(Disclaimer: I don't think that people who shop at Target/Walmart/ etc are bad people. The onus for their unfair practices is on the companies, not on the consumers. The deregulation of the trade and exportation of jobs overseas was the mistake made by some Western governments to benefit corporate interests, and it is misguided to hold consumers responsible. This essay is based on the choices I make for myself, and other people might find useful.)
There was a post a while back on Painfully Hip dealing with an issue of living on a budget and yet buying designer stuff. The author wisely mentioned that she uses 'designer' as a shorthand for quality -- you know, you pay more, you get a better quality item. Or so the reasoning goes. Of course, many designers and high-priced brand use sweatshops, either overseas or even in Western Europe, Canada, US, Australia, where immigrant workers work for minimum wage. So even 'Made in Italy' label no longer guarantees that the workers were paid a fair wage -- and it also no longer guarantees quality.
At the same time, that post is a perfectly reasonable call to buy fewer things -- a message to conserve and consume less that's been more and more prominent lately. Hence the shopping diets, wearing only six items for a month, etc etc. I'm all for buying fewer things -- it's just that I don't believe that one has to spend a small fortune to accumulate a quality wardrobe.
Spending money is a thorny issue too. There's a pressure on fashion bloggers, for example, to constantly come up with new outfits. The result is an overstuffed wardrobe where many pieces have limited wearability. Moreover, because so many people under this kind of pressure are young and/or have limited income, we see an increasing prominence of bargain retailers -- Target, Old Navy, WalMart, all of which have been linked to sweatshops and other unfair labor practices. The corporate advertising, of course, latched onto this tendency, coining 'recessionista' and a bunch of other dubious terms (far as I'm concerned, any word that ends in 'ista' can die now.) While I understand taking pride in one's thrift, the downside to this tendency is both an increase in consumption of disposable garments and consequent worsening of trade and labor practices all over the world.
So, how does one put together a wardrobe of good quality ethically and without spending a fortune?
1. Thrifting is an ethical alternative to the fast fashion glut, and I'm happy to see it becoming more and more prominent. Vintage pieces are guaranteed to be of good quality -- after all, they lasted for 30 or more years! Many are made in the US and still have union labels -- an increasingly rare phenomenon nowadays.
2. Designer vintage -- pricier than regular thrifting, but: back in the day, designer did guarantee higher quality and it is cheaper than modern day designer. Added bonus -- it's unlikely to be on every single blog at the same time.
3. Ebay. Not just for used clothing! While it doesn't solve the matter of sweatshop practices by designer brands, the prices for new clothing can certainly be a lot less. Often, slightly damaged clothing is deeply discounted, and it is a good environmentally friendly choice, as opposed to throwing it away for a trivial flaw. Look for trusted sellers, and if the deal is too good to be true, the item probably is fake. $20 Chanel bag? Very unlikely.
I also look for items with bad pictures. They tend to attract few bids, so if you're a risk-taker, bid on that listing with a great description and a blurry pic.
It is also a good place to find pieces by lesser known but wonderful designers, such as Olga Kapustina.
4. Independent designers. They're young, they're not overpriced, and they don't have sweatshops. Etsy is a great place to spot talented up-and-comers. I have a dress from Ledthread, and it cost a bit over $100 for a wool dress lined in silk. It is handmade, it got more compliments than any other dress I own, and it is unique and beautiful. Another Etsy designer I adore is Idea2lifestyle -- a design collective based in China, showing that not everything made overseas is linked to unfair practices. Another Chinese designer is Ella Lai -- while some of her designs are targeted to a younger crowd, most of them are suitable for any age and fabulous -- check out her silk jackets and pants, and beautifully cut jersey dresses and skirts.
5. Dead people and elderly relatives. Estate sales and elderly relatives can be a goldmine of good quality cheap vintage clothing. Rifling through your grandma's storage bin might yield awesome things.
6. Members-only sites (Gilt, ideeli, HauteLook) can be a good place for an occasional high-end piece. If you must have designer, those are good options for deep discounts -- especially red tag and blowout sales. Generally, I prefer to buy everything new on sale; online boutiques and members-only places are always having those.
Which brings us to this point: oft-given advice is to never buy anything on sale you wouldn't be willing to pay full price for. I get the idea -- don't buy stuff just because it is discounted, but the wording makes me cringe a bit. This is because I am decidedly a sales shopper. BUT: that doesn't mean, as it is often assumed, that sales shoppers are just grabbing stuff off the racks as long as it's discounted. I'm a strong believer in having each piece carefully considered -- and it is possible to train oneself to consider a twenty dollar item just as carefully as a hundred dollar item.
"How to Buy Designer Fashion on a Budget" article I linked to makes one excellent point: "<...> start to think about what we are purchasing and begin really considering its place in our wardrobe. No more buying on a whim and regretting it; you’re bound to appreciate any item all the more if attaining it pushed you beyond a mindless swipe of your credit card on a busy Saturday afternoon in Target. Every item in your wardrobe deserves this amount of appreciation." I do agree with it, even though I don't think it should only apply to expensive items. Twenty bucks is money too!
So to sum it all up: a) shop mindfully; b) get only the pieces you really love; c) opt for ethical as much as possible.
So the ideal result would be a fairly small (by modern standards) wardrobe, which is partially thrifted, partially designer vintage, supplemented with modern pieces off ebay and online boutiques, indie designers, and eco-friendly labels. It seems to be a viable alternative to both the unattainable (by most) designer-only wardrobe, and the 'recessionista chic' of low-quality, disposable stuff that damages working people as much as the environment.