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Ethical T-shirts

Finding ethical and eco-friendly t-shirts. We rank the ethical and environmental record of 20 ethical t-shirt brands

We also look at sustainable fabrics, forced labour, sweatshops, shine a light on the ethics of Birdsong, 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:

  • 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.

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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

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:

  • 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 these are not so good, particularly for the environment. 

Below we focus on the more sustainable fabrics you might come across.

Sustainable t-shirt fabrics

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). 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.

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. 

Brands that make/sell organic clothing have an [O] next to their name in the score table above. These brands also received an extra mark for Product Sustainability.

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

Fairtrade cotton is used by several of the ethical brands in our guide, including Nudie, People Tree and Thought, 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. 

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.

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.

The following brands sell linen clothes: Brothers We Stand, Greenfibres, Komodo, Kuyichi, Living Crafts, Lowie, Ninety Percent, and People Tree.

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.

The following brands sell hemp clothes: Greenfibres, Komodo, Kuyichi, Living Crafts, Thought, and THTC (The Hemp Trading Company).

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. 

Who sells bamboo t-shirts?

The following brands sell bamboo clothing, but only one specified the production process on their websites: Birdsong (closed loop), Komodo (not specified), Living Crafts (not specified), Rapanui (not specified).

Viscose, rayon and modal are all fabrics made from wood pulp fibres. Like bamboo, they can be more sustainable options but only if made using the right production processes. 

Fabric that is made using the more sustainable closed loop chemical process on eucalyptus wood pulp is named Tencel. The process captures over 99% of the solvents and chemicals used and recycles them. Water consumption for this kind of clothing is 90% lower than for conventional cotton, and greenhouse gas emissions are almost 50% lower.

The following brands sell Tencel clothes: Birdsong, Brothers We Stand, Komodo, Kuyichi, Lowie, Ninety Percent, Nudie, People Tree, and Thought.

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.

The following brands sell modal clothes: Thought (called Tencel Modal, carbon neutral process with 95% of waste recycled), Kuyichi (Lenzing Tencel and Lenzing Micro Modal), Howies (unspecified).

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 sell organic cotton t-shirts that are from recycled materials, and the latter take your old organic clothing items back 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. Beyond Retro offers vintage clothing including t-shirts, but there are other ways to get secondhand clothing including shopping at local charity shops or at Oxfam Online. Clothes swaps with friends are also a good way of changing your wardrobe without buying new. 

Brands that sell secondhand clothing have a [S] next to their name on the score table and were given an extra Product Sustainability mark. They are Beyond Retro, THTC and Oxfam Online.

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: Nomads, Rapanui and THTC

Lucy and Yak did not appear to sell any items containing animal parts, although no explicit policy could be found that stated the company would not use animal products.

Fair trade brands

Some of the ethical brands in our guide sell fair trade clothing. These are Nudie, People Tree and Thought and are identified with an [F] next to their name on the score table.

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

Forced labour

Uyghur forced labour

T-shirts are commonly made of cotton, but unfortunately 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 abuses faced by Uyghur Muslims.

A recent report found that cotton from Uyghur Region is found around the world, and identifies 53 contract garment suppliers (in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, China, and Mexico) who purchase fabric and yarn from five leading Chinese manufacturers that use Uyghur Region cotton. The suppliers use the fabric and yarn in the clothes they make for leading apparel brands, with no indication to consumers of the cotton’s origin. 

Progress on forced labour in Uzbekistan

However, in good news since we last wrote on forced labour and cotton, 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.

No Sweat: the t-shirt that fights sweatshops

In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster happened in Bangladesh, killing 1135 people. The factory produced clothes for major international brands. The Rana Plaza disaster is embedded in the minds of many of those who think about where their clothes come from and led to Bangladesh Accord, to ensure safer working conditions for garment workers. Also following the disaster, some survivors set up Oporajeo, a worker's cooperative whose Bengali name translates to 'Invincible'.

Workers at Oporajeo earn more than the industry standard and make t-shirts sold by the No Sweat campaign which pushes for social justice in the fashion industry. No Sweat uses the profits from selling t-shirts to fund the campaign against sweatshops. It uses a wholesale ‘blank’ t-shirt approach to sell to brands, other campaign groups and unions. 

Find out more at https://nosweat.org.uk/

Read more about workers’ rights in the garment industry in our feature article.

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. 

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Additional research by Jasmine Owens.

Company behind the brand

Birdsong is a social enterprise and a living wage employer, seeking to provide 11,000 hours of living wage work annually by 2022.

Since 2019 Birdsong has switched to using 100% natural or reclaimed fibres, including 100% organic cotton, and has continued to cut down on waste by doing limited editions, an entirely pre-order collection, and turning scrap fabric into bags and scrunchies.

From crop to closet its clothes are said to “ship between two countries, travelling on average 8,423 km compared to the average high street garment’s 22,000 km, having travelled between seven different countries before it goes to be sold."

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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