Ruth MacGilp

What Holds You Back From Ethical Fashion?

Every new person I meet that finds out I’m interested in ethical and sustainable fashion tells me the same thing.

“Oh, I wish I could shop more ethically but it’s just too expensive”

And then, they go on to apologise - to me - for wearing Primark. (we should be apologising to the garment workers and the environment, but that is not my point here - regrets and guilt do not lasting change make).

I know their pain. It would be so much cheaper for me - on a junior salary and weighed down by paying back student loans and overdrafts and extortionate Edinburgh rents - to shop at Primark (or Zara, or Shein, or Topshop, or Nasty Gal, or ASOS, or insert any generic fast fashion brand here). Only a few years ago, I was doing just that on a very regular basis.

But as ethical fashion becomes more and more mainstream, I want to make the case that ethical fashion can not only be affordable, but also accessible, fashionable, fun, and all of the things that people like me who love clothes want from their shopping experience.

Last week, I posted on Twitter and on my Instagram stories asking people what exactly they feel it is that holds them back from embracing a more ethical way of investing in and engaging with fashion. I got plenty of responses, all of which can be split into four fairly predictable categories - price (the big-un!), accessibility, aesthetic and transparency. Here, explore the problems that people experience with the sustainable fashion world, and my suggestions for simple ways of tacking these problems. I hope this helps at least some of the sceptics out there!


Logically, most of us know that the real reason that ethically made fashion products are generally more expensive than their fast fashion equivalents is because they are made from higher quality materials, and most importantly, because the garments workers are paid a fair wage for making them. Despite this well-known fact, even the very keen ethical fashionistas like me can get frustrated by the cost of a quick outfit. I received over 27 responses to my ‘what holds you back from ethical fashion’ question, that cited statements like:

  • “Mainly price for me”

  • “Definitely the cost”

  • “Price, 100%”

  • “Way too expensive”


Contrary to this popular belief, affordable ethical fashion brands do exist! Here are some of my faves with prices generally well under £100:
>> People Tree
>> Mayamiko
>> Monkee Genes
>> Kotn
>> Lucy & Yak
>> Dreamland
>> Armedangels

What’s more, there are countless other ways to keep your wardrobe updated and look damn good while doing it, without buying anything new:
>> Delve into your local charity shops / thrift shops - these are total gold mines of second-hand fashion; my outfits usually consist of at least one piece from a charity shop - Oxfam, Barnardos, British Heart Foundation, PDSA, Shelter and Cancer Research are my go-to’s when asked where my clothes are from!
>> Clear out your unwanted clothes and come home with some new ones by taking part in a clothes swap event with fiends. You’ll be embracing a more circular economy model of ‘shopping’, and it can genuinely be so much fun - here’s my blog post about a recent clothes swap I organised with some fellow Scottish bloggers.
>>If you love designer clothes - try out a rental model to get your label fix. Chances are you don’t get many wears out of an investment piece anyway, so it makes more sense for your budget - and for the planet. I recommend Rent the Runway or Wear the Walk!
>> Learn to style what you already have - a good wardrobe clear-out/re-jiggle will help you realise just how many clothes you actually own, which is usually more than you think! Our fast fashion culture reinforces our need to buy buy buy, but it’s so important to learn the true cost of this constant consumption, and actually try to STOP SHOPPING - this will almost certainly save you some money. This is my big challenge to work on in 2019 - consuming less altogether, not just ethical versions of the same amount of clothes I always bought.


Another key issue that people are finding with the ethical fashion world is that is is simply much more convenient for them to find everything they need in high street or fast fashion stores:

  • “The brands seem to be mostly online and not in physical shops”

  • “Sizing availability especially for plus size women is a big problem”

  • “I just don’t know where to shop or how to find ethical brands”


The key to navigating sustainable fashion is understanding that although it may take a little more time than a traditional way of shopping (that is, until it becomes mainstream enough to populate our high streets and online stores!), it is so worth it so that you can relax in the knowledge that your purchases aren’t negatively impacting people and the planet. It’s sometimes necessary to do your research and shopping around for sure, but rather than viewing it as a chore, I like to see it as an adventure - it can be really satisfying to discover new indie brands that no one else knows about, and track down your perfect clothes that no one else will be wearing the same as. It’s also important to understand how consumer demand really works- demanding more from brands - both ethical brands (more sizes/styles please!) and big chains too (more ethical please!) - will help them to deliver more of what we want and make the whole experience easier and more enjoyable.

The sizing issue is a big one, whether you’re tall like me, super petite, have big boobs or are anything above a size 14 really. There are some great articles out there all about this problem, for example:
While there are some labels that produce ethical clothing for larger sizes, like Girlfriend Collective, Eileen Fisher, Reformation, Hope & Harvest and Elizabeth Suzann, pickings are fairly slim (no pun intended). Until brands embrace diversity and make vital changes to cater to more of their consumer base, I would suggest learning some basic sewing skills to mend and adjust your clothing, or alternatively get familiar with your local tailors - you’d be amazed at the difference that small, relatively cheap alterations can make to clothing that doesn’t quite fit right. You could even try making your own clothes - arguably a great way to dress in an ethical and sustainable fashion and feel more connected to what you wear.


Some of my responses said that the uninspiring aesthetic of the brands they have seen are what holds them back:

  • “I feel a lot of the google-able ethical brands are quite plain. It’s hard to find new brands without stumbling on a lot that are not to your taste"

  • “There are plenty of great affordable brands, but they mainly have either very basic boring designs or hippy grandma vibes.”


Firstly, know that I totally agree - there are too many brands out there producing such dull, mediocre clothes. I’m all for minimalism, but how many more ‘ethical basics’ worn by clean-living, zero waste, vegan mega-influencers on Instagram can we really take? Fortunately, there are some real gems out there to add some colour to the grey, taupe and beige. Try The Emperor’s Old Clothes for bespoke, retro-inspired clothing in limited-edition fabrics, Squint for design-led, playful womenswear in bright colours and hand-illustrated prints, or What Lydia Made for unique, colourful underwear and hand crafted knitwear.

Another great tip is to get into vintage shopping. It can be a little intimidating at first, but once you get into the swing of sifting through rails of 1920’s beaded dresses, 1950’s tea dresses, 1980’s power suits and everything weird and wonderful in between, you will not only have a new hobby, but new (old) wardrobe full of clothes and accessories that are anything but boring. Some of my favourite vintage shops in Scotland are Carnivale, Herman Brown, Armstrong’s, Oh Hello and Mr Ben. There are some great vintage brands online too like COW, Blue Rinse and Beyond Retro. Don’t forget eBay, Depop, ASOS Marketplace and Vinted too for second hand garbs from closet clearers and collectors around the world! In no time you will stand out from the uber-minimalist crowd in your sequins, tartan, polka dots and Hawaiian florals.


It may seem like a less common qualm with ethical fashion, but transparency from brands - i.e. what are they disclosing about their practices and their impact on people and the environment, and what are they hiding from view - can be a big barrier to how accessible ethical shopping feels to the average consumer. What’s more, it’s hard to know where to start in the sustainability world; even more so now that its becoming more popular, as there are lots of greenwashed headlines floating about that can often be misleading, and brands trying to capitalise on the ethical fashion ‘bandwagon’ by simply re-wording their fast fashion bullshit. Here’s what some of you replied with:

  • “I just don’t know enough about it, I wouldn’t know where to start”

  • “I can’t trust brands who claim they are ethical”

  • “I’m slightly intimidated by it all and I feel like I don’t know where to begin, so I just don’t.”

  • “I don’t know much about it or how to find out about it”


Thankfully, help is out there! Firstly, there are now hundreds of bloggers sharing beautiful, informative and inspiring content about all things ethical fashion. My current favourite Instagrammers are Honestly Mili, Sophie Benson and Uncomplicated Spaces, and you can find dozens more on the Ethical Influencers directory, or read my ultimate list of sustainable and ethicals fashion bloggers in my resources section of this blog. I would also recommend trying out some other cool new online tools to sift through the madness, like the Good On You mobile app, which rates the best and worst fashion brands in terms of their ethics and sustainability, and Compare Ethics, a website which matches you to your ideal ethical brands and compares companies against each other to find the best options for your own sustainable values. For ease, you can also try shopping on multi-brand shopping platforms that only stock ethical or indie brands, like Know the Origin, Gather & See, Wolf and Badger, or The Fair Shop. Finally, remember that often the best way to find out how a fashion brand aligns with your values is just to ask them - who made my clothes? Head over to Fashion Revolution to find out why, and how to get started with an easy email template. Go forth and get ethical!

Images photographed by Ellie Morag at the launch of Meander Apparel in Edinburgh last year

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