How to Shop Ethically in Toronto (On A Budget)
After I quit my stable 9-to-5 job to work full-time on Cambio Market, I felt liberated but also panicked. I knew it would be a couple of years before our business stabilized and we could live comfortably off sales from our shop, but what would we do about money in the meantime?
Around the same time as we were launching Cambio Market, I spent time researching the traditional retail industry and learned many things I didn’t like. Like how children are forced to pick cotton in 40C heat to make fancy Egyptian cotton sheets, or how the rise of cheap, disposable clothes means our landfills are filling up at exponential rates. This raised more questions: how do we avoid buying unethical and cheap products without breaking the bank (ideally while supporting local and small businesses)?
Luckily, we live in an amazing city where ethical shopping options are plentiful and I’m excited to share them with you. Here’s my starter guide on how to shop ethically on a budget in Toronto:
1. Go vintage and buy secondhand (or even get stuff for free!)
Toronto has a decent lineup of secondhand shops and thrift stores with great finds. The advantage of buying clothing secondhand is, obviously, that it’s less expensive and you’re less likely to be caught wearing the same thing as someone else on the subway. BUT it’s also more eco-friendly since the clothes don’t end up in the landfill.
Your best bet is to check out Value Village, which has an awesome and large selection of clothing and non-clothing items. You can even get secondhand Halloween costumes and holiday-specific apparel. Another plus is that there are Value Village shops located pretty much everywhere. If you’re living or working around the downtown core, do yourself a favour and check out a Kind Exchange near you. Their shops have a smaller selection compared to Value Village, but their clothing tends to be more modern and fashionable in comparison (at least in my experience). Aside from the better known chains, you can also try popping into one of your local thrift stores*.
You're even able to sell used items or trade them for store credit (like at Kind Exchange). You won’t get much back, but it’s better than nothing and is a great way to de-clutter your space. Also check out community swap websites like Freecycle.org where you can give and get gently used items for free.
2. Shop local and small at community craft fairs
Community craft fairs are fantastic for discovering small and local businesses, plus the in-person discounts you’re likely to score are worth the trip! Here’s a disclaimer however: don’t come expecting to pay $5 for a pair of earrings. The products you’ll generally find at these fairs are handmade and individually crafted (hopefully by people who were paid fairly along the way). Most vendors usually offer promotions or discounts, and some are open to bargaining. Plus, if you’re chatty and can develop a good relationship with the vendors, you might get some extra perks!
Me at the Social Enterprise Conference 2016 in Toronto, our first time as a fair vendor!
The best part is getting to know the people behind the products. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – ask who made the pieces, what materials they use, how they were sourced (from small artisan communities, or from China through Alibaba?), which countries they came from, and importantly, how much the workers were paid (if they didn’t make it themselves). If the vendor has no idea, it’s possible the items were purchased online through mass manufacturers where there’s a higher risk of exploitation and environmental irresponsibility.
Toronto is a wonderful city for local fairs and community events, especially come Spring and Summer. Check out events from your local BIAs (Business Improvement Areas: local areas that businesses and property owners work together to revitalize through various activities, such as fairs). You should also check out Scadding Court Community’s Market 707, Annex Flea, Urban Collective Toronto and large farmers’ markets such as St. Lawrence Market and the Evergreen Brick Works.
3. Support small and local farms
Speaking of farmers’ markets, buying your food from local and small scale farms is an ethical (and healthy) alternative to buying factory farmed meat and produce. This doesn’t necessarily translate into organic food (not all small farms are certified organic, though many are), but shopping local means your food travels a shorter distance from farm to table (so it’s more fresh and earth-friendly) and you can support our local farmers (always a good thing).
Again, farmers’ markets are great to meet the people behind your food and score some decent discounts. There are a host of farmers’ markets in Toronto and Ontario, so don’t limit yourself to just the popular ones. Check out the Ontario Farmers’ Market Directory and find one near you (Side note: While going through that directory, I discovered there’s a farmers’ market every week in the parking lot literally beside my home).
4. Go organic with Mama Earth Organics
If you do want organic food (which Jérôme and I do as much as possible), it can be expensive but not always. Depending where you shop and what you buy, organic produce can be almost the same price or even cheaper than conventional non-organic foods. Organic and free-range meats are pricey, so if you can’t afford organic meat, opt for cuts with the skin removed. If you have to choose between organic meat and produce, opt for the meat (or buy organic produce that you don’t peel, such as lettuce, tomatoes, etc.).
Though I love the vibe of farmer’s markets, Jérôme and I have been using a grocery delivery service called Mama Earth Organics for the past 2.5 years. They work directly with small and local farmers in Ontario to source fresh and certified organic produce, and have also expanded into farm fresh eggs, dairy products, coffee, baked goods – you name it (just no meat products). Price-wise, Mama Earth isn’t for you if you’re on a tight budget and dining on Mac and Cheese every night. However, it’s well worth the price – the food is always fresh and quality, customer service is fantastic, it’s certified organic, supports local farms, AND comes straight to my door. Many of the brands they carry are also present at the Evergreen Brick Works and the St. Lawrence Market (such as Ying Ying Gourmet Tofu and St. Urbain Bagel). The prices in-person are comparable to Mama Earth (and sometimes Mama Earth is less expensive since they buy their produce in bulk).
A basket of food is delivered weekly (you can customize and skip or cancel whenever you like) and prices range from $30 (smallest basket) to $60 (largest), delivery fees included. Jérôme and I usually opt for the small or regular baskets, and it is a LOT of food (though keep in mind you’ll need to shop for your own meat and non-produce items). They also often throw in extra veggies or fruits in your basket if they have a surplus, which is always a pleasant surprise.
5. Think before you throw
Ever been in that situation where your shirt had a small tear and your first instinct is just to trash it? We’ve all been there. Rather than thinking “trash it” right away, first think: Can this be fixed? Can you bring it to a local tailor instead or fix it yourself? Or, even cooler, can you repurpose it into something different?
In many situations, that broken zipper or missing button can be fixed for a fraction of the cost to buy it new (just avoid going to tailors in malls or shopping centres as they are always pricey). Also, consider how you can reuse or repurpose this item – is there some DIY-pinspiration you can find? If you’re feeling crafty, there are amazing ideas you can find on Pinterest (my favourite is how to make your own apron using old shirts). Genius!
6. Buy fewer things, but buy more high-quality things
When I was shopping at Winners a few years ago, I came across a cute shirt for $20. Threads were coming loose and I wasn’t crazy about the material. My shopping companion looked at it and said, “Oh! If that lasts you two wears, that’s worth it.”
These days, fashion retailers compete with each other not only in terms of style and price, but also on speed – who can push the greatest number of new products as quickly and as cheaply as possible? There’s a reason that it used to take six months for a new style to get to market, and now it only takes three weeks. As a result, you end up with mass produced clothing that’s poorly made, often by workers who are exploited and abused. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead of hopping on the latest fashion wagon and getting caught in temporary fashion frenzies, try instead to shop for minimal, classic pieces that are well-made and timeless. If you pay $100 for a piece you love that can be re-worn for several years and pairs well with other clothing, then it’s a much better investment than that $20-shirt that falls apart after two washes (and your wallet will thank you for it).
Shopping ethically on a budget isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible (it’s also fun!). What are your favourite places for ethical finds or ways that you integrate ethical shopping into your life? Share them with us in the comments!
*Other places you should check out for secondhand shopping (non-clothing):
- For ethical bookworms - BMV: Awesome selection of used or excess books, records, CDs, and DVDs that are very well-priced)
- For your tech needs - FreeGeek: I haven’t used this personally but have heard great things. This is your place to buy refurbished electronics at affordable prices. You can also drop off your old laptops and cell phones and they will responsibly recycle it for you.
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