We all want to dress well and save money. But the darker side of the fast-fashion industry should give us pause.

Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company’s “2019 State of Fashion” report shows that fast-fashion retailers make up the most profitable sector of the industry – but the environmental and human costs are significant. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh – a factory disaster in that killed more than 1000 people – was a rude awakening for lovers of inexpensive clothing. Out of more than 470 people interviewed for the report, nine out of 10 Bangladeshi workers felt their income was insufficient and didn't meet their needs, and seven out of 10 workers in Vietnam felt the same. And according to Oxfam’s recently released “Made in Poverty” report, some of Australia’s most profitable fashion retailers (such as Cotton On and Kmart) are failing to pay the workers who manufacture their clothes in Bangladesh and Vietnam a living wage.

So what’s the best way to dress well – and ethically – on a budget?

Sydney-born, London-based stylist Xanthe Wetzler has a few ideas. She’s worked with a range of clients and labels (including Net-a-Porter and Reebok), but she knows how to construct a great outfit on a strict budget, and believes the future of fashion is all about bridging the gap between affordable and sustainable dressing.

Start with the basics

Wetzler’s first tip for dressing well? Avoid being a slave to short-lived trends. “High-street designers like Zara and Topshop are blatantly copying from hardworking designers [who are] a lot of the time young creatives who are just starting out,” she says. “[They’re] terrible for the environment and also for your wallet if you think about cost per wear.”

Instead, Wetzler advises investing in high-quality basics that will last for years. She suggests working on creating a “foundation uniform” upon which you can build. “I love the idea of a uniform,” she says. “For instance, some great-fitting jeans teamed with different tees and sweaters, then picking one or two key pieces per season to rotate.”

In addition to the jeans and T-shirts, Wetzler says your uniform should include a classic black blazer, tailored black trousers and “a leather jacket with guts”. The focus should be on cut, fit and tailoring, so take your time finding the right basics.

Although it’s on the expensive side, she notes this Equipment blazer (currently 50 per cent off ) is the kind of piece you’ll wear for years. Similarly, these Re/Done jeans (also 50 per cent off) are “a classic cut … the type you’ll wear through the seasons.” On the more affordable side, Uniqlo’s merino wool sweaters ($29.90) are great tucked into jeans or worn oversized with tailored trousers.

For footwear, Wetzler suggests spending more on black loafers, brogues or a pair of core white trainers (consider Veja for its recycled leather and vegan options).

Another tip: keep an eye out for what you like, then wait for the seasonal and flash sales. Follow your favourite labels on social media, sign up for their newsletters and check their websites regularly. “All of the luxury-ecom sites – Net-A-Porter, Matches and My Theresa – ¬have amazing sales after each season, so definitely keep your eyes peeled,” says Wetzler.

Start shopping on social media

“There are so many great vintage sellers on Instagram these days,” says Wetzler. She points to @shrimptoncouture for archival pieces and @losfelizshop for everyday, casual and holiday wear. Locally, @morimarket and @thedrobe are curating vintage and second-hand finds that slip easily into your wardrobe.

Peer-to-peer sales platforms are also a great way to find designer items for less, says Wetzler. Facebook groups High End and Ppennylane are noteworthy for their quality apparel and accessories, and it’s not uncommon to score a near-new designer item for a fraction of price. Wetzler also recommends the app Depop, which was founded by Simon Beckerman, the co-founder of Pig magazine and Retrosuperfuture sunglasses. It was originally conceived as a network where Pig readers could buy pieces already featured in the magazine, but grew into a global marketplace for creative influencers to buy and sell pre-owned items.

“I love what this says about the direction that our generation is headed in and also the positive impact that it will have on our planet,” says Wetzler. “It cuts down on the mindless consuming and this whole burn-and-churn mentality that high street fashion has dictated to us over the last couple of decades.”

Where to shop

Wetzler recommends the following retailers and labels for quality at a reasonable price:

Olivia Rose: “Olivia Rose hand makes (per order) beautifully whimsical prairie-girl tops and dresses. She makes all her pieces in Glasgow and sends them out to you within two weeks.”

Uniqlo: “[It] makes the best white tees going around and you can’t beat their 100-per-cent-cashmere sweaters for $100 in winter. They also collaborate with really cool designers like Alexander Wang and JW Anderson, which means you can cop designers for less.”

Maison Cleo: “A mother-daughter duo who make all of their pieces by hand from their Paris studio. They open their store at a certain time every week and you place your order. I love this model because it means there’s zero waste. Their pieces are also super chic.”

Réalisation Par: “They make the perfect holiday dresses, they get their fit just right too. I’ve made many a purchase over the years and all of my pieces have lasted the distance. The quality control is great.”

The Reformation: “The Reformation offer fantastic linen pieces and party dresses. The company as a whole is carbon neutral and all of the fabric is recycled.”