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Clothes, like any other consumable goods, have a history. In the case of the fashion industry, that history usually involves people in poorer, less developed countries being sourced for cheap labour. This doesn’t necessarily mean exploitation; indeed, many high-street fashion chains are conscientious about human rights issues and have policies to maintain fair standards. Some, however, continue to source from countries such as Burma or allow poor conditions to exist in their workshops.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

No sweat

The issue of sweatshops has attracted a good deal of attention in the West, as companies within the fashion industry have been charged with abusing basic human rights abroad in order to keep prices competitive at home. In the worst reported cases, workers have to work seven days a week with no holidays, do not receive decent wages, and are prevented from forming unions. There is now considerable pressure on companies to have a code of conduct, and to make a concerted effort to meet this code. It is essential that companies allow their workers to form unions and to have some kind of external or internal monitoring process.

A code of conduct, however, does not immediately infer ethical credibility, because they are not always rigorously enforced. While Gap has a decent code of conduct it also has a large number of suppliers, who are subject to very few independent inspections. In August 2009, a factory in southern Africa that makes jeans for Gap was found illegally dumping chemical waste in a river and two unsecured tips where it posed a hazard to child ragpickers who search for cloth fragments to sell for fuel.

Some companies, including Gap, have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative. This is a step in the right direction, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee truly ethical practices. Indeed Primark, who are a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and who promise in their code of conduct to pay workers a living wage, were the subject of a BBC investigation in early 2009 which uncovered UK sweatshops who were supplying clothing to them. Workers were putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week, for just over half the minimum wage.

Fair trade

One solution to avoid purchasing products which are produced in sweatshops, is to purchase fairly traded clothing. This ensures that producers and workers in developing countries are paid a fair price for their work under decent working conditions with the aim of reducing poverty and promoting sustainability. For a list of companies that companies that specialise in fair trade and ethical products see our Alternative Clothing Directory.

Another way of supporting fair trade is to look for clothes made with cotton certified with the Fairtrade Mark, which are now easily available on the high street and through online retailers. The Fairtrade certification ensures that the farmers are paid a guaranteed minimum price for their cotton crop and receive a Fairtrade premium on top. It also ensures that the cotton has been produced in a fully certified and traceable supply chain (see www.fairtrade. org.uk for an up-to-date list of retailers selling certified clothing). The World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO – previously known as IFAT) mark demonstrates 100% commitment to Fair Trade in the business activities of their members.

Burma (Myanmar)

Many companies still source from Burma, which is often regarded as one of the most unethical practices around. Burma’s military-backed government has one of the worst human rights records in the world. In 2011 the military junta was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election, and a nominally civilian government was installed. The military continues to retain enormous influence within the government, although steps are being taken to relinquish control, which along with the release of Burma’s most prominent human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 and many other political prisoners, has led to the easing of trade and other economic sanctions that had been imposed by the European Union and the United States. However, human rights groups claim that the regime continues to consistently abuse basic human rights and refuses any kind of democratic political system. It is alleged that millions of men, women and children are used in forced labour and are often threatened with murder, torture and rape. Only 5 per cent of the national budget is spent on social and health care, while nearly half is spent on defence. Foreign capital merely strengthens the dictatorship and the exploitation of the Burmese people.


It is estimated that nearly one third of a pound of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is needed to produce enough cotton for a single T-shirt, and these chemicals are some of the most toxic around. They cause air and water pollution, pollute the land – killing animals and plants – and cause illness amongst farmers and workers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 20,000 deaths occur in developing countries each year from poisoning by agricultural pesticides used on crops, of which many, due to their relative toxicity, can be attributed to cotton. As well as being far more beneficial for the environment, organic cotton is often bought directly from the farmer or a local cooperative. This means that the farmer gets
a fairer deal and more income from the crop.

Buy organic if you can: Liv offers organic cotton clothing, which is fairly traded and sustainably grown. The parent company Elysia is accredited by The Ethical Company Organisation. For good quality organic cotton on the high street, try New Look, who have also gained Ethical Accreditation.

Ethical Fashion Rankings Detailed Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Liv, Seasalt, People Tree, New Look, Zara, Fat Face, Monsoon & Accesorize, BHS, Dorthy Perkins, Evans, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Miss Selfridge, Next, Top Man, Topshop, Wallis, Coast, Debenhams, Mango, Oasis, Warehouse, Crew Clothing, Joules, Miss Sixty, White Stuff, Gap, River Island, TU, Matalan, Primark, French Connection, George, Tesco.

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