How to Find Guilt-Free, Affordable Fashion

Side view of three young women walking and holding shopping bagsLet’s talk fast fashion.

From Tar-zhay to Topshop, fast fashion is a fun and easy way to try out pastel pink pants without spending $150 on a pair of designer jeans (check out these other cute spring finds).

But what is behind the lace, pleats and floral-print skirts? 

We know LearnVesters like to buy brands with good values whenever possible (which is why we've shown you how to buy non-toxic makeup and green cleaners). After all, when you spend a portion of your hard-earned paycheck on a trendy dress, you want to give it to a business that not only sells the latest fashions, but that also has labor and environmental practices you can get behind.

But that doesn't mean you need to spend even more of your budget on clothing. There are fashionable and affordable brands out there that also incorporate eco-friendly and responsible practices into the production of silk blouses and boxy cross-body purses. Good for your wallet, good for the planet and good for a first date ... check!

How to Find Conscious Fast Fashion

One place to go for good fashion is Fashioning Change, which lets you search for consciously made and affordable items. Their Wear This, Not That tool is a trove of affordable fashion with impressive backstories of fair-trade labor and eco-friendly fabrics.

We've also looked at some of the most popular affordable brands and dug deeper into their practices on two issues:

  • Sustainability: Do they have eco-friendly items that adhere to sustainable fashion standards and have they implemented sustainable practices? For example, American Apparel uses fabric scraps to make accessories and lends bikes to its employees, and many brands are reducing energy use.
  • Labor: Do they have a code of conduct for factories fabricating their wares and do they verify that code is being followed? Have they ever been implicated in bad labor practices?

Using these factors, you can educate yourself on what brands are making an effort to cater to both your values and your fashion sense, and who you might want to avoid. We've color coded the chart so you can easily skim for especially impressive initiatives or alarming practices. Green means they've gone above and beyond basic measures; gray means you can assume the brand is keeping up with industry practices, and orange means it's a mixed bag. Red means they have taken no steps or have been in the news for bad practices.

And finally, we have a few other good-to-knows at the bottom.

Start your ethical fashion adventure here:

Brand/StoreSustainabilityLabor
American ApparelPlenty of organic clothing. Recycles and donates extra materials, has solar panels on factory, subsidizes public transportation for employees and provides a bike share.Manufactures exclusively in U.S.; provides health insurance, English classes and meals. But CEO accused in several lawsuits of harassing female employees.
American EagleNo eco-friendly items. Matches employee carbon offset donations; sends damaged goods to charities for recycling. Working on more initiatives.Has code of conduct; inspects factories; works with noncompliant suppliers to improve or terminates relationship.
Ann Taylor LoftNo eco-friendly items. Energy-efficiency initiative in stores and offices; reduced packaging and shipping energy used. Working on more initiatives.Has principles and guidelines for suppliers; conducts third party unannounced audits; works with noncompliant suppliers to improve or terminates relationship.
ASOSGreen Room website section features eco-friendly and fair trade clothing and accessories. Is carbon neutral; reduced carbon footprint by cutting air freight from 75% to 10% of goods.Part of Ethical Trade Initiative association of companies, trade unions and organizations that work to improve global working conditions. Has code of conduct; has independent audits of suppliers; works with noncompliant suppliers to improve or terminates relationship.
Charlotte RusseNo eco-friendly items or sustainable practices.Has guidelines for suppliers; hasn’t started independent audits yet.
ExpressNo eco-friendly items or sustainable practices.Has standards for suppliers; conducts independent audits.
Gap Inc.No eco-friendly items. Part of Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Working on more initiatives.Has code of vendor conduct; makes unannounced visits to suppliers; works with noncompliant suppliers to improve or terminates relationship.
Forever 21No eco-friendly items or sustainable practices.2002 lawsuit alleged sweatshop conditions; currently being sued again for labor practices. Accused of using child labor in Uzbekistan along with Urban Outfitters and Aeropostale by International Labor Rights Forum.
H&MAfter being found out for destroying wearable clothing in 2009, stopped that practice and pioneered affordable sustainability with Conscious Collection; #1 user of organic cotton worldwide; part of Sustainable Apparel Coalition.Has code of conduct with independent audits; works with noncompliant suppliers but no stated policy on termination for non-compliant suppliers.
TargetSome eco-friendly items and food. Reduced energy use at stores; reduced operating waste; collects consumer e-waste. Working on more initiatives.Conducts unannounced audits; works with noncompliant suppliers to improve or terminates relationship.
TopshopFew eco-friendly items. Reduced energy use at stores and offices; reduced gas use in shipping; increased recycling. Working on more initiatives.Accused in 2007 of using slave labor by newspaper investigation; published Code of Conduct in 2009; conducts independent evaluations.
Urban OutfittersNo eco-friendly items or sustainable practices.No labor guidelines; accused of using child labor in Uzbekistan along with Forever 21 and Aeropostale by International Labor Rights Forum.
Victoria’s SecretNo eco-friendly items. Reduced paper and energy use; increased recycling. Working on more initiatives.Has sourcing standards with independent audits. Currently being inspected by U.S. investigators for using child labor.
ZaraFew eco-friendly items. Improved energy efficiency; has sustainably-built stores, including a LEED-certified one. Working on more initiatives.Has code of conduct with inspections. Accused last fall of using slave labor by Brazilian TV report; responded saying it would “strengthen supervision.”

Other Things to Consider

Female Management

If you're a fan of companies that actively try to bring women into the decision-making process, you could do worse than H&M, which has women in 71% of management positions, and goes 50-50 on the board of directors. But Urban Outfitters has zero female board members out of six.

Copyright Infringement

While fashion is a roundabout of ideas inspiring ideas inspiring more ideas, there's a difference between inspiration and ripping off work. The design team at Gap, for example, works diligently to come up with original ideas, but Forever21 has a long history of copying small-time designers' work and passing it off as their own, having been sued several times. Urban Outfitters has even stolen the design and ad copy off an Etsy jewelry designer. Ouch.

Female-Friendly Advertising

Everyone airbrushes. But if you protest against unrealistic portrayals of beauty, you will probably take issue with Victoria's Secret's heavy-handed photoshopping. Hey, where did her ribs go? It's a matter of opinion whether American Apparel's sexually charged advertising is creative and effective, or offensive.

More From LearnVest

We rounded up the cutest boots for spring. Check out our finds for under $50!
Want to clean out your closet? Here's where to sell your stuff online.
High heels an economic indicator? Oh yes.  

  • http://twitter.com/SensorySun Sensory Sun

    I’d love to see a report like this for children’s clothing! Thanks!!

  • http://theWardrobeCode.com Nicole Longstreath

    Wow, this is very helpful.

    I think it’s important to remember, especially for women savvy enough to be interested in finance and saving, that a new season isn’t necessarily an automatic trigger to add to your wardrobe.

    Maybe it IS better to buy a pair of $150 jeans if they were made well and ethically. The point is: buy less, buy better, buy more classics/less trendy items and keep everything maintained.

    • http://twitter.com/carletonenglish Carleton English

      Great advice! I tried sharing this advice with friends who always buy “bargains” and end up having to re-stock their wardrobe every 3 months b/c the clothes and shoes inevitably break. Best to find a few strong, reliable brands, (I like J.Crew and Cole Haan), learn your size and shop the sales.

      • http://theseasol.com/ Marisol

         Yes! This is something I’m finally learning to do. For example I spent $30 on 3 pairs of skinny jeans at F21 and then spent $60 for one at Levis. One season later and the Levis are holding strong and beautifully while two out of the F21 are ready to be tossed, didn’t make it past a few washes. Not sure how Levis would rank here but I’m in love with those jeans.

  • Caitlin

    I love that LearnVest is connecting our spending to our values! It can be so hard to see beyond the “branding” done by these stores. Beware of greenwashing- where companies call a product “eco friendly” because it has a tiny recycled scrap or wasn’t dyed with arsenic. Just because a bag has a recycling logo on it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t produced with toxic materials in a sweatshop.

    I wish it were as easy as looking for union labels, but good luck finding union-made clothing.

    Sidenote- Target is known for union-busting. (And I’m sure other companies on this list have tried to stop workers from organizing for better working conditions.)  Because of that, and their habit of donating to anti-gay politicians, I try to spend my money elsewhere.

  • Cyrena

    Love that LearnVest is battling the wasteful fast fashion industry.  Also look to hosting clothing swaps, or buying vintage online – or even an online virtual clothing swap like on ReFashioner!  :) http://www.refashioner.com

  • Nehalem98

    Must remember also that Target supports Anti-gay politicians, and, for that reason line, u will never shop there again, regardless of how they scored above.

  • Nehalem98

    Uh, I, not u! Sry. U can shop wherever u want to! :)

  • GR

    This is great, although I see you featured a lot of Forever 21 items in your “Hottest Spring Trends Under $50 article”

  • nr

    Also, the owner of Topshop avoids paying taxes in the UK and instead pays most of what should be his and the companies profits to his wife in tax haven Monaco.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S53TJ2IV4HPWFKKQVZ7HTGWRYU Amy

    Guilt-free and affordable? Try Goodwill!

  • Allison

    Thanks for posting this; I would love to see LV incorporate these kinds of ethics into your own purchasing recommendations. I know yours wont always match mine, or anyone person’s, but it would be great to know what they are, and why. 

    I personally try to buy used as much as possible (economical, environmentally friendly, and the added thrill of the chase), but with trendy/seasonal things, there is always the urge to buy things that might not align with my values. This kind of chart is really helpful about where I might fudge a little and where I won’t.

  • http://twitter.com/Adriana_Herrera Adriana Herrera

    As a little girl I grew up having to abide by three rules in order to make a purchase:  [1] I couldn’t buy things made in Asia, [2] I couldn’t buy things made of sythentic materials, and [3] I couldn’t buy dark clothing because my dad believes children are the light of the world and that they shouldn’t wear dark colors.  Growing up with such a unqiue lens on the world inspired my passion to make it easy to find stylish eco-friendly and ethical alternatives to top name brands. If anyone is looking for a stylish do gooder alterntive to a specfic item (or brand) feel free to share.  I love getting Wear This, Not That requests. You can tweet me a request, post one on our FB wall, or grab my email from our Change Agent page.   :)  

    Thanks LearnVest for this article!  It’s inspiring to see the comments and feedback – we’re pumped up at Fashioning Change.  :)

  • AWaldron74

    Keep this kind of info coming!  Fair Trade, Non GMO Verified….etc!  This is important information that we need to hear about.  Thanks for all your amazing efforts and guidance

  • Birdmadgirl

    Kinda ironic that at the end of the article you have a link to inexpensive boots, most of which are from stores in your red zone like Forever 21.

  • ann

    please don’t ever stop bringing us articles like this. it is so vital, and so few understand the price of cheap fashion, i used to be one!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MYA2KL57HZPOP3MEQR4MJ4GLL4 Nicole

    This is fantastic!  I’ve never heard of ASOS (maybe I’m way behind the times), but I’ll definitely check it out.
    I’d like to add another brand to the list: Nike. 
    I used to work for Nike and know that the brand has come exceedingly far since the 90s when the sweatshop labor scandal arose.  In addition, the company won a prestigious award from CERES for its 2009
    corporate responsibility report, is a member of the founding circle of
    brands who created the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, as well as a founding
    member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.  I highly recommend checking out nikesustainability.com and nikebetterworld.com for information and inspiration.  :)

  • Guest

    Thank you.  This is one of the most useful articles I’ve gotten in my email box and I’ll be using this chart when I go shopping.

  • Anonymous

    Vickys and Child labor? cant wait to see how that pans out… Definitely will influence whether I shop there or not.

    • Rachel Kennedy

      Perhaps it should already influence whether you shop there or not? Generally with child labor, if there is a rumor, there is a reason for the rumor. The Limited Brand that Victoria’s Secret is a part of has been on the labor department’s sweatshop naughty list before. Which is also an interesting read!

  • Jamie

    Thanks for the article although I am disappointed in the focus of international brands. The truth is that the supply chain is very complex and even the most ‘ethical’ company can’t really track their entire manufacturing process, especially when producing overseas. In reality, if you are buying ‘fast fashion’ you are doing more harm than good. H&M may have a good track record when it comes to working conditions but they create a huge environmental impact by producing poorly made garments faster than people can buy them. If you are actually concerned about workers treatments and the environment the best thing you can do is shop local. Go to small independent boutiques and support local designers and shop vintage. The only way to know where your clothes come from is to know the person who made them. You may pay a little more for these but think quality over quantity. One well made dress will last ten time longer than 10 dresses you might buy (and it will fit better too!)

  • Guest

    As a buyer for a speciality retailer — I think that the vendor inspections are critical to ensure quality of working environment for those creating your product.  If you ever wonder why retails are high, the quality and workmanship put into each garment (allowing more than one wash or dry clean) come from those retailers that take the time to inspect factories.  

    At my retailer, we have quality check points both in the factory and after the goods are produced to ensure standards are met.  If our standards are not upheld, orders are canceled — which could ultimately can hurt our bottom line, but at the same time help us to keep great relationships with customers who know where they can always find quality garments at fair prices.

  • Eebudee11

    great article and info – thanks!

  • Meluka

    I’d encourage re-using and recycling where possible, BUT if you do have to buy baby/kids wear or as gifts (0-6 yrs), Heartsong (www.heartsongcreations.net) use certified organic & sustainable blends. They’re ethically-made, sweatshop-free, and comply with International Labour Organization standards. 

  • be

    Why don’t you actually encourage people to buy from thrift stores and local independent stores? Now THAT would be much more eco-friendly and ethical than if you were to buy from any big business. 

  • RedStar East

    “Those Sex Harassment Lawsuits Against American Apparel CEO Dov Charney Were Mostly Bogus, It Turns Out”

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/sex-harrassment-lawsuits-against-american-apparel-ceo-dov-charney-2013-3

  • Rachel Kennedy

    I feel like H&M’s labor policy should be in the orange, no? No policy for termination of non-compliant suppliers? Possibly still goes on using bad suppliers? And someone thinks that is better than American Apparel’s domestic harassment where at least there is a legal system semi-fairly designed to prosecute him?

  • Marie

    I like the list you have on here! You should also check out Dji G’s Boutique, they have some trendy yet affordable clothes. Their website http://www.djigsboutique.com is cute too.