Ethical T-shirts

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 28 ethical t-shirt brands

We also look at sustainable fabrics, consumer actions, animal rights, shine the light on the ethics of Teemill 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 t-shirts:

  • 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.

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying t-shirts:

  • 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

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Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Universally recognised and a staple item for most, T-shirts are perhaps the cheapest and easiest type of clothing for people to design, manufacture and sell, meaning that they're produced and consumed at the rate of knots. In this way, the humble t-shirt has become a cornerstone of the fast fashion industry

Fast fashion T-shirts can be cheap to produce but they can be sold for hundreds or even thousands of pounds. This is quite an outrage when you consider the poor conditions of those employed to make them. In 2014 Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband wore t-shirts with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like”. But they were called out when an investigation found that they had been produced in a Mauritian factory "where female machinists sleep 16 to a room". Sadly this type of situation is all too rife in the fashion industry.

Whilst this story highlights the conditions that t-shirt workers experience all over the world, it also highlights the consumer's role in this situation. The politicians wearing these, in this case, ironically exploitative designs, failed to ask one simple but all-important question: 'who made my clothes?'.

In this guide we cover some companies that are asking that question and have detailed knowledge of their own supply chains, a situation that is rare in the wider clothing industry.

What are the key ingredients of an ethical t-shirt?

  • Fair wages and working conditions for everyone in the supply chain of the t-shirt. From those producing raw materials (such as farmers growing cotton) to the workers stitching the t-shirt together, all workers should receive a living wage.
  • Transparency and traceability of suppliers and production processes - this is a key indicator of an ethical t-shirt 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.
  • No animal products! Ethical brands tend to avoid embellishing their t-shirts with animal products such as silk.
  • Assured quality -  if you're buying new you want a t-shirt that is built to last, while some brands offer a repairs service.

Sustainable t-shirt fabrics

All of the ethical brands use organic cotton for at least some of their t-shirts. The benefit of organic cotton is that its production produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions than normal cotton, it's GM-free and free from pesticides.

Additionally, certified organic cotton has social criteria to meet including pay and working conditions as well as criteria for the chemicals used when it is processed, for example, dyes. 

If you're in the market for an organic cotton t-shirt, you will see that we have put a [O] next to brands in our score table that make organic clothing. These received an extra mark for Product Sustainability.

Also look for the Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) labels so you can be sure you're getting genuine organic cotton.

This is used by several ethical brands including Know the Origin, People Tree, and Nudie who therefore support the most vulnerable farmers by assuring that they see decent prices for their cotton.

Like organic cotton, Fairtrade also cotton ensures material that is GM-free as well as having minimum labour standards and a premium for the cotton. 

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 second-hand clothes rather than new is best. Beyond Retro offers vintage clothing and stocks t-shirts, but there are loads of other ways to get your clothing second-hand - shopping at local charity shops has an added social bonus or at Oxfam Online.

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

Many brands recycle fibres in order to make new clothing which is far more sustainable than making new fibres from raw materials.

THTC and Rapanui retail organic cotton t-shirts that are from recycled materials (15% recycled at THTC, 50% from Rapanui).

When choosing a t-shirt its better to buy a cotton one, rather than one made from a blended fabric, as it can be recycled at the end of its life, blended t-shirts cannot.

Bamboo is commonly used by ethical clothing companies, but this isn't always the case.

Whether a bamboo fabric is sustainable or not is defined by the processing method used to extract and turn the bamboo shoots into fabric.

There are currently three ways to derive fabric from bamboo:

1. The unsustainable industrial method

The cellulose of the bamboo plant is dissolved in a chemical solvent during production. This process is not certified organic by both the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Soil Association, even if it is bamboo that was grown organically.

Therefore it's worth noting that any product labelled 'organic bamboo', has not been made using this process.

2. The more sustainable industrial method using the lyocell process

Alternatively, there is the 'lyocell process' which reuses water and chemicals and doesn't use carbon disulphide. This closed-loop process minimises the use of chemicals. 

This appears as 'Monocel®' on fabric labels and is worth looking out for. 


3. Mechanical extraction

A more environmentally friendly mode of processing bamboo is mechanical extraction, however, it can be costly due to the labour that it requires. Rather than using chemicals to break down the bamboo, producers crush the bamboo, allowing a natural enzyme to then do the work. A machine then combs the fibres out and spins them into a thread that can be used to make the fabric.

Fabric that comes from this thread is coarser than that which is commonly found in shops -  but it's truly organic. 

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

Birdsong (closed-loop).

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

Fabric that is made using the lyocell process on eucalyptus wood pulp (rather than bamboo) is named Tencel. This captures over 99% of the solvents and chemicals used in the process and recycles them, ensuring that water consumption is reduced by 90% against cotton and that greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by almost 50%.

The following brands sell Tencel t-shirts: Komodo, People Tree, Finisterre, 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. 

Kuyichi, Komodo and Ninety Percent sell linen t-shirts.

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.

Komodo and, of course, THTC (The Hemp Trading Company) make hemp t-shirts.

Company behind the brand

Teemill is the owner of the Rapanui brand from the Isle of Wight. It started in 2008 in a garden shed with £200. It has a traceability map on its website which traces products from seed to shop. It was one of the first companies to offer this tool back in 2009; you can scan the code inside every product they make and find out more info about its origins. Plus, you can send its worn out clothes back to it for recycling into new clothes and get up to £5 credit.

Rapanui only uses organic and recycled materials and renewable energy-powered factories. Its main supplier of organic cotton has its own wind farm, and its UK factory is powered entirely by renewables, mostly on-site solar.

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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