Shopping ethically when you can't afford it

Rachael Smith is a photographer and blogger based in South Wales. She is a mum of 3, a minimalist and a lover of the great outdoors. When she's not going back and forth on the school run you can find her exploring the Gower Peninsula with wellies on and camera in hand. Follow her family's journey with minimalism, outdoor adventure and sustainable living over at Our Beautiful Adventure and follow her @OurBeautiful_Adventure


I remember when I first became aware that not all clothes were created equal. I’d never given it much thought before; the idea of sweat shops and the like existed in the far recesses of my brain and were not ideas I engaged with when I went shopping. But then people in my social circle started talking about fair trade, and poor working conditions and ethical fashion. I knew almost immediately that what they were saying was both true and important, but I also knew it wasn’t something I could realistically allow myself to listen to or give any real thought to. The only thing I knew about shopping ethically was that it costs more, and at the time we were a one income family with three young children to support, so it made my life a lot easier to just smile and nod whenever it was being discussed and shove the feelings of guilt way, way down, as there was simply nothing I could do about it.


During this time of blissful ignorance I ended up discovering something else that rang true with me but that didn’t seem quite as unattainable as shopping ethically, and that thing was Minimalism. I’d always had this preconceived idea of Minimalism as something cold and lifeless. Empty spaces and empty homes. It was not an appealing or attainable thing. However, hearing other mothers talking about it in such a positive way and seeing first hand how much tidier and manageable their homes were, got my interest piqued. I began reading blogs and books and scouring Pinterest for inspiration, and then the decluttering began. It became almost addictive, and the more we were able to let go of the easier it became to let go of even more. Until I found myself the proud owner of empty space. Shelves were being taken down, and storage units I’d once thought were the solution, were being given away. We didn’t need them and we didn’t need the stuff they used to house. It was a game changer and nearly four years on we haven’t looked back. Minimalism has not only given us more space, it’s given us more money, more time, and more freedom. There’s so much less cleaning and less stress, and knowing we have enough and are no longer trying to keep up with the impossible goals society sets has made family life much more enjoyable.

Wanting less is a far better blessing than having more
— Mary Ellen Edmunds

It wasn’t long after discovering Minimalism that I began to feel like I could start listening to the voices I’d been ignoring for years. Now that I had thinned my wardrobe right down to only items I wore and loved, thanks to taking part in a Project 333 (Only wearing 33 items of clothing, including footwear and jewellery, for 3 months) and since I was no longer adding to my wardrobe on a regular basis, ethical shopping suddenly didn’t seem so ridiculous. It isn’t that ethical shopping has suddenly become affordable or we’ve suddenly become substantially richer, but by realising we need fewer clothes than we previously believed, we could buy less, and therefore buy better. Which coincidentally means we need to replace things much less, as the items are more often than not built to last. I’ve even found ethical brands that offer free repairs for life! I still struggle with the price tag, especially knowing what my children will inevitably spill all over their clothing, and navigating which shops are actually ethical and which are just putting on a front can be a minefield. Even the websites there to help you decipher often offer conflicting advice or hold differing opinions on certain shops. However, I couldn’t ignore that little niggling voice any longer so I have found ways to make it work for our family, so that wherever possible we buy in a way that is ethical and sustainable. For the sake of the workers making the clothes but also for the sake of this planet that the fashion industry plays a huge part in polluting.

Demand quality, not only in the products you buy, but in the lives of the people who made them.
— Orsola De Castro

One of the most important realisations for me on our ethical shopping journey was that it isn’t so much that ethical shopping is too expensive it’s that fast, unsustainable fashion is too cheap. If you really think about what goes in to making a single item of clothing; the material, the time sewing and making it, as well as the design and then the marketing and selling of it, it’s really hard to understand how anything can be sold for as little as some stores sell their clothes. Next time you find yourself thinking how cheap an item is ask yourself who is paying for this, because at such low prices it definitely isn’t you. And similarly, when you feel an item of clothing you know has been made ethically and sustainably is too expensive, it’s worth reminding yourself that this is actually the true cost of clothing.

Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want to live in.
— Anna Lappe