Can students afford ‘sustainable fashion’?

I think I first heard the phrase ‘sustainable fashion’ a couple of years ago when Emma Watson got a big press coverage for wearing a ‘sustainable’ black and white trouser/skirt outfit to a red carpet event.

I am always interested in ways I can become more self-aware and reduce my carbon footprint, so I read up on the topic a bit more. I found phrases like ‘slow fashion’ and ‘micro-seasons’ and ethical fashion seemed to have a different definition to sustainable fashion and there were several articles offering 10 easy ways to become more sustainable[1]. All of this information led to a lot of questions, particularly around how, as a student, I could be more ethical in my clothing choices.


A low down on the jargon[2]: ethical fashion concerns human rights and how garment workers are treated whereas sustainable fashion regards the environmental impact of clothing production. Fast fashion is ‘the reproduction of highly fashionable clothes at high speed and low cost’[3] and can be comprised of up to 52 micro-seasons[4] thus creating constant pressure to buy more clothes more often to stay on trend. These affordable and fashionable clothes are a product of worker exploitation and a cause of mass waste. Slow fashion was a phrase coined to describe the solution to fast fashion, which is ‘the movement of designing, creating, and buying garments for quality and longevity. It encourages slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints, and (ideally) zero waste.’[5]

In the UK alone we bin 300,000 tonnes of clothing per year[6] and buy 1.13 million more! To add some context, the weight of the clothes thrown away each year is equal to that of 1,653 blue whales[7] or 601,202 fiat 500s. This is problematic because to buy more clothes, they have to be made somewhere (probably abroad) and shipped here (using fuel) and someone had to be paid (maybe not enough) to make the clothes and the material had to be made/grown (using lots of water).


So, what can we do? For some of us, fashion is life and for others it’s hell, but we all (usually) wear clothes everyday and there are ways in which we can all become more conscious of our clothing consumption. The two components to consider are: what we already own and the what we are going to buy.

With regards to what I already own, I look after my clothes well and have learnt to repair small tears and loose seams so my clothes last as long as possible in a wearable condition. I like to sort through my wardrobe regularly so I am aware of what I own and am not tempted to buy more, similar items. Once a season (summer/winter) I sort through my clothes and swap with friends, sell online or donate to charity what I no longer wear. If I am unsure about a garment I put it away and when I feel like I want to buy new clothes I first look at what I’ve stored away. This helps me feel like I’m refreshing my closet more often than I actually am without buying lots more clothes.

When I actually do buy new clothes, there are a few things I consider. Firstly, can I buy what I want from a charity/vintage store? The proceeds from charity shops go (as you might expect) to charity and you can find clothes of all brands and styles there if you have the time to have a proper look. Vintage stores offer a more curated selection of clothing (usually at a steeper price) that might come from big brands or that have been restyled. Buying from these types of stores reduces how many clothes need to be produced and has a lower carbon footprint. I regularly visit charity shops to browse for clothes on the off chance I’ll find a gem (or another large men’s jumper).


Regardless of where I buy from, I always try to follow the 30 wears rule. This is pretty self-explanatory: I only purchase items of clothing I think I will wear at least 30 times. This means avoiding trends and looking to buy quality over quantity as these clothes need to survive many washes and wears.

But clothes of high quality, especially those which have been produced ethically, with fairly paid workers, are expensive. Perhaps for some, spending £50 on a well-made vest is a good deal; an investment. But for me, a full time student working a couple of part time jobs, with big dreams to travel the world, £50 is food for a few weeks, or a flight to almost anywhere in Europe (off-season).

Am I immoral if I choose to buy a £1 vest from a fast-fashion store instead of a more expensive, ethically made one?[8]

I’d argue not.


Personally, I cannot currently afford to invest in tops, jeans and dresses that cost hundreds or thousands of pounds. I can still look after my clothes, follow the 30 wears rule and buy from charity/vintage shops. The truth is, the people that can make a big difference are the large consumers, the people who can buy into every micro-trend; the top 1%, which, according to[9] this is anyone earning above £27,366[10] per annum (almost how much debt I will be in one year from now).

So, my conclusion is simple. Those who can afford to contribute to the 300,000 tonnes of clothes thrown out annually can probably afford to change their habits and support more sustainable brands, and the rest of us can see it as a future goal to invest in ethical fashion.

Below I have linked all the websites I referenced. Please leave a comment if you’d like to read more about sustainable living!










[10] approximately

4 thoughts on “Can students afford ‘sustainable fashion’?

  1. this was a great read! very informative and well-researched. it was especially wonderful to read after having a similar conversation about this topic in my environmental studies class.


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