Shopping Ethically on the High Street, is it Possible?

Speaking with one of my PhD peers the other day (she is studying labour standards in the clothing industry) we realised that although there are many ethical and sustainable fashion brands springing up, the main way to purchase them is online. Personally, I don’t have a problem with buying clothes online, but I understand that many people do. It doesn’t help that a lot of ethical items simply are more expensive than lower end High Street prices, making it a big commitment on the customer’s side, even if they can send it back (who has the time to faff with returns?) and with less well known fibres such as hemp, bamboo or organic cotton, how do they know what it is really going to feel like against their skin?

Discussing how to coax customers to take a risk, to buy online and buy from a brand they don’t know very well is a whole other essay. Niche, ethical, brick-and-mortar shops do exist; places like Eco Age in Chiswick and FAIR in Brighton, but I passionately believe that there should be a place on every High Street where you can be reassured all of the products sold are ethical. However, that will take some time so the best we can do is compromise.

There are lots of ways you can shop with a conscience on the High Street, in fact, as these big brands are unlikely to disappear in the near future (not collectively anyway, individual chains it seems are never safe) we need to support their ethical initiatives to encourage more of it. ‘Ethical Consumer’ compiled a list of their top 5 ethical High Street stores, these being Lush, Monsoon, M&S, The Co-operative and John Lewis. Now, none of these are the cheapest options on the High Street, nor are they the most expensive.

Lush tries to only use natural ingredients in its beauty products, doesn’t test on animals and supports various charitable campaigns. The Co-op provides allsorts from bank accounts to coffee. They were the first major retailer to champion Fairtrade in their grocery stores. M&S is worth supporting as much for their ‘Britishness’ as for their commitment to Plan A. They have taken considerable steps to help tackle climate change, to reduce waste, to support fair trade and to encourage healthy living. Monsoon sell beautiful clothes and came top of Ethical Consumer’s Clothes Shop Buyers Guide and Supply Chain rankings. They set up the Monsoon Accessorize Trust in 1994 to help improve the lives of disadvantaged women and children in Asia and they worked with Oxfam on an organic cotton project. John Lewis made the list for their partnership scheme as they are an employee owned business.

Many of the High Street chains offer organic or Fairtrade cotton at some time or another. H&M’s Conscience Collection, for instance, was a success with large stores featuring the organic cotton range in a feature window display. If you want to shop ethically on the High Street, you need to compromise and you need to work out what your priorities are. Is it fair trade or sustainable materials? Maybe you want to support independent boutiques; they might not stock ethical brands but it is a great way to support local business and avoid the huge chains.

I would really recommend Lucy Siegle’s book ‘To die for: Is fashion wearing out the world?’ for a comprehensive overview of the contemporary fast fashion dilemma. Drawing on her wealth of experience and people she has spoken to, I assure you it will make you think about the High Street in a different way.

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