Skip to main content

Ethical T-shirts

Finding ethical and eco-friendly t-shirts. We rank the ethical and environmental record of 25 ethical t-shirt brands

We also look at sustainable fabrics, forced labour, supply chains, price, shine a spotlight on No Sweat the anti-sweatshop brand and give our Best Buy recommendations. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping 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.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when buying t-shirts:

  • Is it made from a more sustainable fabric? Look for 100% organic hemp or linen, hemp or linen, recycled cotton or 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 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 made from less sustainable fabrics? Conventional cotton production is associated with child labour and toxic pesticides. Fairtrade or organic cotton is better. Avoid polyester and nylon too to avoid petrochemicals.

  • Is it dirty viscose? Campaigners are targeting viscose clothing, which may also be labelled as rayon or bamboo, because it has a very polluting manufacturing process. Cleaner viscose will be labelled as lyocell, Tencel or Monocel.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

Universally worn and a wardrobe essential for many people, t-shirts are perhaps the cheapest and easiest type of clothing to design, manufacture and sell. The basic t-shirt has therefore become a cornerstone of the fast fashion industry: made quickly and cheaply, worn for a season, and then discarded. 

Fashion t-shirts can be cheap to produce but they can be sold for hundreds or even thousands of pounds. And they contribute to the huge carbon cost of the clothing industry.

This guide will help you answer the questions around who made your clothes, under what conditions, and at what impact on the environment. 

This guide includes some of the companies seeking to address issues in the clothing industry, by telling you more about where your garments are made and ensuring better practices. 

They're doing something different to many of the brands featured in our high street clothes guide, which are likely to be linked to sweatshop conditions, forced labour and environmental pollution, particularly fast fashion brands like BooHoo and Pretty Little Thing.

What makes a t-shirt ethical or sustainable?

There are various things to look for in an ethical t-shirt. These include:

  • Secondhand t-shirts are the most ethical option
  • can you repair or upcycle your existing t-shirts?
  • Use of sustainable fabrics (such as organic cotton).
  • 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.
  • No animal products. Ethical brands tend to avoid producing t-shirts from animal products such as silk or merino wool (which may have come from sheep farms where 'mulesing' is practised.
  • Assured quality - if you're buying new you want a t-shirt that is built to last, while some brands offer a repairs service. 

We look at the issues of materials and labour in more detail below.

Row of brightly coloured t-shirts viewed side on

What are the most sustainable t-shirt materials?

There are many materials t-shirts can be made from including synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon. Our feature on fast fashion highlights why synthetics are not so good, particularly for the environment. 

The most popular t-shirt fabric materials are cotton or polyester, and cotton/polyester blends.

We would recommend 100% organic cotton as the best option when faced with the choice between cotton and polyester. All of the brands in this guide make t-shirts using organic cotton, aside from Rubbish London which uses recycled cotton.

But organic cotton is not necessarily the most sustainable fabric you can buy when you look at carbon footprint, toxic chemicals use, workers’ rights and animal rights. Here is the hierarchy:

The best:

  • Organic hemp or linen – mostly likely mixed with organic cotton
  • Recycled cotton

5 next best:

  1. linen
  2. hemp
  3. organic cotton
  4. Fairtrade cotton
  5. organic bamboo

Fabrics to Avoid:

acrylic, polyester, nylon, elastane, silk, conventional cotton, bamboo, viscose, rayon or modal.

See our feature on 'Choosing the most sustainable fabrics' for more on this.

What fabrics are t-shirts made of?

All of the ethical brands in this guide use organic cotton for at least some of their t-shirts. Organic cotton produces 46% lower CO2 emissions than normal cotton (although it does use more land). Its production process tends to have a lower carbon footprint due to the absence of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which require a significant amount of energy to produce.

It's GM-free and free from artificial pesticides. There is also less soil erosion associated with organic cotton and up to 91% lower water consumption than conventional cotton - see 'Cotton t-shirts and water use' below.

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

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

A textile product carrying the GOTS label 'organic' must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres, whereas a product with the label 'made with organic' need only have a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres. The label guarantees that the garment isn't made with any genetically modified products.

Some social standards are also incorporated into GOTS standards, such as:

  • no forced or child labour 
  • no harassment and violence 
  • no discrimination is practised 
  • occupational health and safety (OHS) 

For more details, see GOTS ecological and social criteria.

For recycled cotton, check what the recycled content is and what it is mixed with, as recycled fibres will usually have been combined with virgin material.

Fairtrade cotton is used by some of the ethical brands in our guide e.g. Nudie, Brothers We Stand and PACT, who therefore support farmers by assuring that they see decent prices for their cotton. Fairtrade includes minimum labour standards and pays an additional ‘Premium’ to communities, which can be used for strategic and community investment. 

Like organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton also ensures that the material is GM-free. 

Read our feature article on fairtrade fashion and clothing labels and schemes to find out more.

Linen is made from the flax plant, it’s one of the strongest fibres available and one of the oldest. Making linen yarn requires few pesticides and has lower CO2 emissions and water use compared with conventional cotton. In fact, we found flax linen to have the lowest average CO2 emissions by weight of all the fabrics we compared.

Hemp is made from the cannabis plant, it needs little water and no pesticides. It grows rapidly and does well in European climates, and requires a relatively small amount of land to cultivate. It can produce up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton. The fibres are longer and less flexible than flax, but it is strong and durable.

THTC (The Hemp Trading Company) make their t-shirts out of organic hemp mixed with organic cotton.

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 either the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or 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 unsustainable 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. 

Synthetic fibres made from petrochemicals. Dyes likely to cause environmental harm. Non-biodegradable and may release microfibres.

Look for recycled synthetic fibres to reduce petrochemical issue – although these are still likely associated with toxic dyes and may release microfibres. Check what the recycled content is, as recycled fibres will usually have been mixed with virgin material.

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

Rubbish London only sell recycled cotton t shirts. THTC and Rapanui sell organic cotton t-shirts that are from recycled materials. Rapanui take back your old 100% clothing items, from any brand, to turn them into new ones. 

When choosing a t-shirt it’s better to buy a 100% cotton one, rather than one made from a blended fabric (that is, various different fibres), as it can be recycled at the end of its life, whereas blended t-shirts cannot.

Of course, buying secondhand clothes rather than new is best. Clothes swaps with friends are also a good way of changing your wardrobe without buying new. 

Cotton t-shirts and water use

Cotton is an incredibly water-intensive fabric. Just one cotton t-shirt will require around 2,500 litres of water to produce (depending on where it was grown). 

That’s the same amount one person drinks in two and a half years.

This is a problem when water from lakes and rivers is used because it can affect local ecosystems and communities. For example, 40 years of intensive cotton farming has reduced the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan to a tenth of its former size.

Organic cotton using less water to grow it is disputed but because there are no pesticides used the quality of the wastewater is drastically improved meaning that the water is reusable and local ecosytems and communities are safe from water pollution. With conventional cotton, the wastewater needs to be diluted to bring it back to local water quality standards.

Plus, with conventional cotton there are still residual pesticides left in the wastewater even after it has been diluted.

The price of an ethical t-shirt

Brand Price of cheapest tee (£)
No Sweat 15
Living Crafts 15
Greenfibres 16
Rapanui 18
Lucy & Yak 20
Brothers We Stand 20
Community Clothing 23
Earthmonk 25
Howies 25
Finisterre 30
Komodo 37
Rubbish London 40
Kuyichi 47
Ninety percent 50
Nudie Jeans 50

Vegan t-shirt brands

All of the brands in this guide have vegan t-shirts. Some of the brands are fully vegan, and therefore don’t use any animal products like wool, silk or leather, and also don’t use shells for buttons on clothing. 

The vegan-only brands are: No Sweat, Lucy & Yak,  Rapanui and THTC

Fair trade brands

Only two of the ethical brands in our guide sell certified fair trade clothing: PACT and Nudie. Sadly in summer/autumn 2023 People Tree and Thought both folded, and both had used fair trade material.

Read our feature article on fairtrade fashion and clothing labels and schemes to find out more.

what is a t-shirt supply chain - infographic

The complex supply chain journey of a simple cotton t-shirt

Most t-shirts are labelled as 'Made in... India, Turkey, Bangladesh, Portugal or Vietnam' but this is just the country of final assembly, where the cotton fabric is sewn into a t-shirt.

For a cotton t-shirt, the supply chain begins with a farmer, in this example from India, the world’s largest producer of cotton which is estimated to grow 6,205,000 metric tonnes each year.

The farmer will plant their cotton seeds between March and May and harvest the cotton in November. Cotton is grown by a mixture of big plantations and smallholder farmers. Big plantations rely on a hired workers, including additional seasonal labour at harvest time; whilst smallholders rely mainly on family members, but also other members of the community, occasionally hire some extra hands but often labour using exchanges.

Once the cotton has been grown and harvested, it is sold in wholesale markets. Next, the cotton is purchased by retailers, who will take it to a ginning and pressing mill to be processed. Here, the cotton will be removed from its pods, and turned into cotton lint for shipment overseas.

Cotton exporters will transport it to China, where it is again sold on and passed between spinners, to dyers and then to weavers to be turned into fabric. By this stage, the cotton is ready to be sewn into garments for wearing.

This t-shirt is going to be tailored in Bangladesh, so fabric exporters will again ship the material overseas where it will be purchased for use in factories. About 10% of the UK’s clothing is imported from Bangladesh each year.

Even these garment factories are often not owned by the t-shirt brand itself, which will instead contract local suppliers to make different designs. Tailors will sew the garment following specifications sent by the t-shirt brand. This stage determines the ‘Made in’ label – so the t-shirt will say ‘Made in Bangladesh’. Then it is shipped for sale in the UK.

This account is a linear version of a supply chain – from cotton field to shelf – but the reality is of course far more complex. Big companies won’t just use a single person or supplier at each stage: multiple cotton farmers will grow the raw material that the cotton spinner turns into yarn; just as multiple spinners will provide the yarn for weaving into fabric.

In fact, the explanation given above hasn’t even considered the non-cotton elements of the t-shirt’s design: for example, the origin of the dyes or the thread that are also part of its production. Or all the inputs that are used, for example, to grow the cotton, such as pesticides or fertilizers and their supply chains. It is usually more accurate then to think of a supply pyramid than a chain, with multiple elements, people and locations contributing to a final product.

While the brand that we recognise is responsible for sale and design, they may not oversee any of the production themselves. Each stage can be outsourced to other companies known as their suppliers.

Every stage of this supply chain has a huge hidden carbon footprint resulting from the transportation of the raw materials and final garments across the world.

Forced labour

Uyghur forced labour

T-shirts are commonly made of cotton, but unfortunately conventional cotton is one of the goods most commonly produced using forced labour. One prominent example is the forced labour of Uyghurs in China. Brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China as a result. Find out more in our feature on Cotton production.

Progress on forced labour in Uzbekistan

However, state-imposed forced labour has ended in Uzbekistan. According to Cotton Campaign, a report by the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found no central government-imposed forced labour in the 2021 harvest.

Previously, farmers in Uzbekistan were ordered to grow cotton and every year at harvest time the government forcibly mobilised over one million citizens, to leave their regular jobs for a few weeks to pick cotton. The profits from the cotton production went to the country’s powerful elite.

Avoiding forced labour

The best way to ensure you are not buying t-shirts made with cotton from forced labour is to buy from ethical brands who are transparent about their supply chains and know exactly where their cotton comes from. Organic and Fairtrade certifications ensure the production meets certain criteria e.g. pay and working conditions, as do some other schemes.

Many of the companies in this guide can trace their sources, with information about suppliers, raw materials, production processes and certification schemes, either available on a company’s website or by request.

Woman and man wearing blue t-shirts with the word 'volunteer' on them, each holding a plant in front of them

T-shirts and political statements

Whilst t-shirts are a basic clothing item, they have also been linked to social movements and  political statements. 

Historically, slogan t-shirts probably began in London in the 1960s, but most of the well-known examples date from the 1970s including Vivienne Westwood’s punk designs, and the 1980s when Katharine Hamnett wore her own anti-nuclear weapons t-shirt to meet then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Unfortunately, some slogan t-shirts with empowering messages can also be made in sweatshop conditions. A recent example is the Spice Girls’ branded t-shirt for Comic Relief in 2019 which according to the Guardian had reportedly been made in a factory in Bangladesh where staff were paid 35p an hour, far below the local living wage.  

Several of the brands in this guide make ethical slogan t-shirts, including Rapanui. Read more about all the brands in our ‘who’s who of ethical fashion’ article. 

What can you do with old t-shirts?

Some brands e.g Teemill/Rapanui operate a closed loop system whereby customers can return previously bought clothing and the fibres are extracted to make into new products.

If the t-shirt is wearable but no longer fits or you wish to pass it on for another reason, clothes swaps and donating to charity shops are options. Our article on upcycling and secondhand clothes has more suggestions including secondhand clothing apps. 

Final end-of-life options if the t-shirt is no longer wearable including using it as cleaning rags in the house, or for stuffing material for making draught excluders for example.

Another option is to put it in clothing banks, where items which are not good enough for sale are either re-spun or used in industrial processes. However, charities may have to pay for clothing to be recycled so check with the clothing bank scheme first if they take non-wearable clothes. And also be mindful that some donated clothing is exported overseas, leading to local problems.

Our article on upcycling and secondhand clothes outlines more about the second-hand industry. 


Additional research by Jasmine Owens.

Company behind the brand

No Sweat Clothing fights exploitation in the garment industry by building solidarity with workers worldwide and putting workers’ rights at the very heart of their clothing. They are in regular contact with the trade unions that represent the workers that make their clothes to ensure their rights and decent conditions are being upheld, the profits from sales go towards campaign work and the Garment Workers Solidarity Fund. This fund is designed to support workers in the sweatshops industry organising their own struggles for their rights. Since the inception of the project, No Sweat have helped fund workers organisations in Bangladesh, Haiti and Myanmar.

No Sweat’s T-shirts are made in two factories in Bangladesh, Oporajeo & Irene Knitwear Ltd. Oporajeo is a workers’ initiative in Bangladesh set up by survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 where 1135 people died when the garment factory collapsed. Oporajeo translates to 'Invincible'.

Irene Knitwear is a privately owned factory that was recommended by the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation as a supplier with a strong trade union presence and fully unionised workforce.

No Sweat sells 100% GOTS certified organic cotton t shirts. It uses a wholesale ‘blank’ t-shirt approach to sell to brands, other campaign groups and unions. But you can also buy single, printed t shirts from its website, or grey, black or white plain t shirts from Ethical Superstore.

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. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.