Ethical Shopping on the High Street?

An article in the Times last week detailed a survey of the buying habits of ‘the country’s “green” consumers’. In this survey Primark had been voted Britain’s least ethical clothing retailer. This is obviously a backlash against the recent Panorama investigation which exposed the use of child labour. As many of you know this resulted in many people losing their income as Primark took its business elsewhere (although we do not know how ‘ethical’ the new supplier is). Many have argued that a more responsible action would have been to work with the supplier to correct the problem.

At the top of the table is Marks & Spencer who have apparently had lots of good publicity about their ethical policies (publicity and policies which have passed me by). These include a clothes recycling initiative with Oxfam where a £5 M&S voucher is given to those who donate clothing to the charity with at least one M&S garment.

According to the same survey the most important concern of these shoppers with regard to clothing was the fair treatment of workers in developing countries. I was surprised by this as it appears to be several times more important than sourcing products in the UK or investing in the communities in which the store is located. We are apparently ethical, but we also want things to be cheap. Besides, who cares about local jobs and communities these days, or the carbon footprint of the things we buy (maybe it should be printed on the label like nutritional information on food). Maybe, in such difficult times we should champion the Buy British campaign again.

Still, surely all this ethical shopping and concern for the low paid of the developing countries must be good news. Indeed it should be, but the financial results released last week would appear to paint a different picture of Britain’s consumer habits.

In an interesting coincidence the results for M&S and Primark came out on the same day. Sales at M&S in these depressed times are not good, Twiggy may be for the chop! However, business at ‘unethical’ Primark is positively booming. M&S has reported a 34% fall in profits, whereas Primark had a whacking rise in profits of 17%. Where does this leave us? Sadly, with the stark realisation that we ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ consumers are in the minority. Were we ever likely to shop at Primark? I tend to find that those who do are usually more interested in getting as much as they can for as cheap as they can and usually don’t read the label. At a time when it thought that people may be buying less, I am afraid they are buying the same amount, only cheaper.

As I stated earlier, M&S’s ethical stance had passed me by (apart from being able to buy a limited range of fair trade clothing). So, where do you go for ethical clothing, and, just as importantly, who do you avoid. This information is not easy to come by. I have tried searching the internet, but I do not want to buy organic soap and other so-called ethical gifts. The reports that I could find are several years old and things may have changed. Even campaign groups such as Labour Behind the Label do not have easy to find information on their website.

There are companies out there, some of them only small at the moment (e.g. Bamboo Clothing) and usually not with outlets on the high street. You do have to search for them, but surely, it is worth the effort?

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