you find brands that do better by people, the planet, and animals. Try it out!


Ethical Wardrobe: View Your Clothes From Fresh Angles

Take those high investment pieces in need of repair down to the tailor today!  A new zip or an extra inch on the waist will set you back as little as $30. Or why not empower yourself by learning those skills yourself? There’s nothing quite like the feeling of adding a new skill to your repertoire. Learning to sew, repair and re-fashion your own clothing puts the power back in your own hands.

Upcycling is a way of tweaking an item to make it even better than the original. This means taking something that doesn’t fit or is stained/torn and refashioning it as a fabulous new piece. There’s a wealth of videos and how-to guides available for free online or you could take a class at your local community college.

“You really don’t need to pay $300 for ripped and distressed denim. Grab a cheese grater and some scissors and try it yourself.” – Faye De Lanty

Taking control over your wardrobe also means you no longer have to put up with clothing that “just isn’t’ quite right” – you can tweak things as your style changes, getting optimum wear from your well-loved items – and earning yourself some bonus bragging points into the bargain!

Ethical Wardrobe: Be a Mindful Shopper

Before you reach for your wallet, first ask yourself these three questions: How much will I wear it? How much do I already own? How long will it last?

Resisting the impulse to buy huge numbers of cheap items in favour of investing in quality pieces not only makes your look more streamlined, it also reduces the amount you consume overall. Saving your hard-earned dollars for affordable quality is really win-win.

Although shopping at ethical retailers may seem like a more pricey up-front commitment, taking the time to curate a careful and worthwhile wardrobe of items you love will be much gentler on your wallet – and the planet – in the long run.

“Even a gorgeously tailored black dress isn’t worth much to you if you already have 10 just like it. A $15 t-shirt is no bargain if it’s worn out after a few washes. And those jeans on sale aren’t worth $40 if you’ll wear them just twice before consigning them to the back of your closet” – Marc Bain

Create a list of items that you’d be ecstatic to own. Focus on quality – which doesn’t just mean more expensive. It can include organic natural materials, well-made rather than on-trend, perfect-fitting, and preferably a brand that in some way makes an effort to be ethical and sustainable. As well as being better for the planet, people and animals, higher quality pieces will often last longer due to superior materials and overall construction.

Start by browsing clothing online while checking their ratings using the Good On You app. Place the items you want in your virtual cart, add them to the wishlist feature on the site or create a Pinterest board. Pin images that include what you have in your wardrobe so you can see how they’d all work together. The more you mull over the options and revisit your choices, the less you’ll probably want any of it, and the more certain you’ll be to love the pieces you finally end up purchasing.

Ethical Wardrobe: Browse Outside the Box

Research by the Bureau of International Recycling shows that rescuing a single kilogram of used clothing from landfill can help save up to 3.6 kilograms of CO2 emissions and 6,000 litres of water consumption.

Op shops are a treasure trove for fashionistas who love beautifully crafted vintage pieces and unique pre-loved items. Buying something feels even better when you know that the proceeds are going toward projects making the world a better place. Not sure where to start? Stylist and op shop guru Faye De Lanty says it’s important to “Shop the whole store, not just your section. Some of my favourite pieces came from the men’s section. (Oversized boyfriend shirt anyone?!).”

Local markets are often packed with quirky and unique finds you just can’t get anywhere else. Buying second-hand from a local market means you’re not only recycling clothing and accessories that might otherwise end up in landfill, you’re supporting local enterprise and giving back to the community.

For some of us, the idea of turning up to every formal event in the same gown and that one pair of trusty heels is just not on. But neither is a wardrobe overflowing with barely worn formal wear or a maxed out credit card from buying clothes we can’t afford…what to do? It’s time to look at the rental market! There’s a huge variety of fashion rental businesses who provide designer dresses and accessories. You can also browse most sites via occasion and designer to give you some inspiration.

Clothes swapping is another sustainable way to find a new outfit without spending a cent, and it’s also a great opportunity to meet other fashionistas like yourself!  Swap events can be big formal affairs or just a casual get together with you and friend. For example, The Clothing Exchange hosts events in venues around Australia with guidelines to ensure everything is fair and fun. Keep an eye on your council’s community events page for swaps happening in your neighbourhood or better yet, organise one yourself.

Ethical Wardrobe: Curate Your Own Captivating Capsule Wardbrobe

Sometimes less really is more. A capsule wardrobe refers to a small collection of seasonally appropriate, mix-and-match clothes. Back in 2015, Harper’s Bazaar art director Matilda Kahl shared her experience of adopting a “work uniform”. This consisted of a crisp white shirt, black pants, a unique accessory, and optional black blazer. The idea came to her after a classically frustrating morning trying to find the right outfit; only to feel uncomfortable in her chosen look. Three years after pinning down her Monday to Friday uniform, Kahl has continued to stick with her chic, minimal ensemble as a way to save time, energy, and money.

There’s so much you can borrow from the uniform concept! Like investing in ethically made basics to build a capsule wardrobe a la Jennifer L. Scott.

Ethical Wardrobe: Hunt for Deals

While many well-made ethical fashion brands can be pricey, most companies host amazing deals at some point during the year. Stalk the sale sections in stores and online. Sign up for emails to receive coupon codes, and befriend shop owners to find out when blow-out sales are approaching.

You can also shop off-season for the best prices. Stock up on your winter jumpers in spring so that you’re prepared to rug-up when June rolls around again. Make sure you check out the special offers tab for ethical brands available in the Good On You app.

Ethical Wardrobe: Use the Good On You App

We’ve already done the research for you with this app! See how your favourite brands rate for their impact on people, planet, and animals. If you don’t like what you see, you can send a message to the brand asking them to do better. You can browse via clothing category, such as “jeans”.

Then filter by price to make sure the results will fit your current budget. Save the brands you love and refer back to them when you need to update your wardrobe. And keep an eye out for exciting offers from our favourite ethical brands. All in one handy little app!


 Discover more sustainable brand ratings in the app!

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Editors Note: This is an updated version of an original piece “How to Build an Ethical Wardrobe on a Budget” by Julia MacAlpine. Additional writing by Yvette Hyman and Kendall Benton-Collins based on user suggestions and additional research.

Kendall Benton-Collins

Author Kendall Benton-Collins

Kendall has over a decade’s experience working in environmental conservation and communication. She’s the creator of Kindness by Design and a member of the Australia/New Zealand Working Group for Fashion Revolution.

More posts by Kendall Benton-Collins

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Tessa says:

    I’m sad this app isn’t available on the USA iTunes store 🙁

  • Holly says:

    If the most cash-strapped you’ve ever been still involved buying cafe coffee, you know nothing of the poverty that is all most of the people who made your fast-fashion clothes have ever known. But I am glad that you have taken this step and are writing about it– more people should.

  • Hannah Cole says:

    oh my goodness, you just described my life perfectly right now.
    my policy is to only spend when i truly love something and have saved up accordingly, which is super depressing at times, but also means i’m rewarded when i do actually abstain.
    in the end, i would rather purchase something i can feel good about than a dress i know is shocking quality and made under circumstances that are even more shocking. x

  • Liz says:

    A good tip I’ve found is to make sure that everything in your wardrobe gets along with everything else. My stock outfits generally consist of neutral coloured tops and colourful skirts, which can be married together in a myriad of different ways! Great tips in the article too – thanks 🙂

  • Elena says:

    Love this! I also recently started giving up fast fashion, and the result has been zero shopping in the past 4 months. Not only am I saving money, but I’m realizing which pieces I was planning to replace and why I didn’t (or shouldn’t). On top of other benefits, it really helps open your eyes to what your personal style truly is!

  • Briana says:

    The only other tip I would consider is to make some of your own clothing. It makes you appreciate how much time and skill goes into each garment, plus you’ll gain invaluable mending and alternation sewing skills (also helpful to the budget conscious).

    • Bethany Noble Bethany Noble says:

      Yes! It’s a skill that we’ve really lost the cheaper clothing has become! Thanks for the tip.

    • Cat says:

      I would like to add to that that learning how to mend and alter clothes is just as important. Not only can you Extend the life of clothes you currently own but it opens up a whole new world of options when I comes to second hand shopping.

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