ethical high street shops

Are Any High Street Shops Ethical?

ethical high street shops

Despite the fast nature of the fashion industry, high street shops have been painfully slow on the pick up of fair trade fabrics.  Georgina Rawes of Ethical Consumer magazine is with us today with this guest post that asks are there any high street clothing companies doing better on ethics? 

The Ethical High Street?

While fair trade produce has earned itself a dominant spot on the supermarket isle, the demand for ethically made clothing lags behind.

UK shoppers spend a whopping £8,643 million per year on ethically produced food but a measly £648 million is spent on ethical clothing.  This is despite the fact that constant pressure is put on fashion retailers by campaigners and events of the past couple of years have shown that there is an urgent need for change in the sector.

Aftermath of Rana Plaza

It seems to have taken the most fatal garment industry incident ever followed by consistent pressure from campaigners to convince many high street shops to accept some responsibility for their supply chains.

It has now been nearly three years since the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh killing over a thousand people.  Several companies, such as Walmart and Matalan all directly sourced clothing from Rana Plaza but it wasn’t until Labour Behind the Label ran a “pay up” campaign that some companies felt pressurised to donate to the Rana Plaza Donor’s trust.

A feeling of outrage that no companies would be held accountable for the building collapse also led to the creation of the Bangladesh Accord.  This legally binding contract ensures clothing companies will be held responsible for inadequate safety regulations of supplier factories in the future.

This contract has been signed by nearly 40 major clothing companies such as H&M, Topshop, Next and Primark.  This is a positive step towards fairer working conditions for garment workers.

Bangladesh Accord Signatories

Companies who signed the Bangladesh accord

Notably, Gap and Asda refused to sign the Bangladesh Accord and instead chose an alternative scheme.  This is not legally binding and some campaigners have branded their actions as meaningless.

H&M Top Of The Tree?

In our recent guide to fashion we scored 24 different clothing retailers on various ethical criteria:

ethical clothing on the high street

H&M received the highest score of all the companies that we looked at but only scored 9/20 (any score below 10 is considered poor).  This suggests to us that the high street is still has a long way to go on ethics despite the fall out from Rana Plaza.

H&M’s low score seems to reflect the fact that it has been accused of promoting itself as an ethical retailer but then not living up to its promises.

H&M were slow to react to the Rana Plaza disaster.  While they were not direct suppliers, H&M are the biggest buyer from Bangladesh as a whole.  Avaaz launched a petition urging the CEOs of H&M and Gap to sign the Bangladesh accord. This unwanted attention intensified when Avaaz released an ad campaign featuring the CEO of H&M alongside a young Bangladeshi woman who was crying.  A few days later H&M announced that they would sign the Accord.

A report from Friends of the Earth found that out of the top ten retailers in the UK, H&M had the second largest land and water footprints.  They estimated that H&M require an equivalent of almost 82,000 cricket pitches of land and enough water to fill 236,000 Olympic swimming pools.

M&S Score A Surprise

One of the surprising findings from our research was that Marks and Spencer’s scored just 5 out of 20, especially as many consider M&S as the most ethical choice on the high street.

For example it has been praised for its work towards improving wages in its supply chain and aims to procure 70% of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2020.  Its other Plan A commitments on workers rights and the environment have won plaudits from campaigners and industry insiders alike.

However, our ethical score does not just reflect the company’s work in the clothing sector.  It also looks at the company’s wider ethics, for instance its sale of factory farmed meat, political lobbying and likely use of tax avoidance strategies, all of which scored negatively.

Making the Ethical Choice

With the high street still so far behind ultimately we would encourage people to shop in smaller ethical retailers.  These companies tend to make thoughtful, slow fashion where people and the planet come before profit. You can use our ethical shopping guide to alternative clothing to find the most ethical fashion retailers.

You can also get a free issue of our clothing issue by signing up to our website.

This article was amended on 12/04/16.  The original version claimed that Primark didn’t contribute to the ILO fund until Labour Behind the Label ran a “pay up” campaign.  However Primark ran its own compensation and contributed to the ILO fund.  More information can be found here.

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4 comments

  1. I don’t tend to shop on the highstreet because there is so little transparency. The one place I do shop if I need something specific is M&S. I am quite surprised by how low they score and also quite disappointed as they tend to make a big deal about sustainabilty but like you said the score takes into account so many different things. Trying to decide what is best is never easy! To be sure of sustainability Oxfam and other charity shops have to be the best option (although not always easy to find exactly what you want!)

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  2. This is really interesting, I glad that someone has asked this question. As someone who is a bit of an unusual size (very petite and slim) it can be a struggle to find garments that fit in just ethical brands. Although I did recently notice that Braintree and People Tree have introduced new sizes. In the past I have resorted to the high street as I am not very good at second hand shopping (more misses than hits). It is really frustrating that the high street aren’t doing more to improve their environmental and ethical footprints. I hope that in the future things will improve and in the mean time if I do end up purchasing from them I hope that by not buying into the fast fashion model and keeping the clothes I have for many years until they fall apart that I am not adding too much to negative practices used by these companies. I will however keep trying with second hand shopping and hopefully I can get better at that as well as sewing to adjust garments that don’t quite work.

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  3. This is really fascinating and disappointing at the same time. Consumers are becoming more aware of the real cost of cheap fashion but it seems shopping habits will take longer to change.

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  4. This is really interesting, thanks. I’ve recently had a bit of a reality check about the part I play in our throw-away society and, while I don’t think I do too badly, I could definitely do better! Do you have any recommendations for plus size, ethical fashion available in the UK aimed at semi-fashion-conscious people in their 20s/30s? I find it difficult to fit into many of the more available ethical fashion – it seems you can only be ethical if you’re slim.

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