How to tell if your clothes are ethically made

Where to shop, what materials to look for and what to avoid

Most of us are guilty of not knowing where our clothes actually come from. Most brands don’t disclose whether their who their clothing was made by, or how far it’s travelled to get here, making it hard to know what’s good and what’s bad.

Most people don’t know what to look for, because something that’s not spoken about enough. What should we be looking at in the label? What materials are good or bad? If something is ethical, does that also mean it’s good for the environment too? I spoke to Martine Parry from The Fairtrade Foundation to find out everything we need to know about ethical shopping.

Why is it so important to shop ethically?

It’s important to shop ethically because although goods such as fashion and food are relatively cheap at the moment and we might be saving money, someone somewhere is certainly paying the price for our cheap clothing. There’s always a human cost further down the line when goods are produced cheaply. Rana Plaza marked a seismic shift in awareness in consumers about the ultimate price garment workers had to pay for what was essentially cheap throwaway clothing.

As consumers, we hold a lot of power in our pockets. You only need to look at how transparency has become a real issue in the fashion industry since Fashion Revolution first started to highlight the issue. Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index drew a lot of attention and resulted in many brands proactively asking to be included in next year’s Index.

Buying cheap clothing made in sweatshops is a vote for worker exploitation, in the same way that cheap meat means the animals were most likely factory farmed with a very poor quality of life. Each purchase we make is a vote for the values we believe in  – choosing organic is sends a strong signal that we want environmental sustainability and Fairtrade is a vote for human rights and environmental sustainability.

What should we look for in the label? What should you avoid?

First of all, be curious and start to ask questions. If the label doesn’t tell you what you want to know, check out the company’s website for how they communicate their ethical and sustainability sourcing policies.

If you want to sure that an item of clothing or other product has been ethically produced, look for the FAIRTRADE Mark on the label. For example, a Fairtrade product offers a minimum price to producers for this produce, meaning that if the market price drops below a certain level, farmers can be sure they get a minimum price and won’t make a loss. Within the Fairtrade standards there are a number of criteria that farmers need to adhere to which are designed to protect the environment, including sourcing water sustainably and reducing water use over time, not using GMOs, not using hazardous chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Fairtrade standards contain criteria on the rights of workers which include freedom of association, collective bargaining and non discrimination. Fairtrade also delivers a an amount of money on top of the price of the product to be used to invest in local projects and infrastructure such as better sanitation, schools and local medical facilities. Fairtrade also offers a textile standard to protect workers in garment factories.

What if we’re concerned about the environment?

If you are just concerned about the environment, check that the garment is organic. If you are particularly concerned about the waste created by a garment, look for recycled fabrics. If you feel strongly about a brand that features low in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, avoid buying from that particular brand and write to them to say you would like to find out more about their sustainable sourcing policies.

What country should the clothing be made in? Are any worse than others for cheap labour etc? 

Unfortunately there is no straightforward answer to this question. Where an item of clothing has been made does not guarantee that workers have been well or mistreated. Only last week we heard about shoes which claimed to be “made in Italy” were actually being made by workers in a sweatshop in Eastern Europe and this is sadly the case in many other developed countries. Equally, just because formal unions are not allowed in China does not mean that countries where unions are permitted do not have forms of forced labour or conversely have better conditions and wages.

That’s why we as consumers should insist that brands are more transparent and let customers know where and under what conditions their clothing has been made. Fashion Revolution’s innocently framed question to brands #whomademyclothes is aimed at uncovering the faces of the workers who made our clothing so that they are no longer invisible. If we can’t see workers, we can’t rectify the conditions in which they have to toil.

How are workers treated, and how can we find this out?

No one really knows how workers are treated, although independent third party audits and verification helps to check factory conditions. Even H&M found out that they had underage workers in their supply chains just this week. They think they know their factories, but still these things can happen. Fashion brands need to be more transparent and need to demand more information from the factories. Equally, consumers have a responsibility – they need to pay the right price so that the brands can’t use price as an excuse to get their products made from sources which are just driven by cost where workers themselves pay the ultimate price.

What are some of the best and worst brands for not saying where their clothes are from?

Our Fashion Transparency Index showed some of the worst brands as ASOS, Ralph Lauren, Topshop and Nike. Better ones include Levi’s and H&M. See a more detailed list here.

What materials should you look for/avoid?

You should check that the raw material in your clothing has been sourced sustainably.  There are degrees of recycled fabric that you could look out for, or of course fabric made on Fairtrade terms or that they are organic. Alternatively you could choose to buy your clothing second hand.

Tell us more about Fair trade cotton?

Fairtrade cotton was launched to put the spotlight on farmers who are often left invisible, neglected and poor at the end of a long and complex cotton supply chain. Through tools like the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium and stronger, more democratic organisations, Fairtrade has sought to provide these farmers with an alternative route to trade and higher, more stable incomes. Fairtrade works with the small-scale cotton farmers in Asia and Africa and helps build stronger farmer-owned organisations. This is important because farmers can achieve a lot more together as a group in negotiations with ginners and traders or in supporting the local community. Fairtrade encourages sustainable cotton production and is the only standard to provide economic benefits, through a guaranteed Fairtrade Minimum Price and additional Fairtrade Premium for seed cotton farmers. In 2014, 22 farmers’ organisations in 7 countries were certified for Fairtrade cotton production and reported Premium earnings of approximately £800,000. A large percentage of this was invested in providing farmers with tools and inputs and supporting education and healthcare facilities in the local community. Watch this video about what Fairtrade means to cotton farmers in Senegal.

Through Fairtrade, thousands of cotton farmers have already improved their lives. Cotton co-operatives have become better organised, farmers are more productive and women farmers are receiving the same rewards as male farmers, from voting rights to equal pay. A study on the impact of Fairtrade cotton in four countries particularly noted the impact of Fairtrade Standards on gender equity. The study highlighted how a requirement in the Fairtrade Standards for seed cotton stipulating that women farmers should be paid directly (rather than through their husbands or other male family members) had encouraged more women in West and Central Africa to cultivate cotton. They considered that this had given them more influence over their household resources. You can read the full study here and a summary here.

Fairtrade currently works with almost 55,000 cotton farmers in some of the poorest regions in the world. In 2014 Fairtrade certified producer organisations sold an average of 43 per cent of their production volumes on Fairtrade terms, much higher than in previous years. Meanwhile, globally, 90 million small-scale cotton farmers are all in need of a fairer deal for their cotton. There’s still a lot more that Fairtrade can do.

The relatively new Fairtrade Cotton Program  unlocks exciting new opportunities for businesses to buy more cotton on Fairtrade terms and expand market access under Fairtrade terms for more farmers. The new model recognises that businesses want to use more Fairtrade cotton in their manufacturing of clothing and textiles, rather than create a specific Fairtrade branded cotton range. Read more about the Fairtrade Cotton Program.

You can buy it from:

  • John Lewis
  • People Tree
  • Aldi
  • TK Maxx
  • Kool Skools
  • NUS shops
  • Kowtow
  • Noctu

But if you can’t find it or you want a particular brand or retailer to stock Fairtrade cotton, tell and store manager and write to the brand to let them know.


If something is eco-friendly, does this necessarily mean that it is also ethical?

No, different labels represent different elements of sustainable sourcing. The Fairtrade Mark on cotton is unique in protecting farmers and workers in factories as well as the environment.

Do you need to pay more for ethical clothes?

Not necessarily, it is possible for brands to sell sustainably sourced clothing at a competitive price, but we have become so used to buying cheap clothes that we are no longer used to paying the right price for our fashion. This is a real problem that exacerbates the downward pressure on supply chains and makes the issue more complex. Twenty years ago we used to pay £10 for a shirt and now you can buy the same shirt for just £3.

What can people do when they go into stores to shop more ethically?

Go to a brand that you trust and if you can’t find an ethical label such as Fairtrade on the garment, ask the store manager or write to the brand to request they stock them. Consumer demand has been proven to have changed the way shops and supermarkets source over the years. Last week,  YouGov consumer research showed that UK consumers would pay on average 10 per cent more for a product if they think it would have a positive impact on society.