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How to tell if your clothes are made ethically

How to tell if your clothes are made ethically

Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published their findings on the sustainability of the fashion industry. The results? “Shocking,” says EAC chair Mary Creagh. “Retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers.”

Fast fashion brands were among the worst offenders, as you might expect. But as a New Yorker exposé showed, luxury brands aren’t immune to using cheap immigrant labour. So what’s a modern man to do if he wants to get dressed with a clear conscience?

Firstly, don’t chuck everything out of your wardrobe, even if you think it might not have been well-made. Britain already sends 300,000 tonnes of used clothing to landfill each year, and if it’s already in your wardrobe, best it stays there (or gets handed on to someone else). According to Francois Souchet of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, less than one per cent of old clothing goes on to be used to make new clothes.

Instead, try to get as much wear out of your current clothes as possible and go easy on the laundry (especially with hi-tech sports fabrics, which are notorious for shedding microfibres that then enter the waterways). And next time you buy something new, take these steps to check if your clothes are all above board.

Check the country of origin

Just because something is made in the UK or Europe doesn’t guarantee good working conditions. But the ‘made in’ label could be one factor that helps you get a better overall picture of the brand. If nothing else, manufacturing close to home means less shipping, which reduces your clothes’ carbon footprint.

Look for organic

Organic cotton still only makes up one per cent of all cotton grown globally, and although there’s little international regulation over what constitutes ‘organic’, it’s a good place to start. Not only is organic cotton better for the environment, it’s also better for the farmers, who can command a higher price and won’t be working with toxic chemicals. Look for brands that use organic cotton as a baseline, and bonus points if they’re GOTS certified (Global Organic Textile Standard is the toughest benchmark).

Examine the composition label

This is a tricky one. On the one hand, choosing wool over acrylic is indubitably better for the environment, as wool will eventually decompose and won’t shed plastic into the water. But there are also brands, like Stella McCartney, doing clever things with unexpected non-animal products. Banana tree waste can become vegan leather. Mushrooms are turned into suede. There’s even synthetic silk that’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

The simplest switch, though, is to buy clothing made from a single material, not blends. This should mean that the supply chain is easier to trace and, at the end of its life, the fabric is easier to recycle, as the different fibres won’t need to be separated.

Familiarise yourself with certification marks

You’re probably already familiar with the Fairtrade logo, but there are plenty of others out there and it’s important to separate the worthy from the window-dressing.

Oeko Tex

Ensures chemicals used throughout the production process are not harmful to the end user. A distinction is made between four product classes, with stricter guidelines placed on products in class I (articles for babies and toddlers). Articles that are worn close to the skin, such as underwear, fall into product class II and things like jackets come under product class III.

Fair Wear Foundation

Works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. Although cotton farmers are not included in the monitoring, as the organisation says, “There aren’t yet any 100% fair supply chains in this industry. So, we’re not perfect, but we’re an excellent alternative.” Brands include Acne Studios, Nudie Jeans, and Sandqvist.


Although it’s only awarded to a small number of brands at the moment (and they tend to be of the Gucci variety), the Eco-Age Brandmark is one to watch. Founded by Livia Firth, Eco-Age is a sustainability consultancy that has initiatives such as the Green Carpet Challenge which encourages celebrities to dress sustainably, and #30wears, which challenges consumers to wear an item at least 30 times before getting rid.

Use an app

Still not sure what makes a brand virtuous or not? Then outsource all your research to technology. The Good On You app takes into account more than 50 certifications schemes, and then ranks brands from 1 (We Avoid) to 5 (Great). The key is transparency, and this applies to ethical brands too. As a consumer, you should vote with your wallet; by showing brands that you care about what’s going on behind the scenes, you incentivise them to publish details of their labour conditions and environmental policies.

Get to know your go-to brands

Of course, once you’ve gone through all of the above stages, you’ll have a good idea of which brands suit your style and your ethics. Then let your stylist know that these are your preferred labels and why, so they can recommend appropriate products for you.

If, right now, you just want a good starting point for ethically-made items, check out Veja, Ecoalf, Tretorn, Knowledge Cotton, Colorful Standard, and Oliver Spencer.

Words: Theresa Harold
Illustration: Ryan Gillett