Skip to main content

Ethical high street fashion

Fast fashion is notorious for workers’ rights abuses and environmental harms. So is it possible to find ethical high street clothes?

In this article, we look at brands offering ‘ethical’ lines, highlight companies that are greenwashing their image, and ask whether there are any truly ethical high street alternatives.

Ethical issues with high street fashion

The clothing industry is notorious for its lack of ethics. In pursuit of low prices, the industry has pursued a race to the bottom on workers’ rights, and been responsible for massive environmental harms.

Many workers in the fashion industry receive poverty wages: even in the UK workers have been paid just £3.50 an hour. They can face sexual assault and harassment and be forced to work in extremely unsafe conditions. Around the world, garment workers say they are prevented from unionising and organising to demand improvements by their employers.

Clothing production also has serious carbon impacts, and is said to amount to between 2% and 10% of global greenhouse emissions. It has been linked to widespread pollution from both microplastics and toxic chemicals.

High street clothes shops in particular have driven these poor conditions. With the rise of the fast fashion industry, it has made clothing disposable, creating an ever shortening cycle of exploitation and waste.

Ethical high street fashion?

A growing number of high street clothing brands are touting ethical claims. Nike launched its ‘Move to Zero’ campaign in 2020, sharing its “journey” to zero emissions and zero waste. Primark has said that all its clothes will be recyclable by 2027. Pretty Little Thing has widely promoted its resale platform.

Is high street fashion greenwashing its image?

But how far are these companies just greenwashing their image?

Well, some of their claims simply do not hold up. In 2021, our guide to High Street Clothing found that while Shein’s website stated that the brand had “a strict no animal policy”, the company still sold products made from wool, silk and down, making its claims patently false.

In fact, 60% of environmental claims on the websites of the 12 largest UK and European fashion brands could be classed as "unsubstantiated" and "misleading", according to a 2021 report by Changing Markets Foundation.

Many companies sell ethical clothing ranges. H&M Conscious offers clothing that is made of 50% ‘sustainable’ fabric, such as organic cotton or recycled polyester, unless it’s recycled cotton in which case the brand accepts 20%. While a step in the right direction, it’s not exactly staggering given that some brands have 100% organic or recycled products.

Even worse, notorious fast fashion brand Boohoo has launched a ‘Ready for the Future’ range. Items must be made with just 20% ‘better’ materials, such as recycled polyester, BCI cotton, or wool and feather and down “certified to high animal welfare standards”. A quick look at their website found 3,000 items in their range, many of which were priced at under £10, making it hard to believe (even if they source better materials) that their workers were properly paid.

Asos has created a ‘circular’ range, which has been criticised for not really being circular.

Even if these companies are making meaningful changes in some small areas, they’re widely sticking to business as usual elsewhere. For the 44 brands in our High-Street Clothes guide, the average score was a measly five out of 20. We found that brands were failing to take meaningful action on everything from animal rights and carbon emissions to tax avoidance and workers’ rights.

Ethical high street fashion brands

So are there any ethical high street brands?

Out of a bunch of very bad options, Patagonia is a notably better brand. While the company has room for improvement (it still uses the toxic chemicals PFCs and surprisingly produces clothing for the military), it has also spearheaded action on some serious problems in the industry. The company has supported research on microfibre release and pioneered the Traceable Down Standard. In 2022, its owner announced that it was donating the company to the environment, meaning that all profits will go to environmental initiatives.

Some other brands are bridging the divide between high street and ethical alternative. Lucy & Yak can be seen on most streets these days, and scores well across most Ethical Consumer ratings. It’s also been celebrated for offering gender neutral clothing and a wide range of sizes, and working with models of lots of different ethnicities and sizes.

How to do high street fashion ethically

Avoiding the high street can be hard, particularly in a cost of living crisis. While ethical options on the high street are undoubtedly limited, there are a few ways you can make your purchases a bit more ethical.

1. Buy clothes that will last

One of the big problems in the clothing industry is the throwaway nature of the products. The average person in the UK throws away more than 3kg of textiles every year – equivalent to around 20 t-shirts.

By buying clothes that will last – and shopping less often – you’re helping to tackle this problem. At the same time, you’ll be cutting down on the carbon emissions and other environmental issues associated with your wardrobe.

2. Look for certified ranges

While we don’t like the fact that brands are greening their image on the back of small, sustainable ranges, looking for certified fabrics is a way to make sure that your products are meeting some basic ethical criteria. Organic or recycled content is good when it comes to environmental concerns, and Fairtrade for workers’ rights.

You’ll want to check what the actual proportion of certified fabric is though, as some brands will market it as sustainable when the actual amount is only 20%. It should state the percentage on the label.

3. Buy high street fashion second hand

Second hand clothing is always a more ethical option, and will save you money. It can also be a way to move away from funding unethical fashion brands, even if you like the look of their clothes.

With the number of resale apps growing, it's often possible to find the exact same item preloved that you were tempted to buy new. Just look out for and avoid sellers who are actually retailing new high street products, which they may have bought for the purpose.

The more ethical second hand purchases will still be ones you wear often and for a long time. Luckily buying second hand can be a way to get something of better quality for the same price.