Ethical Clothes Shops

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 43 ethical fashion retailers

We also look at sustainable fabrics, consumer actions, animal rights, shine the light on the ethics of Beyond Retro and give our Best Buy recommendations. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying clothing:

  • Does it use organic cotton? There are many problems associated with cotton production, from the use of child labour to the widespread use of toxic pesticides. Look for 100% organic cotton.

  • Is it Fairtrade? Many high street retailers rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to continue to churn out fast fashion. Buy Fairtrade clothing to ensure that you are supporting the livelihood of the person who made your clothes. 

  • Is it re-used? The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the UK. Most clothing is worn only a handful of times and then sent to landfill. Help the environment by shopping secondhand.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying clothing:

  • Is it fur or leather? Over one million animals are killed every year for their fur, and leather has a high cost in terms of the environment as well as animal rights. Avoid clothes containing these fabrics.

  • Does it use toxic chemicals? Clothes manufacturing often uses numerous chemicals that are then released, seriously damaging the environment. Avoid companies that use toxic chemicals.

  • Is it viscose? This synthetic fibre is increasingly popular with designer and high street retailers alike. But its manufacture is causing serious water pollution, which has led to human rights as well as environmental harm.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

This guide highlights best practice within the ethical clothing sector by reviewing a range of widely available ethical brands. We have tried to cover companies that produce more than one type of clothing rather than just T-shirts, or yoga wear or sportswear.

Pretty much all of them are online shops apart from the two second-hand shops on the score table: Oxfam and Beyond Retro, which both have bricks and mortar shops too.

A number of the highest-scoring brands are arguably going beyond ethical certification labels, such as organic and Fairtrade. They have become innovators within the slow fashion movement; a movement which, like the slow food movement, emphasises the importance of quality and knowing the provenance of a product. Another key aspect of ethical fashion brands is the sustainable fabrics that they use.

image: lady in sari with sign stating i made your clothes

What is ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion (sometimes known as slow fashion or sustainable fashion) is a way of producing and buying (or not buying) clothing that takes into account environmental and other social concerns. These concerns can range from the fair treatment of workers to the use of organic cotton.

For consumers, ethical fashion is also about buying fewer, better quality garments that last longer.

5 key aspects of ethical fashion brands

  • Fair wages and working conditions for all those working in a supply chain.
  • From those producing raw materials (such as farmers growing cotton) to the workers stitching together a garment, all workers should receive a living wage.
  • Transparency and traceability about suppliers and production processes is a key indicator of an ethical fashion brand.
  • Ethical fashion companies think about their impact on the environment and will use sustainable fabrics (such as organic cotton) and less polluting production processes such as the use of natural plant-based dyes.
  • Ethical fashion brands often do not use animal products like leather, wool or silk.
  • In many cases, they produce clothes that are built to last, offer a repairs service or clothes that you can lease.

One example of an ethical fashion brand is MUD Jeans, who feature on our fashion podcast. Find out what Eva Engelen from MUD had to say about the fashion industry and what MUD is doing to combat the issues.

Why is ethical fashion so important?

Ethical fashion is an alternative to fast fashion. With fast fashion the consumer has little or no visibility of how the clothes are made and what impact production has on workers and the environment.

These impacts are often devastating to those people making clothes, their communities and their local environment. Fast fashion also has a focus on consumers buying more and more clothes, with brands releasing more new ranges and trends, sometimes as often as daily or weekly, to encourage increased consumption.

Sustainable fashion has the potential of making a positive impact in the fight against climate change and the ecological crisis. Sustainable fashion is important in reducing the amount of water, chemicals, energy consumption and the excessive discarding of old clothes to landfill.

Is ethical fashion affordable?

The very aspects that make a fashion brand ethical – fair wages, transparency, sustainable fabrics, durability – mean that ethical fashion is more expensive than mainstream fashion. With ethical fashion you pay the real cost of your garment.

This high price and quality hopefully mean that you’ll buy fewer new clothes which is one of the main things needed to make our clothes shopping habits more sustainable.

But ethical fashion is not just about buying new clothes. More affordable ethical fashion includes buying second hand, clothes swaps, making your own from scratch, upcycling, repair and renting. All of which are more affordable and another key aspect of sustainable fashion.

Image: Know the Origin label
Know the Origin

Who makes what ethical clothing:

Brand Men's clothing? Women's Clothing Kids' Clothing Range
Beyond Retro 2nd hand Yes Yes No everything incl sportswear and jeans. Vintage (i.e. second hand) and reworked
Bibico No Yes No dresses, skirts, tops. knitwear 
Birdsong No Yes No full range including underwear
Brothers We Stand  Yes No No t-shirts and sweatshirts
Cock and Bull Yes  No No underwear, shirts, t-shirts, denim jeans, jackets
Earthmonk Yes Yes No t-shirts and beanies, men's hoodies
Finisterre Yes Yes No full range including socks
Greenfibres Organic Yes Yes underwear only t-shirts, hoodies, leggings, jogging pants, underwear
Howies Yes Yes No

shirts, t-shirts, trousers, underwear, socks, sweatshirts, jackets, skirts

Know the Origin Yes Yes No t-shirts, shirts, trousers, hoodies, underwear
Komodo Yes Yes No full range including socks, jeans
Kuyichi Yes Yes No t-shirts, shirts, jackets, sweaters, jeans. Men's chinos, shorts
Living Crafts Yes Yes Yes full range including underwear and t-shirts, jeans
Lowie No Yes No dresses, shirts, skirts, jackets, trousers, jumpers, shorts
Lucy & Yak dungarees, t-shirts only Yes No dungarees, t-shirts, shirts, sweatshirts, dresses, boilersuits, trousers, fleeces
Monkee Genes Yes Yes No dungarees, chinos, tees, hoodies
MUD Yes Yes No shorts, skirts, shirts, t-shirts, jackets, all largely denim
Ninety Percent No Yes No full range
Nomads Shirts only Yes No trousers, tops, skirts, dresses
Nudie clothes yes jeans, t-shirts denim jackets, sweatshirts, t-shirts, jeans jeans, canvas trousers, sweatshirts, shirts, jackets, tops, underwear
Outsider No Yes No dresses, tops, skirts, jackets, trousers
Oxfam 2nd hand Yes Yes Yes full range
People Tree No Yes No leggings, activewear, tops, trousers, underwear, dresses, skirts, jeans
Rapanui Yes Yes No t-shirts, hoodies, socks, men's boxers
Thought Yes Yes No full range including underwear
THTC Yes Yes t-shirts and sweatshirts t-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts
Where Does it Come From? Yes Yes shirts, shorts, jeans only shirts and African tunics

Sustainable fabrics

All of the ethical brands use organic cotton for some, if not all, of their clothing.

Organic cotton is pesticide and GM-free. According to the Soil Association, growing organic cotton produces up to 94% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cotton.

Organic cotton also has to meet criteria for any chemicals used, such as dyes. Plus it must meet social criteria including pay and working conditions.

Look out for the Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label.
 
Brands that make organic clothing have a [O] next to their name on the score table and were given an extra Product Sustainability plus point.

Several ethical brands – Know the Origin, People Tree, Bibico, and Nudie – use this, which supports the most vulnerable farmers with decent prices. It also means it is GM-free. 

Brands that make fair trade clothing have a [F] next to their name on the score table and were given an extra Product Sustainability plus point.

 

Of course, buying secondhand clothes rather than new is the best form of clothes recycling. Oxfam and Beyond Retro are on our score table but there are loads of other ways to get second-hand clothing.

Brands that sell second-hand clothing have a [S] next to their name on the score table and were given an extra Product Sustainability plus point.

Whether it’s recycling wool and cotton, or any other fibres, using recycled fibres to make new clothes is always more sustainable than making new fibres.

Brands that use recycled fabrics:

MUD, Cock & Bull, Kuyichi, Outsider, Rapanui, THTC, and Brothers We Stand.

Bamboo is another fashionable fabric used by ethical clothing companies. It is a type of viscose. Viscose is derived from the ‘cellulose’ or wood pulp of trees or plants, like bamboo.

However, the processing method used to extract and turn bamboo into fabric determines whether bamboo is sustainable or not. 

There are currently three main ways to produce fabric from bamboo:

1. Industrial method

The cellulose of the bamboo plant is dissolved in a chemical solvent during production. Due to this process, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Soil Association do not certify bamboo fabric made in this way despite it being grown organically in many cases. So, if something is labelled as made from organic bamboo, you can be sure it has not been made with this process.

2. Industrial method using the lyocell process

One manufacturing process that minimises chemical use, and is therefore environmentally preferred, is called the ‘lyocell process’ (a closed loop process that reuses the water and chemicals and excludes the use of carbon disulphide). When the ‘lyocell’ process is used to process bamboo, the fabric is branded Monocel® so look out for this label on clothes.

3. Mechanical extraction

This is more environmentally friendly but can be labour intensive and therefore costly. For example, the woody parts of bamboo can be crushed, and a natural enzyme can be used to break down the bamboo further to create a ‘mushy mass’. The natural fibres can be mechanically combed out and spun into a thread which is then used to make a slightly coarse fabric – often called ‘bamboo linen’ – as opposed to the commonly silky bamboo fabrics found in shops.

The following brands stated how the bamboo they used was processed:

Outsider (organic), and Birdsong (closed loop).

The following brands did not clearly state what process they used for their bamboo clothes: Komodo, Thought.

 

Tencel is a brand name for a fabric made from eucalyptus wood pulp using the lyocell process. In production, over 99% of the solvents and chemicals used are captured and recycled in a closed-loop process.

Making Tencel fibres reduces greenhouse gas emissions by almost 50% and water consumption by 90% versus conventional cotton.

The following brands make clothes from Tencel: Komodo, People Tree, Thought, Kuyichi, Nomads, Finisterre, Birdsong, and Ninety Percent.

Modal is made from the wood pulp of the beech tree. If it is Lenzing Modal, it is made using 100% renewable energy, is sourced from trees from certified sustainably managed forests, and the chemical and waste that result from the production process are recycled.

But not all modal is Lenzing Modal, so it may be made from trees grown, for example, in cleared forests in Indonesia

Linen is made from the flax plant, it’s one of the strongest fibres known to man and the oldest. Making linen yarn requires few pesticides and reduces CO2 emissions by 30% and water use by 90% versus conventional cotton. 

People Tree, Kuyichi, Komodo and Lowie sell linen clothes.

Hemp is made from the cannabis plant, it needs little water and no pesticides. It literally grows like a weed so requires a relatively small amount of land to cultivate. It can produce up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton.

Cock & Bull, Komodo and, of course, THTC (The Hemp Trading Company) make hemp clothes.

Fabrics from animals

In this guide, companies lost an Animal Rights mark if they used:

  • Merino wool and they didn’t state it was non mulesed (the practice of cutting the skin to prevent flystrike) – Living Crafts, Ninety Percent, Lowie, Bibico
  • Silk that was neither peace silk, organic nor upcycled – Cock & Bull, Lowie, Bibico
  • Leather – Kuyichi (belts), Komodo (bags), Howies (jeans patches) Lowie (jewellery, bags, shoes), Bibico (shoes, belts, bags), Nudie (jackets)

If you don’t want to buy clothes from brands using any animal products then be aware that the following brands used upcycled or peace silk and non-mulesed wool:

  • Outsider used peace silk, where silk is harvested without killing the worms.
  • Greenfibres used peace or organic silk, where silkworms live out their full lives and die naturally. Komodo used upcycled silk.
  • The following brands used non-mulesed merino wool, for example organic merino, or other types of wool: Earthmonk, Outsider, Greenfibres, Cock & Bull, Komodo, Howies, Thought, Nomads, Finisterre, People Tree.
  • Beyond Retro and Oxfam sell second-hand clothes made from animal products.

Vegan clothes brands

Know the Origin, Monkee Genes, MUD, Where does it come from?, Rapanui, Brothers We Stand, THTC, Lucy & Yak, Birdsong

Ethical Fashion – 10 consumer actions

1. Buy less clothing

This is the most important thing that anyone can do. There are numerous schools of thought on how much is too much; Extinction Rebellion is currently asking people to stop buying new clothes for a year while others suggest trying not to buy anything for a month as a starting point to help you reduce your consumption.

The Project Cece ethical fashion website suggests asking yourself before you buy whether you will wear a piece of clothing 50 times. If not, don’t buy it. 

2. Buy second hand before you shop for new or use clothes swaps

There are now loads of great options for buying second hand. From charity shops like Oxfam to recycled clothes shops like Beyond Retro, it’s never been easier to shop pre-loved. Or you could rent clothes for those big occasions when you need impractical clothes that you might only wear once or twice a year.

3. Upcycle and repair old clothes or give them to charity (ie. try and avoid landfill)

In 2018, UK consumers threw away 300,000 tonnes of textiles and researchers say that on average each person puts eight items of clothing in the bin every year.

We can dramatically cut this amount by buying less in the first place but also by donating unwanted clothes to charity, or upcycling or repairing those items that are in need of some extra TLC.

4. Buy clothes made from ethically sourced materials (such as organic cotton or recycled fibres)

If you do need to buy new clothes it’s good to buy those made out of organic and natural fibres. This reduces the need to manufacture fabrics from petrochemical-based plastics and cuts down on toxic herbicides and pesticides that are used on crops such as cotton.

5. Buy clothes that have been produced in fair working conditions (eg. workers are paid a living wage)

The best way to ensure your clothes are made fairly is to look for brands that make Fairtrade-accredited garments. In this guide, that means Know the Origin, People Tree, Bibico, Nudie.

You can also look for those companies that are transparent about their supply chains so that you can be surer that working conditions were fair. In this guide that means Nudie, Know the Origin, Rapanui, Brothers We Stand, People Tree, Kuyichi, Where Does It Come From?

6. Buy clothes that don’t use animal products (eg. leather or silk)

Thousands of people are currently turning to plant-based diets and you can extend this into your fashion buying by avoiding clothing that has been produced from the exploitation of animals. See the box out on ‘Fabrics from Animals’ below.

7. Wash your clothes less frequently and at lower temperatures so that they last longer

Wash at 30 degrees and try and avoid washing your clothes too much.

Nudie recommend only washing your jeans every six months!

8. Go minimalist

While some advocate not buying more, others also advocate slimming down what you have now. Project 333 (wear 33 items for 3 months) and the Capsule Wardrobe Challenge (never own more than 37 items) help people to buy less by demonstrating how easy and stress-relieving it can be to have a clearer, ‘capsule’ wardrobe.

9. Buy quality clothing that will last a long time

Some things that you should look out for are:

  • Regular, straight and neat stitching.
  • Double-stitched (French) seams.
  • Well-finished buttonholes and buttons. 
  • The feel of the fabric, is it heavy? Well textured?

10. Lobby the government for regulation of the clothing industry

The Environmental Audit Committee report (see our guide to high street clothes shops) recommended new laws including a tax on clothes which are less than 50% recycled fabric, and a charge of 1p per garment to invest in clothes collection and sorting.

Readers’ clothing survey

We asked our readers about some of their second-hand shopping habits:

Where do you buy your secondhand clothes?

Most people said from charity shops.

Oxfam, Sue Ryder and British Heart Foundation stores were most often mentioned. Also popular was eBay, while surprisingly few people seemed to be using clothes swaps.

What would you miss buying if you took up the Extinction Rebellion challenge of not buying any new clothes for a year?

Most people said they would miss new underwear, including socks, bras and pants. The next top answer was shoes followed by trousers.

Spotlight on Know The Origin

Company behind the brand

Beyond Retro began in 2002 in a disused dairy in East London. Beyond Retro sells second-hand clothes both online and at five bricks-and-mortar shops in London, Brighton and Bristol and four in Sweden. The clothes that don’t make it to the shop floor are reworked and refashioned into the Beyond Retro LABEL.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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