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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Carbon Neutral Lingerie a Success for M&S

Last April M&S launched a range of carbon neutral lingerie under the Autograph collection, called ‘Leaves’. Now they have announced that their Leaves collection multi-way bra has been a best seller. M&S have hailed the success to customer’s desire for high quality and ethical values, but do they have any proof for this? Have they asked their customers why they chose to buy the carbon neutral bra? No, I don’t think so. They are just going on the fact that the bra has sold 250 units a day across the UK.

The bra is very pretty and costs £22, not a bad price for M&S who’s other multi-way bras at Autograph retail for £18 to £22. They did have a silk mix style on sale for £35 (currently reduced to £28) as well. Would the sales figures for the Leaves range be any different without the ethical credentials? I don’t think they would vary much to be honest, although there may be people who like the idea of a carbon neutral bra.

The range is made in a Sri Lankan factory which supports the M&S eco model. The factory produces 30% fewer emissions, and the remaining 70% is offset through local rainforest replantation. The factory has achieved a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by using renewable energy and waste initiatives. They have worked in partnership with nine local farmers to plant 6000 trees in desolate land between Kanneliya and Polgahkanda.

The range supports the climate change initiative of M&S’s Plan A promise to make business operations carbon neutral by 2012. Find out more about Plan A here.

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