Ethical Fashion – Does it Work for You?

Posted in Fashion, Writing.

Yesterday I read a fantastic post by Pearl from Fashion Pearls of Wisdom on ethical fashion. Ethical fashion is quite a contentious issue for me. As a regular high street shopper I’m aware that the clothing choices I make are not always the most ethically-sound, so I try offset this by shopping secondhand wherever I can.

What I found most interesting about Pearl’s post was the idea that for many people, there really is no alternative. Pearl linked to this post on Jezebel – it’s a story about the American fashion chain Forever 21, highlighting the unethical practices the company are involved in. There’s a definite air of ‘you shouldn’t be shopping here because it’s unethical’, and the commentators have picked up on that. The frustration in the comments is palpable – if we can’t shop at Forever 21 because it’s unethical, where CAN we shop?

In every industry, there are brands that are pushed forward as the ‘spokesmodel’. McDonald’s gets all the flack for obesity because it’s the ‘spokesmodel’ for the fast food industry. Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut – they’re all just as bad for our waistlines, but they feature far less in the media because McDonald’s is McDonald’s. Similarly, in the UK fast fashion industry it’s Primark who have been pushed forward as unethical, when similar policies could very well exist in every high street shop from Topshop to Gap. Price doesn’t give any indication of ethical practice – Topshop’s prices are double Primark’s, but their garments could have been made in the same factory.

So if all our high street stores are guilty of being unethical, where can we shop? There are ethical labels like People Tree, but they can be prohibitively expensive. And there’s secondhand shopping, but not everyone has the time or inclination to rummage through a charity shop bin. One of the commenters on Jezebel mentioned they’d just got a new job and had $50 to buy a work wardrobe. A very specific need, a small timeframe and a low budget – of course they’ll visit a high street store. Forever 21, in fact.

Here are some of my key pieces for summer – one bought in Primark, one in a charity shop and one in a vintage store:

Sequin jacket, £27, Primark

Floral tea dress, £6, charity shop

Midi skirt, €5, vintage store

I am guilty of impulse shopping but I wouldn’t say I’m a thoughtless consumer – I work out what I need (and want) for each season and then search for these things on the high street, in charity shops, car boot sales, vintage shops and on eBay. I clear my wardrobe out every three months and never, ever throw things away – they’re donated, recycled or sold on.

Trying to find information on ethical ways to shop is difficult. There are countless ‘green’ guides, fair trade brands and eco fashion ranges, but for those on tight budgets who just want everyday clothing without the hassle, it’s hard to see an alternative to the high street. It’s a very personal choice and one that needs to fit with your lifestyle for it to be sustainable – one answer doesn’t suit all, and that’s something the fashion industry and the media need to take into account.

What do you think? Do you buy from specific ethical brands? Are you a second hand shopper? Or do you feel a bit confused by the whole issue?



I simply can’t afford the ethical brands, like People Tree the one Emma Watson fronts for example. A skirt there costs £65, That is over a days work for me (when I have a job)! Then there’s the fact they only go up to a 16.. I’m an 18 sometimes 20. So where does the leave me to shop? I know Primark is bad but I am poor, I have no other option half the time! I wish people would stop making us feel so guilty, I already feel bad enough… Great post though!


I won’t buy anything made in China because of their human rights record and policy towards gay people. That is a bottom-line I stick to. I try to buy 2nd hand or from an allegedly ethical company such as People Tree. I say “allegedly” because my notion of ethics might not exactly coincide with another person’s.

It is very tough. I check every label of every item. I expect to pay more. I WANT to pay more because my need for fashion is not as crucial as my fellow human being’s need for food and education.

I don’t believe in waste or instant obsolescence. I don’t believe in robbing people blind.

I do find it hard to know what’s right and I’m sure I sometimes end up buying something whose provenance I wouldn’t approve of if I could trace the entire manufacturing and distribution chain.

I do the best I can.


I don’t buy ethical brands, simply because I don’t really like their styles and the cost is more than I want to pay. I very rarely shop high street unless I desperately need something, I opt for second hand; swapping, charity shopping, boot sales. I find it much more exciting and I like the fact that those items arn’t going to waste.

P.S £27 for a Primark Jacket is a lot! haha

Alice L

I find the who ethical fashion debate very hard. I don’t have the patience to go charity shop rummaging, I don’t really like vintage for everyday clothes and I don’t have the money to shop at these ‘ethical fashion’ brands.

Avoiding Chinese made products is one thing but China aren’t the only offenders, and if I buy second hand Primark or whatever, the deal is already done, the company still made profit from selling it originally. Cotton is highly polluting, silk is cruel, nylon is people consider these as well?

Until there is proper international action over child labour etc, and fair trade legislation that means poor parents can afford not to send their children off to work for pittance, then should it fall only to the consumer to make the moral choice?

I avoid leather, I won’t touch fur, I don’t throw away clothes, those are my ethics when it comes to clothing, maybe I should do more but I don’t think it should just be down to us.


This was a very interesting post. Being the cynical person that I am, I don’t buy into companies doing ethical fashion completely for the sake of the parties that are victim to poor labor policies. In our capitalist world, I also feel that these companies are using their allegedly ethical policies as a selling point. I get a sense that they imply: “Buy our products because we don’t abuse our workers. Buy our products because we are a better company than them. Buy our products because we are better people.” Sometimes, I feel like these companies almost try to make the consumer feel like a bad person for NOT buying ethically made products.

Not all of us can not afford to buy these overpriced products. In today’s society, though, and seeing the way people are, I feel that buying ethical fashion gives a person bragging rights to say, “I do this because I care” and imply that they are a better person than you for doing so.

The bottom line is that these things have already been made and put out there. If I want something, I will purchase it and not spend $100 on a skirt that I can’t afford. And true, a lot of products are made by people who are overworked and not paid enough (by our standards). But I also consider the fact that in countries as poor as China (where I was born and immigrated from) that have areas where people are incredibly poor, having a job that pays little is better than having no employment at all. We are talking about a country where people go to the lengths of selling their own blood for money. In more wealthy and industrialized nations such as ours, we have the luxury of campaigning for labor rights and proper wages. From the perspective of these workers, they might just be thankful to have a job, unethical as the labor laws might be.

Sorry this is so long. The article really got me thinking.

Rachel - Firebird

I try and buy ethically where I can. When I do buy from a high street retailer I try and buy something for life or something that will remain ‘fashionable’ for a substantial period of time (I wrote my own post about vintage and sustainability several months ago that covered my thoughts on this).

I think the first thing people can do to be more ethical is to stop shopping for ‘seasons’ and start shopping for life. A wardrobe clearout every three months sounds like a very short amount of time and when you are consuming so much it can never be ethical wherever you have got it from (IMO!)

Please may I?

Great post.

A little like you I will look around for second hand as well as the odd high street item. I don’t always think where it has come from and who it was made by. Wrong but true. Not many people can afford to buy only ethical sourced items.


I find it really difficult. Nothing is made in the UK anymore, even prestigious high street brands like Hobbs, Reiss or M&S will have their clothes made in factories in Turkey, Vietnam, China, etc. How do we know which is better? You think if you’re spending more, then that cost would be passed onto the people who make the clothes in the ‘sweatshops’, but usually it just gets passed on to the owners of the businesses.

I never throw away clothes, they are either donated to charity or sold on. I try not to buy as much anymore and only buy things that I know will be worn lots and fit in with my current wardrobe. I think just buying less can also help.


This is an excellent post, good work!

Personally I get really sick of the term ‘fast fashion’ being thrown around. I understand that there are ethical issues with the likes of Primark, but the general assumption in the media (with its middle-class bias) seems to be that EVERYONE who shops at value retailers buys bags full of dirt-cheap clothes, wears each item once and then chucks it all away. I can’t speak for other shoppers, but personally, I go to these shops because they’re all I can afford and I don’t consider ANY clothes to be disposable. I have clothes and even shoes from Primark I’ve been wearing for 4-5 years!

The truth is that the affluent people who write newspaper columns and make TV programmes about how unethical the high street is seem to forget that, for those of us with very little disposable income, Primark et al are the only option. I do buy stuff from charity shops and eBay but – and I’m sure it’s the same for many others – I work in an office, I have to look smart and I can’t be living in second-hand clothes! For those with other considerations, for example a family to provide for, I imagine the ethics of production is even lower on the list of priorities.

I totally agree about Primark in particular being singled out and used as a scapegoat for the rest of the high street – I’ve been saying this for years. When I worked at Gap there were numerous occasions of stories about child labour and sweatshops appearing in the press, and their prices are about five times as high as Primark’s.

Great food for thought! x

Elly Snare

Wooo…interesting, and interesting comments too.

I have no idea if I shop ethically or not. In fact, I don’t yet know whether fashion can be considered an ethically sound practice, at all. There are too many problems not only in environmental impact and labour conditions, but also in production of ‘fashion’ as a concept.

‘Ethical’ fashion companies need to be interrogated: which part of their practice, exactly, is ethical? American Apparel are deemed ‘ethical’ because their clothes are made in America. However, they’re made predominantly by an under-paid immigrant workforce, while their advertising campaigns and retail floors sexually exploit female employees. So…who wins?

The idea of ‘ethically produced’ garments e.g. People Tree who use fair labour (not sweatshop or forced) being ‘too expensive’ is interesting, because then you have to question why? What should a garment worker be paid? Super-cheap retailers – like Primark – have muddied our perception of the cost of clothing. A document I was reading the other day from 1997 (I think) placed the wages of a Bangladeshi garment worker – H&M clothes are often made in Bangladesh – at 60 cents a day. The profit margin on these items is staggering, the exploitation is staggering, and it makes it seem like e.g. People Tree is frighteningly expensive despite many of the garments probably being the same cost as a high end high street retailer (who probably use sweatshop/forced labour).

One last point (I promise) is that labour practices and environmental impact aside, the continual generation of ‘new’ fashions – now at about 8 seasons or mini seasons a year, I think? – is what, really, causes the most damage. Four seasons a year, four new items of clothing. 8 seasons, 8 items – and not just 8 items but 8 key items plus trend led items, accessories, etc – means more wastage and quicker (and also cheaper) production is necessary, therefore shifting abroad or to areas with less legal complexities surround labour laws and environmental impact.

I wonder whether it is ‘fashion’ itself, the constant ‘need’ to have the latest item (wherever that desire comes from) that is the most un-ethical of the lot?


Funnily enough I was just putting together a post about this issue myself. Its really a bit of a minefield out there isn’t it? Personally I tend to buy from charity shops mainly and ebay, I do occassionally impulse buy but I tend to buy slightly ‘better’ brands (Topshop, Long Tall Sally) but thats just my preference, the really cheap shops (Primark, George) are just not somewhere I feel comfortable (this coming from a thrift shopper haha!) 🙂

Peacock's Hat

I feel really passionate about this subject, and eventually want to do work in this kind of area…
I do a lot of charity shop-shopping, but at the same time I do shop on the high street. I avoid Primark like the plague, but then again today I did buy a dress from Next that may not have been produced in much better conditions, and I admit, I need to do a lot more research to find out what is ethically produced or not.
However, as a Western consumer, I feel we have so much to be thankful for. Many of the people producing these clothes won’t ever have the kind of disposable income we do, and whatever Western consumer crap we wrap it up in, I feel we have a responsibility as those who are vastly more fortunate to make our purchases a positive experience not just for us but for the producers as well.


Some of these comments are fascinating, and so much better informed on certain points than I can hope to be.

Does it sound wanky to say I try and shop to fit my own set of morals (or ethics – I actually don’t know what the exact difference is between them)? I don’t pretend that it’s driven by burning outrage about sweatshop conditions. Obviously I am concerned about that sort of thing but I honestly don’t know whether anything from the High St is really truly ethically produced according to Western standards. Even if I was go to down the making all my own clothes route, the fabric still comes from somewhere. We just don’t have the manufacturing industry in this country anymore.

I mostly just try not to waste money on crap, and I’m afraid a lot of current High St clothing IS crap. It’s badly made, looks cheap and won’t physically last more than a season even if it happens to be a fairly classic piece. I can’t in all conscience spend money on stuff that doesn’t earn its keep in my wardrobe so I’ll shop around for better made stuff. It means sales shopping and hunting round charity shops etc but I quite like that.


Your comments are absolutely fascinating – thanks so much to everyone for contributing to the debate.

Alex sums it up perfectly for me – I shop to fit my own moral code and set of ethics. And I think, with so little information available about high street stores and so little choice in alternatives, this is about the best we can do. I don’t mean that in a defeatist way – I’d love to see some truly ethical alternatives to high street shopping. But at the moment I don’t think there’s anything there.

Rachel – Firebird made a great point about so many people (me included) shopping for seasons – I am completely conditioned by magazines and shops to buy new things every season. However, I do try to shop secondhand as much as I do high street. When I have a wardrobe clear-out every three months it’s mostly second hand impulse purchases I’m getting rid of!


If you really want to shop ethically then it has to be in every single aspect. It can’t just be apparel. I studies Manufacturing and have worked for a major apparel manufacture, the problem runs deeper then you would ever even begin to understand. If you would like to know the beginning of the problem it came from Sam Walton…. aka Walmart. You have to understand that Americans demand the cheapest cost for their product, Sam Walton is known for being a bully and causing hundreds of thousands of US companies to meet his price standards. Because of labor laws in America there is no way these companies could cut the cost unless they moved manufacturing over seas. Walmart demanded the best cost, and these companies {Rubber Maid is the best and prime example} had to shut down all their factories in the US to over seas to meet the cost. Now how can Walmart get cheaper price then target… simple it is literally a different formula, different product, same factory. That is why you can get something at Walmart for $10 cheaper but it wont last as long. They do the exact same thing with their farmers, farmers will not give the same amount of attention to their “Walmart Lot” as they do the higher end grocery store. So yes, paying a higher price actually can give you more ethical products. Not always, but there are brands you can trust, such as Louis Vuitton this company actually owns 70% of all the leather that is distributed in the world. The high end brands will ensure quality which means a higher cost. Anything that is made in the US is very expensive because of all the labor laws and minimum wage, it is hard to even have apparel factories any more because they almost all get shut down. As you already know there are things in Europe that have amazing quality and if things are manufactured there it will be more expensive then somewhere like Turkey. Not to say that Turkey or China do not have good quality factories because they do, but they do not have the laws that protect their employees which is why they can charge what they charge, and it is important to know that it is just not apparel items that are being produced horrifically it is everything you can think of and more. That is why it is important to check the label and tags of where things are manufactured, good luck finding anything in a country that had labor laws. If you really care about ethical items then people would not be using or purchasing silk, that is hands down the saddest story you will ever hear. Even the silk that calms to have been produced in Italy is not, over 80% of silk is produced in India by children paying off their parents debts. Unfortunately this demand for low cost items originated from Walmart and has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. And I don’t know if it will ever be resolved because it is the way of life, it is now how our world works. So to shop ethically you have to be beyond deticated… and for the record Forever 21 has several factories and most of them are in California… LA to be exact. They need to do that because of the fast turn around of their demographic. Items like the fabric and buttons and lying are imported from the places on the tags, but the finish product is sewed in the USA and then distributed. I am not saying every single item is made here in America but a lot is.

If you want to reply to this or have any further questions please email me at I am not sure if I will get any responses if they are left after this is posted.


It’s great to read your post and Pearl’s too – I wrote about this very topic at the weekend. I feel like I am in a constant dilemma with myself over shopping ethically but keeping to a budget. For some people, it just isn’t possible to do both.

I hope you won’t mind if I quote you in a follow-up post I am now planning?

Great post, xx

Pearl Westwood

Great post Jen, in fact I am writing a part 2 to my original post due to the epic response from my readers. i also have something rather interesting from Primarks PR’s too show too!


I read both your posts on the subject with interest and am in definite agreement. Time and money can be of the essence- and though it’s fine to never know what you’ll find when you check out charity shops, if you need/want something specific you’ll probably find it more quickly on the high street (not always I know, but it’s easier.. not everyone can look round 10 charity shops in the hopes of finding a pleated midi skirt when they know they can buy one in Primark). I suppose there either needs to be a huge shift in how the high street manufactures its clothes, or we need loads more People Tree type places with more choice and lower prices if at all possible!


Such a fascinating post from you Jen and wonderful comments too…. thank you for writing this!
I think we all have our own standards, pricing limitations and shop to our own ethics. I simply can’t understand people who say they can only afford to shop at places like Primark/H&M/etc though but then I am simply not bothered about my clothes being ‘in fashion’.
I shop at car boot sales/charity shops, places like People Tree/Seasalt and then a couple of times a year I visit designer outlets when I know there is a damn good sale on to get a few quality pieces from brands that I trust. I really don’t think it is hard to live ethically, it just requires a little more thought than stepping in to Primark/etc to pick up what you need.


I commented on Pearl’s post, but I want to say here too that I completely agree with you. Unless there is more information out there on what all the highstreet companies are doing how on earth can we know where to shop?


So many other commenters have made valid points that I agree with and totally understand, so all I wanted to say was well done on starting such an interesting and reasoned debate Jen. You skewer the dilemma that so many of us face perfectly. It is interesting that you wrote this piece in the week that Primark have actually been apologised to by the BBC after it was revealed that Panorama footage of supposed sweatshops was most likely faked. I’m not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that this means Primark are ‘off the hook’, but this certainly suggests that their practices are no more deplorable than other high street retailers.

Style Eyes Fashion Blog

Yes I try and buy second hand and vintage and ethical brands where possible but my budget and lack of choice often prevent this. I do sometimes buy from non ethical brands but I try to stay away from polyester (I don’t like wearing it much anyway) and only buy clothes that I know I will get lots of wear from.There are a number of shops that I always steer clear of because the clothes are such bad quality


I hate to be cynical, but it seems to be that everyone is getting worked up about ethical fashion because right now that’s the ‘trendy’ way to show you care. A while ago, people were obsessed with organic food, but now I hear very little about that.
I do agree that the fashion industry does need its ethics looked at, but slamming people for not buying from apparently ‘ethical’ brands is unfair. Not everyone can afford to shop around, nor do they have the time.


What a lovely post. It seems many of us are asking the same questions. So good to hear there are more of us ‘out there’. I too posted my concerns on my blog. I don’t turn my wardrobe over at all. I still have items of clothing from 12 years ago, that used to be my office wear, but are now worn in the classroom with a little cardi, ballet flats in summer and in winter, leggings and boots. I love that I have a multi functioning wardrobe that I can wear any time of year and throw a cardi, jacket or scarf to change the look. I love op-shopping when time permits. However I still purchase clothing from the rack, not knowing who made them, how much water was used to grow the cotton etc etc. I did have the opportunity on the weekend to gorge myself on sale items, but I ended up putting every single item back, simply because I had read a friends blog and the review of the book by Lucy Siegle called ‘To Die For’, of which I hope to obtain a copy of.
I would love for my clothing to be labelled with the ingredients and where they come from, just like my grocery items. Then at least I have a choice of where my money goes, and those that don’t care, can just buy whatever they like. Thanks for your awesome post. Good to hear others thoughts, I have learnt much this week.


This is all very interesting and there have been many interesting points.

One thing that I would like to pick up on though is Alysas’ comment: Not all of us can not afford to buy these overpriced products.” This is a very interesting point and one that say’s A LOT about how mainstream, majority consumers think.

These products are not always, overpriced. What is overpriced?

As consumers we have been conditioned into thinking that £20 for a t-shirt is expensive, mainly because of ‘fast-fashion’ and the fact that we can buy one in every colour from Primark for the same price.

I can tell you that what many of you think is ‘overpriced’ is actually fairly priced.

I can tell you from first hand experience that manufacture is not cheap (unless it comes at human price). Yes, it’s more expensive than it was in the 80’s but so is everything else. It’s comparable to wage increases and inflation.

It’s easy to moan that you don’t have enough money for clothes (don’t buy them then, you really don’t NEED them, only Western need them) , or to say that middle-class journalists are trying to make people feel bad about not buying sweatshop produced items but at the end of the day, it’s really all just fast-fashion victim, capitalist, rose-tints firmly on, excuses.

If you really care about humanity, research. Don’t consume so much. You won’t though because you are way too affected by marketing and buying the Primark version of the (artisan, made in Italy) dress Kim Kardashian is wearing to really commit.

If you really care, stop moaning about Price being the issue. Price is your own issue because you want more. You want the whole outfit, as seen in Look magazine, for the price of the UK made t-shirt by an indie designer (look about, there are hundreds of them. ASOS marketplace has a few).

Don’t kid yourself and make excuses. If you want to commit you can.


Also, someone mentioned Lucy Siegles book ‘TO DIE FOR: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?’

It’s interesting to note that she describes how sequins are often hand sewn by outsourced home garment workers (who’s children often help as they have otherwise impossible deadlines), on even lower wages than factory workers and under worse conditions.

Just like that jacket up there.

Ms Wanda

I agree 100% with Bea. Ethical fashion isn’t over-priced – that’s just how much it costs to produce something and pay someone a fair wage. We’ve all lost sight of the actual value of our clothes.

My mum recently gave me a Horrockses dress she bought in 1954. The tailoring is incredible and is still in perfect condition. She saved up for months for that dress. When did any of us every ‘save for a dress’? Maybe we would value our stuff more if we did.

If you’re still not convinced by the spend more buy less argument there are other options – vintage, Etsy, Ebay, charity shops, swishing.

I really don’t buy price as a reason not to shop ethically.


While I’m not exactly an impulse shopper, neither do I always plan out seasonal clothing. I buy what I need as I need it. However, as a teenager, I do not have the budget to buy high quality clothing that lasts very long, and quite frankly as someone who s still growing I don’t have the time or inclination to buy one skirt when i could buy five and a couple of tops. While I used to strictly avoid shopping at Primark and only did so when given a gift card for them with a guilty conscience, I have recently changed that opinion as you many be interested to know that Primark are not nearly the worst ethical company.
However, in order to both make clothes more tailored to my style, save money and be ethical, I make some of my own clothes like skirt s and tops. Although it is costly if you don’t already have a sewing machine or patterns, in the long run it can be both people and money friendly, as long as you have the time. Of course there is then the issue of buying fabric which is ethically produced…


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