Shopping: Can you afford to go green?

1 December 2011

Going green and shopping ethically has become easier in recent years. Consumers with a conscience no longer have to seek out an independent ethical retailer to buy fairtrade bananas and chocolate or knitwear made by a Peruvian women's co-operative.

The major supermarkets now stock many fairtrade and sustainably-produced foodstuffs, while fashion retailers are broadening their clothing ranges to include organic cotton garments and items made by developing communities.

But there's still a premium to pay; so in today's strained economy can we afford to be good?

Buying ethical clothing isn't quite so easy, which probably explains why in our survey only 23% of respondents say clothing is the area where they most commonly buy ethical products, as opposed to 61.5% for food.

The problem is that knowing how ethical a brand or shop is can be extremely difficult. Take that bastion of cheap and chic clothes, Primark. In 2008, it was exposed for employing children as young as nine to sew sequins onto garments in cramped, dark conditions.

But in 2011's Let's Clean Up Fashion report from campaign group Labour Behind the Label, it received a grade three ranking out of five for its policy on wages.

Given that no retailers scored better than 3.5 (Marks & Spencer, Monsoon Accessorize, Next and Inditex - which owns Zara and Bershka - were among the top scorers), the findings suggest that Primark isn't much worse than many other high street names.

So where can you get more information? gives companies rankings out of 20, with sliding bars that allow you to customise the ratings according to what you believe to be most important - environment, people, politics or product sustainability.

The rankings showcase the lack of ethical standards in mainstream brands - for instance, with Tesco's F&F label, even the fairtrade and organic ranges score zero out of 20.

When it comes to options for ethical dressing, buying secondhand or from charity shops is one way you can be sure you're being sustainable. Ethical clothing ranges from stores such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and People Tree are also reasonably priced.

Though not as cheap as Primark dresses, which can sell for as little as £8, a jersey dress from People Tree retails for around £40.

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