business fair trade shopping

What is ethical fashion?

We’ve talked a bit about the fashion industry in previous posts, and about the high cost of our cheap clothes. What we haven’t explored is where you can get ethical clothes from. That’s mainly because I didn’t know at the time, and I’ve been on a bit of a hunt.

Firstly though, what is ethical fashion? I’d say there are two areas to look at: people, and the environment.


This side of things is all about the workers – both those who produce the raw materials, and those who sew the clothes. There are 30 million cotton farmers worldwide, in 90 different countries. Much of the crop comes from developing countries. Fairtrade cotton ensures that the growers are paid a living wage, and that women and children are not exploited in the harvesting of cotton.

Then there’s the factories, the infamous sweatshop labour practices which are more or less par for the course in the fashion industry. Do workers get a fair wage? What are their working conditions? What kinds of hours do they have to work? Do they get holidays and time off? Can they form unions to represent their views to their employers? Sweatshops are normal, but that does not make them right.

All companies will say that they take worker rights seriously, and ‘work closely with suppliers’. The thing to look out for is whether that can be verified. Do they allow third party inspections of factories? Do they publish lists of suppliers so that anyone can go and check? Even membership of campaigns like the Ethical Trading Initiative may or may not mean any real action from the clothing companies. And since the Fairtrade logo only certifies the raw materials, it’s possible to buy clothes that paid the cotton farmers well, but were still made in a sweatshop. But there are companies behaving genuinely ethically, as we shall see.


Secondly, ethical fashion respects the earth. Growing cotton is a polluting business. Cotton accounts for 3% of all cultivated land, but uses 20% of all chemical pesticides. Eight times more chemicals are used on cotton than on an average food crop. This pollutes rivers and soils, and it also has serious effects on the people working in the fields. A large percentage of the 20,000 deaths attributed every year to pesticides are in the cotton fields of the developing world. A lot of these pesticides are unnecessary – cotton can be protected from pests with chilli, soap, or garlic – so buying organic cotton where you can is important.

There are more benign fabrics than cotton. Hemp and bamboo can be grown much more sustainably, although bamboo is hard to process. That brings me to a second point. All sorts of chemicals are used in processing and dyeing natural fibres. One company estimates that 8000 different chemicals are used in producing a t-shirt.

Disposability is also an issue with clothing. Cheap clothes often don’t last long, which means all the energy and chemicals that went into them and the carbon emissions from shipping them around the world go to waste. More complicated fashion items like jackets or shoes may not be biodegradeable either, so once they’re thrown away they sit in landfill for hundreds of years.

That’s a lot to consider. In summary though, ethical fashion is clothing that has been made with environmentally friendly fabrics, in sweatshop-free conditions.

So where can you find those kinds of clothes? Well, they’re not as easy to find as they should be, but it is a growth market and it’s slowly making its way onto the high street. Here are some brands I’ve found – apologies for the menswear bias. Please add any more you know in the comments.

Note – I first wrote this list in 2007, and it may not be entirely up to date.

  • Howies – this is a great little outdoor-wear company based in Wales, doing unpretentious high quality clothing with a sense of humour. Howies can certify both environmental and labour standards.
  • Rapanui – pioneering company on the Isle of Wight, every item of theirs is 100% traceable. Clothing is made in fairwear certified factories and they use renewable energy. They have a more comprehensive sustainability agenda than almost any company I know.
  • American Apparel – made in LA and setting an ethical standard for the US clothing industry – although the company founder is a controversial character.
  • Patagonia – outdoor and hiking company with a genuine passion for the environment. One of the world leaders in responsible clothing.
  • People Tree – a pioneering company making their clothes in co-ops in the developing world. I have a hand-sewn shirt from them and it feels unique and special.
  • Seasalt – a Cornish company making colourful organic clothing. I found them on holiday over the summer.
  • Wombat – I was pleased to come across a Wombat store in Chester recently, and am wearing one of their Fairtrade shirts today.
  • Marks and Spencer – Their ‘Plan A’ scheme has high ambitions for M+S’s ethics. It’s not gone as far as it could yet, but for a high street brand they are doing considerably more than most.
  • THTC – The Hemp Trading Company. There are lots of good reasons why hemp is a great sustainable crop – it grows so fast it doesn’t give weeds a chance, it needs almost no pesticides, and can be grown on marginal land. THTC specialise in music industry t-shirts and sweatshirts.
  • Kuyichi – streetwise organic denim, named after the Peruvian God of the rainbow, in case you were wondering.
  • Timberland – a bigger company taking responsibility, in a lumberjack kind of way. They recently bought Howies.
  • Gossypium – a good range of environmentally sound and people-friendly clothing.
  • Ascension – fairtrade organic jeans, trousers and t-shirts for men and women.
  • Equop – vote for your favourite t-shirt designs.

That ought to do you for starters. There are loads more little companies doing interesting things on a smaller scale. Check out Inhabitat’s fashion category for some more quirky suggestions, including belts from recycled fire hoses, and handbags with solar panels, and some sensible things too. The Guardian’s ethical clothing galleries are great too, particularly for women’s wear and more fashionable stuff, and for accessories and shoes too.

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  1. I have the same mindset as you but just publicly a bit more roughshod. I’m always looking for org. clothing and can’t find any at urban outfitter, gap or any other mainstream store.

    my workaround is to go thrifting at goodwill or salvation army, which helps a good cause and is much cheaper. and to buy less clothes in the first place! (:

  2. No, the mainstream stores aren’t on board with this yet, although there is a growing awareness.
    My own experience, as I’ve been looking for organic and fairtrade clothing, is that it’s hard to find, there are more options for women than for men, and it’s expensive. If, like me, you’re not prepared to buy cheap clothes with dubious production standards, then you just have to buy fewer clothes and better quality ones, or buy secondhand. Some of my favourite things are from charity shops.

  3. I think people are just starting to realize that Wal Marts low prices comes with an entirely differt price tag. I wonder how much longer we can afford to pay it.

  4. I agree – the highstreet only really provides the real basics such as organic cotton t-shirts which is no where near enough effort. is a great website for ethical fashion – it offers a good mix of clothing for men and women and the prices are more affordable than other ethical sites I’ve seen.

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