When I first started knitting, back in college, it was with...like...Lion Brand and Red Heart acrylic stuff. The cheapest stuff I could get my hands on, essentially. Since then, I'm afraid I've developed rather more expensive tastes in yarn. This wasn't such a problem back when I was working full time, but now that I'm back to being a broke-ass student, well...yeah.
I'd say that my strongest preference when it comes to yarn is natural fibers. I realize this is somewhat arbitrary. There are some nice synthetic blends out there. It's part a crunchy-granola thing, and part the fact that I grew up in The Land of Spontaneous Brush Fires, not far from The Land of Spontaneous Hurricanes, where we have a deep appreciation for the miracle that is 100% cotton. But cotton isn't all that's good and pure in this world. Natural fibers in general breathe better than synthetics, and even in winter, when you're wearing layer upon warm layer, acrylics will make you sweat when wool won't.
I'd like to be even pickier in my yarn selection. I'd like to buy more locally produced fiber, wool from manufacturers with documented humane standards of treating their animals. I'd like to buy organic cotton and yarn dyed with the environment in mind. There's lots of locally, responsibly produced wool to be had in my area, and some gorgeous hand-painted artisan yarns. I'd like to focus on these, to help my community and vote with my dollar, but damnit, I can't afford to.
Not only can I not afford to, being a responsible consumer sometimes seems like an impossibly daunting task. A lot of people are faced with unacceptable choices - if there's not much locally produced organic produce to be had, for example, your decision to buy organic might send a message to the industry that buying local isn't important to you. If you want to buy locally, you may be sending the message that there's no demand for organic produce. Industry can spin your economic vote to further restrict your choices, if it's in its own financial best interests, and that is so frustrating when I think about it. I'm lucky, in that I live in an area in which I can buy my produce at farmer's markets and, during the right time of year, not spend any more than I would at the grocery store. Locally produced wool, however, is still beyond the reach of my wallet.
So...unfortunately, regarding this area of the economics of knitting, I just don't have any answers. I'm not going to give up my knitting because I can't afford to be as responsible a consumer as I'd like. That's not going to happen. I'm obviously not going to give up my graduate studies so that I can make enough to afford all-natural, organic, humane, locally-produced yarn. And I'm not going to start knitting with cheap-ass acrylics, which frankly, for all I know, could be environmentally destructive to manufacture (I really don't know. If you do - comment!).
It goes back to my reasons for knitting. It's a sensual experience. If I hate the yarn I'm using, I won't enjoy it enough to continue. But I also hate the idea of spending more than I would for a store-bought garment. I can pretty much knit small things, hats and scarves and whatnot, for considerably less than what I'd pay in a store, but I start to get diminishing financial returns when I move up to, say, sweaters. Sometimes you just gotta suck it up and pay through the nose for what you love. But I will not pay ~$100 for a sweater no matter how nice Rowan Cocoon is!
So I continue to bargain hunt. Every once in a while, you'll find some nice, yummy wool in a gorgeous color for $6 a generous skein, and then you buy those puppies up! I'm going to start looking in thrift stores for sweaters to frog - we'll see how that goes, I'll post about it here when I get around to it. Gift cards to yarn stores allow me to splurge. Felting being all the rage these days, the big yarn companies are coming out with more 100% wool yarns, so if I'm knitting, oh, say, a blitz of Christmas gifts, I can actually find wool that's worthy, nice and not too expensive at my local big-box fabric store. I'd still rather support local businesses and...y'know...shop in a store that feels like a store and not a warehouse.