/ Shopping

Is it possible to shop ethically and cheaply?

In an ideal world, it’d be easy to shop ethically. Ethically-produced goods would be widely available and inexpensive, with clearly-laid out facts to back up their claims. But is ethical shopping too difficult and expensive?

Recent research from Ethical Consumer suggests that ethical shopping may not be restricted to the posh end of the high street. Its newly-published buying guide for clothes shops places New Look, Ann Harvey, Mango and Uniqlo as the most ethical brands, none of which are known for charging premium prices.

Meanwhile, the likes of Benetton and John Lewis finished in the bottom half of the table, demonstrating that paying more for clothes doesn’t guarantee that they’ve been made to higher ethical standards. It wasn’t all good news for cheaper shops, however, as Primark and TK Maxx were both given poor scores.

The guide’s based on a questionnaire sent to leading high street clothes shops asking for about what they’re doing, or often not doing, in terms of social and environmental responsibility.

Ethics aren’t top priority

We know from our own research that ethical considerations aren’t your top priority when it comes to shopping – just 1% of Which? members named a shop’s green/ethical policy as the most important factor, in contrast to 47% who choose based on price.

But even with the ongoing economic gloom, some shoppers are still finding a way to buy goods that have been produced with ethical principles in mind. The latest figures from the Fairtrade Foundation show that UK shoppers are buying more Fairtrade products than ever, with sales topping £1 billion for the first time in 2010 – an increase of 40% on the previous year.

I’d personally like to buy more clothes that aren’t made in a sweat shop, but there just isn’t enough information out there to make buying ethically easy. And that’s especially the case when expensive doesn’t necessarily mean ethical.

Nevertheless, Ethical Consumer’s research is an indication that it’s possible to keep your wallet and your conscience happy at the same time.

How important is ethical shopping to you? Has the downturn affected how much consideration you give to the ethics of what you buy?


I usually buy Fairtrade ground coffee, but how am I supposed to know that the claims are genuine? After all, advertising and marketing seems to be based on misrepresentation and deception. Even if Fairtrade coffee is legitimate, what about other products?

It seems to me that a better approach is to police the behaviour of the manufacturers of products rather than leaving it up to the customer who may be unable to make an informed choice.

Jerachi says:
6 November 2011

Clothes aren’t somewhere I really look for ethical products, I do however aim for ethical vegetarian and vegan foods where ever possible. Materials are much harder to know if they are ethically sourced or produced, in my head though if you’re going to put something into your body then its best to have standards of what it is and where its come from.

I agree that it’s hard to know where to buy when you can’t use the rule that more expensive = ethical – that isn’t always the case. I think the main issue with this is that often one store will use lots of different suppliers, some of which will be operating ethically and some of which won’t. The subcontracting that goes on in clothes production is insane, so it can be hard for the retailers to keep proper tabs on production lines. There are lots of specialist ethical clothing lines – The People Tree, Howies etc – but they are quite expensive so you have to be very dedicated to the cause to kit yourself out entirely in ethical labels like these.

Mikhail says:
8 November 2011

I think ‘Fairtrade’ is just another marketing tool as ‘Organic…’

Matt has drawn our attention to something that goes well beyond ethical shopping. Hands up those who claim to have a healthy diet but still eat a lot of chocolate biscuits. Or claim to drink modestly but sometimes finish the bottle of wine.

The linked article mention people boycotting Nestlé on ethical grounds. I have been one of them for years, with the exception that I buy their instant coffee, which I prefer to other brands.

Monitor sales by all means, but don’t believe everything that people say about how they run their lives.

Muddandwater says:
14 March 2012

Fantastic! I developed a website for a company doing ethical clothing last year. They’re working really hard to bring properly ethical fashion to the masses – but it’s really hard! They’ve found that the costs associated (mostly in using organic cotton) are sometimes prohibitive – i.e. consumers won’t pay that much for it.

What shocked me the most was the facts I found out about non-organic cotton production. It’s shocking! If you don’t know about this, I’d encourage you to do some research – utterly depressing!

Buy well, buy organic – and if you fancy it, go take a look at muddandwater (http://www.muddandwater.com)