Ethical suit

Last updated: 16/10/2013



What’s the most ethical suit?

Simon Birch gets dressed up for a family event.

Making the right ethical choice is a nightmare sometimes isn’t it? Sure, shopping for ethical coffee or carrots is a synch as we’ve now got so many Fairtrade and organic goodies to choose from.

Things get a tad trickier though when you’re wanting to buy something like a new suit because, as we all know, buying clothes is just one big ethical headache thanks to issues ranging from chemically-laden cotton to the horrors of Asian sweatshops.

A recent family wedding which required me to buy a new suit provided the perfect opportunity then to seek out the answer to this ethical dilemma: what’s the most ethical and environmentally sustainable suit?

Ethical Consumer published some of its own research in issue 130 (some 5 years ago) on bespoke ethical suits from Savile Row, but frankly, these were way out of my price range.


Second hand or hired

Buying a second-hand suit from a charity shop seemed like an obvious starting point but you’d need to strike lucky to find one which a) not only fitted but b) was a colour and cut that you actually liked. If it was your lucky day and you found a suit that you liked but it needed some alterations, then you could always find somebody to take it in – or let it out. Annoyingly, I couldn’t find one that was right for me.

Another suggestion from was to hire a suit as, in effect, you’re recycling the same suit again and again - a great idea if you’re unlikely to wear it again. But what if like me you wanted to buy a new suit?


Cut from the right cloth

The first thing to consider here is the fabric itself with the choice largely down to that between polyester, viscose and wool or a mix of all three. The big no-no for polyester is that it’s normally made from non-renewable oil and it gobbles up vast amounts of energy during its production. In its favour polyester is cheap and it can be recycled into other clothes such as fleeces.

On the face of it viscose should be something of an environmental star as it’s made from wood pulp which can be sourced from sustainably-managed forests. The reality though, is that the trees often used are eucalyptus which have invariably replaced bio-diverse, old-growth forests, plus a whole heap of chemical nasties have to be used in the production process.

This leaves us with wool which, as a natural fibre, would seem to be an easy winner. The bad news is that most wool used in suits sold in the UK comes from Australia and is processed in China where unregulated factories splurge out appalling amounts of toxic waste. Plus dyeing wool is itself something of an environmental nightmare because of the amounts of toxic chemicals used. Not good.


So what’s the answer?

100 per cent organic wool is environmentally a good choice of material for an ethical suit, and this was mainly what the bespoke Savile Row tailors, mentioned above, were using.


M&S sustainable suit

The good news for me was that, last year, M&S launched what they claimed was ‘the world’s most sustainable suit’, something which apparently took ‘several years to develop’ and which was priced at a cheaper-than-Savile-Row £350. The suit is made from 100 per cent organic Australian wool which is then shipped to Italy to be dyed and woven. The finished cloth is then shipped back east to China to be made before being shipped back over to the UK.

This long distance travel – though not so good for its carbon footprint – ensured that every other possible sustainable feature was covered: from its polyester lining made from recycled plastic bottles; reclaimed fabric for its pockets and waistband; even down to its reclaimed buttons. Plus even hard-to-please fashion writers have given it the thumbs up.

But whilst it’s a sustainable hit, what about the ethics of the M&S suit, how does the company fare with its record on the treatment of the Chinese workers who stitch and sew the suit together? Whilst there’s still room for improvement, M&S is one of the UK’s top-scoring high street retailers – that is the reassuring answer from both Ethical Consumer and ethical clothing campaign group, Labour Behind the Label.

So yes, whilst it took some effort, my new ethical and sustainable suit was finally tracked down - and phew, it even fitted like a dream.