There’s no hiding from the truth anymore; if a fashion price tag seems too good to be true, then it’s probably too cheap to be good.
But while many of us could adjust our habits to buy less and buy better, the fact remains that not everyone can afford the £300-a-pop indie labels often touted as the alternative.
No matter how “classic” and “timeless” the wardrobe staple, if we don’t have the cash then it’s a moot point.
So, does sustainability always cost the earth? Can we feed our fast fashion craving in a guilt free way? Thankfully the answer is no – and yes, yes, we can.
While the only way to buy a £5 dress with a clear conscience is to get it second-hand, there are growing numbers of ethical fashion brands making covetable clothes and accessories at price points that don’t feel so far removed from the high street.
Often, these brands are producing in small batches, using deadstock and offcut fabrics, and working closely with artisans and factories to guarantee fair and transparent supply chains. Some are independent makers, cutting out overheads and marketing budgets to sell wares straight to the public. Etsy and Depop are full of them, if you have time to trawl.
Responsible shopping doesn’t mean resigning yourself to life in shades of utilitarian beige, and to prove it, we’ve scoured the internet for the fun, the flirty and the surprisingly on-trend – from gingham and prairie ruffles to “y2k” (year 2000) reimagined. As well as passing muster in many, many mirror selfies, we’ve assessed each piece on fit, fabric and the quality of the finish. These clothes should last far longer than a few washes.
Whether you’re looking to diversify your wardrobe or break up with fast fashion completely, here are the 10 best pieces to inspire you. Best of all, every single brand has a backstory worth investing in. Boo who?
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Omnes blue check sweetheart neck top
An exciting arrival on the sustainable fashion scene, Omnes is probably the closest thing to an ethical Topshop you’re likely to find. The brand’s list of credentials is serious, from Forest Stewardship Council and Oeko-tex certified viscose to labels made from recycled plastic bottles, but the designs are pure, floral-sprigged joy. This flattering top limbos in just under the price limit but is worth every penny, with its soft blouson sleeves, wide sweetheart neckline and dreamy blue, green and lilac check – printed with The Global Organic Standard (GOTS) certification-certified dyes. As far as we can see the only drawback is the size range – it only goes up to a 16 – and viscose’s tendency to crease up in a drawer. Give it the hanger it deserves, and you’re golden.
Mayamiko Celtic thistle print shorts
Mayamiko operates both a fair trade fashion label and a charity, which provides valuable training, mentoring and micro-financing for disadvantaged women in Malawi. Using chitenje fabric, made with traditional techniques and sourced from local market traders, the designs are produced in small batches in a zero waste workshop where every scrap and offcut is upcycled into something useful. At only £36 for a pair of shorts, that’s a lot of ethical bang for your buck.
Crisp cotton and a smooth, high waistband make them feel more chichi than beachy, while the thistle print is a welcome change from anything you’re likely to find on the high street. There’s also a matching shell top, currently reduced to £18.50, which makes for a seriously cute co-ord set.
Lucy and Yak Ripley pini dress
With a devoted fanbase and new releases inspiring regular frenzies of excitement, Lucy & Yak truly puts the “fun” into fundamental worker’s rights. Part of the brand’s made in Britain collection, crafted by a family-run business in Barnsley, the Ripley pinafore is a chic, playful spin on a traditional artisan’s apron. The fabric is a pleasingly sturdy 100 per cent cotton twill, with contrast stitching, the brand’s signature tie straps (these can be knotted into bows too) and a roomy front pocket, available up to a size 22 – not fully inclusive, but far better than most sustainable brands.
A dress for all seasons, it looks as good layered over a thermal roll neck as it does this summer’s puffy milkmaid sleeves. But it’ll be working hard in your wardrobe till the cows come home.
Lauren Chivers Patti dress
Seeking out individual makers on sites like Etsy is a great way to buy ethically without the eye-watering markup. Designer Lauren Chivers makes all her pieces to order, meaning you might need to wait a few weeks for the Patti dress to arrive. But patience is a virtue, and the reward is this well made, traffic-stopper of a frock – voluminous, breezy, and as versatile as bright orange gingham is ever going to be (it’s also available in black gingham and soft sage green). The elasticated puff sleeves can be worn on or off the shoulder, and there’s even an option to send precise bust and arm measurements to ensure a comfortable fit. You don’t get that at Zara.
Nude Ethics daisies organic cotton T-shirt
Could this be the softest T-shirt we’ve ever worn? Spun from 100 per cent organic cotton, sourced fairly and embroidered in Cornwall with plant-based threads, the finish of this Nude Ethics daisy tee is far more premium than its price tag would suggest. And there’s peace of mind included too. It can take a colossal 2,700l of water to grow enough cotton for one T-shirt, while farmers often end up trapped in systemic poverty. The GOTS certification offers reassurance that crops have been grown in a fair way for both people and the planet.
The fit is generous, so we’d recommend ordering one smaller than your usual size – unless you’re going for the true 90s aesthetic, in which case it looks fabulous over a pair of cycling shorts.
Before July Amora ruched tie top
Proof that ethical and sexy doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, the Amora top from hip slow fashion brand, Before July, ticks so many trend boxes – square neckline, tie-up straps, ruching – but most importantly, it’s exploitation-free. Each top is handmade by designer Elisa Jaycott, with the option to specify a bra size as well as dress size for a perfect fit (though personally we wouldn’t recommend it for larger than a D cup).
Maddy Madison paisley silk bandana
Just like Velcro sandals, corset tops and tie dye, bandanas are a turn-of-the-millennium trend that suddenly looks so right again. But this time, they have purpose. Textile artist Madison McGlennon designs her “silent protest” scarves to raise awareness and funds for vital issues like period poverty and youth suicide.
Look a little closer at this design and you’ll see the paisley print is actually made up of fish, sea creatures and an influx of plastic waste; Friends of the Earth receive five per cent of the profits. We love the acid-bright yellow and pink colourway. And though it isn’t big enough to wear in true 00s style as a halter top, it works beautifully as a neckerchief, a hair scarf, or a makeshift face covering next time you go to the shops.
Sunday London reversible cut-out swimsuit
Finding a swimsuit that fits your top and bottom halves perfectly can be an impossible challenge; perhaps it’s part of the reason that Brits spend more than £700m a year on items that don’t make it beyond a single holiday. But Sunday London is keen to help us find the perfect fit, by letting us mix and match the top and bottom sizes when ordering its handmade Blake swimsuit. More and more recycled lycra swimwear is appearing on the market these days, but this cut out design is one of the funkiest and comfiest options we’ve found – as long as you’re prepared for the unusual tan lines. Best of all, the design is fully reversible. It may cost more than the bikini you usually panic buy at the airport, but remember you’re getting two for the price of one.
Maison Archives gingham topknit headband
While we’re wising up to the ethical implications of our clothes, accessories often fly under the radar. But as well as a pick-me-up impulse purchase, they can be a great opportunity to support brands who are doing things differently. Maison Archives is a startup founded by Judith Agwada-Akeru and her husband, working with co-operatives of women artisans around the world and seeking to empower them through craft and commerce.
This topknot headband is made with recycled polyester, well finished and comfortable (even in the all-important spot behind the ears), with an organic cotton pouch for storage. Available in black, yellow, grey and blush, it’s the ideal way to dip a toe in the gingham craze without going top-to-toe hoedown.
Know The Origin high necked modal tank dress
As a brand, Know The Origin delivers exactly what it says on the tin. Or rather, the tag, where you’ll find images and info about the fairly paid workers who made each item. Soft, sleek and sporty, we love this high neck dress made from 100 per cent lenzing modal, a sustainable plant-based fabric that feels cool and resists creasing – ideal for rolling up in a holiday suitcase. The clingy fit won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the minimalist shape could make it a wardrobe staple for years.
Vitamin A sustainability is sexy tee
Finally, a slogan tee that stays on message. Vitamin A is a Californian swimwear and beachwear brand with all the Southern California allure that it suggests – but the planet is its main squeeze. Made from 100 per cent organic cotton, this tie-dye T-shirt is ultra soft and thoughtfully designed, with a relaxed scoop neckline, gently body-skimming shape and raw-edge sleeves for that “just cut these off myself, dude” look. Choose a size down if you want it snug.
A refreshing change from all those charity tees with dubious supply chains, it’s made in a fair paying factory in California and a portion of every sale is donated to marine conservation charities. Of course, the snag is that international shipping isn’t great for the carbon footprint, but at least all the packaging is biodegradable. We’d like to see Vitamin A open a UK outpost – although Bognor Regis might not offer quite the same beach aesthetic.
The verdict: Ethical fashion for £50 and under
“Affordable” is a subjective concept. We believe everything on this list represents good value when considering the thought and care that goes into them, but we know that £30 for a T-shirt or £50 for a swimsuit will still be a big outlay for many of us. If buying better means shopping less often, then it pays to choose wisely. The lack of ethical options that are affordable and also size inclusive is problem we can’t ignore, and we’re frustrated we couldn’t find more examples that tick all three boxes.
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