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Ethical Shopping

How I Shop Ethically on a Low Income

Last week, I wrote about being too sick to work. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has kept me out of the workforce for a good year and a half now. And that’s had an impact on our finances.

My husband works two part-time jobs, and I earn a little through affiliate sales. But our income hovers right around the national poverty line. I hesitate to call ourselves poor, because we have a lot of safety nets that rarely exist in true poverty. But we live in a government-subsidized apartment and pinch our pennies carefully.

Given our financial state, it may seem odd that I often write about ethical shopping.

Ethical shopping has a reputation for being, well…expensive. Products generally cost more when the people making them receive fair wages and a safe work environment. Unfortunately, this leads many people to believe that they can’t afford to shop their conscience.

The truth is, you don’t have to be rich to shop ethically. 

I know, because I’ve done it.

A few years ago, I committed to shopping more ethically. At the time, I was serving as a missionary, and I had to fundraise my own salary. Our total income wasn’t much higher than it is now. But I believed that even that small amount of money could make a difference if I used it wisely.

Since then, I’ve made purchases from over 100 ethical brands. I’ve done a ton of research, hunted for bargains, and learned a lot of money-saving techniques. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.


Do Your Research

When I first started this journey, I assumed that all ethical brands were crazy expensive. Thankfully, after perusing a few ethical shopping guides, I discovered an array of brands that were in my price point. Better yet, I realized that some of my favorite products were already ethical!

Education is an important part of becoming a conscious consumer. The more you know, the easier it is to make good choices. Ethical shopping guides are a great way to find brands. I spent months compiling my own, which you can read here. It only contains brands that I’ve personally purchased from, which tend to be modestly-priced (or have killer sales). I also recommend the guides from Style Wise, Selflessly Styled, and The Art of Simple.


Invest in Long-Lasting Products

When your budget is small, it’s tempting to buy cheap products that you know won’t last. I used to buy the same pair of low-quality flats every year. If I only looked at the price tag, it seemed like a good deal. But when I factored in how often I was paying for new shoes, I realized I was spending a lot more. So I decided to save up to buy a pair of high-quality, ethical shoes. I got some Nisolo shoes on sale, and I felt like a million bucks walking around in them. Plus, they actually cost me less per year than the tattered flats I used to wear.

Since then, I’ve used this investment model for much of my wardrobe. I think ahead about what I’ll need, find a classic and high-quality option, and then save up to buy it. I purposely choose pieces that won’t go out of style, because I expect to have them a long time. Most recently, I’ve purchased jeans from Everlane, a layering tank from Boden, and an organic cotton skirt from Fair Indigo.

I also buy home goods that replace single-use items like plastic wrap, dryer sheets, or ziplock bags. These products are good for the environment, and they’re also super cost efficient.


Look for Sales + Secondhand

Most ethical brands have a sale page, or at least offer holiday sales. I often keep my eye on a product for a few months to see if the price will go down. I look for discount codes, which many brands (including ABLE31 Bits, and Ten Thousand Villages) will give you just for joining their email list.

I also buy ethical items secondhand. Thrifting any item is an ethical choice—it reduces waste and diverts money away from the fast-fashion industry. But I like to use it as a way to try ethical brands that would otherwise be out of my price range. Poshmark is a great online secondhand store. I like that you can search for specific brands, and they’re often 40-50% off while still being in great condition. Thred Up and Clothes Mentor are also worth checking out, and I buy almost all of my son’s clothes and shoes at Once Upon a Child. You can also resell your old clothes at any of these stores to increase your spending money.


Choose Good Over Best

Despite my best efforts, I can’t always afford to buy truly ethical products. Sometimes I settle for the next best thing. Lots of major brands are making positive steps towards fair labor and eco-friendly practices. Buying from these brands encourages this behavior, and helps the ethical movement become more mainstream.

A lot of my clothes are from Uniqlo. Although it’s a fast-fashion brand, I find that their clothes hold up really well over time (in both durability and style). They also have a number of initiatives for sustainability, worker empowerment, and social responsibility. In my book, this makes them a much better choice than their competitors. You can get $10 off your next Uniqlo purchase (of $75 or more) by using my referral link here.

If you come to my home, you’ll see tons of Ikea furniture and generic household items from Target. Again, neither brand is perfect, but they’re making strides to ensure fair labor and sustainable practices. And they’re super affordable.


My final tip is so simple it doesn’t need much explanation: don’t buy what you don’t need. Minimalism may be trendy, but it’s also practical. The less you spend on impulse purchases, the more you can invest in ethical products. And sometimes not buying anything is the most ethical option: it reduces waste, lowers the demand for cheap labor, and encourages you to use, repair, or recycle what you already have.

For more information on why you should shop ethical, read this.

To browse my favorite ethical brands, click here.


This post may contain affiliate links, which help support this blog. I only link to products I use or would personally recommend. 

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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