How To Shop On The High Street

I am often asked “where can I shop ethically on the high street?” Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. Of course, there are some retailers that are doing things better than others; who are making greater efforts to embed social and ethical responsibility into their supply chain, but no one brand is perfect. So where can you shop responsibly on the high street? In fact, it’s not just about where, but how, “how can I shop ethically on the high street?”

When I feel that I need to buy something, I consider whether I can buy it second-hand or from an independent ethical retailer. To me, charity shops are treasure troves and I take great delight in exploring them. However, I understand they are not for everyone and sometimes availability may be lacking or price may be prohibitive. In that case I will look at organic, fair trade or recycled ranges on the high street, or consider brands that are clearly making efforts to improve their practices.

Alison Gather Waist Dress in Yellow, made with 100% organic cotton by Fair Trade certified ethical fashion brand People Tree. Price varies according to stockist

There are certain shops I no longer go to, not because I am boycotting them per se, but when I have seen reports about unacceptable working conditions in the factories they use, I cannot reconcile myself to buying clothes that might have been produced by sweated labour. In addition, I feel that they produce poor quality garments that feel as though they are made to be disposable. I will, for example, go to John Lewis and Marks and Spencer for organic or Fairtrade garments because I believe they make clothes of good quality which last.

Here are my tips for how to shop on the high street, in four handy phases:

1) Plan of attack

  • Write a list of what you need: by doing this you don’t leave yourself so open to those impulse buys and things that you don’t really need. Most of us love shopping sprees but if you feel one coming on, rather than succumbing to a cheap sale on the high street, go to some great charity shops or vintage boutiques or find your local ethical boutique. If you don’t have one near you then research those online.
  • Think again: do you really need to go high street? For example, if you are looking for something for special occasion such as a wedding (when buying from the high street means you run the risk of turning up in the same frock as someone else), think about alternatives. Can you customise an existing outfit? Have you considered borrowing or hiring a dress, or even buying vintage and if necessary having it altered?
  • Do your research: have a look on a retailer’s website to learn about their ethical policies and contact them if you want more information. Don’t be taken in by green wash – just because a retailer has replaced their plastic bags with brown paper versions emblazoned with ‘ethical’ claims, doesn’t mean their supply chain is what it should be.
  • Care for the clothes you already own: it’s all part of wardrobe planning - if you do this, you won’t need to buy new clothes so often.
  • Understand what suits you: as a stylist I know many people panic shop when they have a wardrobe full of clothes but feel they have nothing to wear. By understanding your shape and creating a capsule wardrobe based on what you know works for you, then you will always have something to wear, and you won’t make so many mistake purchases – a waste of time, money and resources.
  • Tip: if a brand has very little, if any, information on its website about its ethical policies, or is cagey or unresponsive when you contact them, I tend to take that as a sign that they are not taking the issue seriously.
  • There is a plethora of sustainable certifications and labels which can get confusing but the following are useful resources as they identify which brands and retailers are taking positive steps to improve their processes:

> Ethical Consumer has a series of 'Buyers Guides' for everything from high street shops and lingerie, to school uniforms and alternative (independent) fashion brands. The guides includes in-depth assessments of retailers according to many ethical criteria.
> Measure Up uses ten simple indicators to assess ethical performance, including whether a company has an ethical code, has their factories regularly audited and pays a living wage to workers. This enables shoppers to see how their favourite high street fashion brands 'measure up'.
> Made-By supports its partner brands with a range of tools and strategies to help them to develop a more sustainable supply chain and identify ways to be more transparent. The website features details and scorecards for each brand.
> Fairwear Foundation works with brands and factories, as opposed to retailers, to improve labour conditions: they list all of their member brands and detail their performance.

Cotton/Linen sleeveless blouse £59, Cotton/Linen trousers £69, 'Joyce' Fairtrade organic cotton basketball boots £95, Patterned microfibre tights £18, all by Gudrun Sjödén

2) Shop consciously

  • Think about clothing care while you are shopping: don’t just be dazzled by the design, check the garment’s care label - if you don’t want to dry clean, don’t buy ‘dry clean only’ garments. Hate hand-washing? Then avoid items with labels that insist upon it.
  • Learn to identify good quality fabric, well-stitched seams, secure hems – essentially, look for garments that are well-made and will last.
  • Read labels to find out garment credentials: as well as Fairtrade and certified organic, watch out for EarthPositive® Apparel, a carbon neutral label from Continental Clothing, plus it’s worth identifying fabrics that have a reduced environmental impact such as Tencel®, hemp and those made of recycled yarn.
  • Ask questions: if you can’t find the Fairtrade, organic or recycled collections in-store, then ask. Sometimes staff will offer you alternatives but make a point of telling them why you want to buy from their more ethical range. If they don’t have what you are looking for, tell them you are disappointed – if enough customers request they ‘green up’ their supply chain then things will change.
  • Make a beeline for department stores who stock independent labels. In the UK, John Lewis for example stocks People Tree (title image) and Seasalt (below).
  • As well as keeping an eye out for ethical boutiques on your high street, keep in mind there are other retailers who have built their business on conscious consumption. US brand Eileen Fisher and Swedish designer Gudrun Sjödén (above) have stores worldwide, and both display a strong commitment to socially and environmentally sound supply chains.
  • Think about a garment’s lifecycle before buying: for example, can it be re-used or upcycled after you’ve finished with it? Will it biodegrade or need to be recycled?
  • How much will you wear it? If it’s ‘on trend’ will you only wear it for one season or can you customise it by changing buttons and trimmings to give it a longer life in your wardrobe?
  • By purchasing an item, you are accepting responsibility for it and should therefore ensure you can use and dispose of it responsibly. We all love a bargain, but will buying something cheap deter you from wanting to either repair it yourself or pay someone else to do it? If so, think again about whether it’s right for you. Investing in a really good quality garment can work out to be more cost-effective in the long run as you are likely to take better care of it to ensure it lasts longer.
  • Of course, if you are buying online, some of these steps will be less straight-forward – you won’t be able to see the seams or feel the fabric. But when your delivery arrives in the post, check these things straight away and if they are not up to scratch then send it straight back (and pop a note in to tell the retailer why their garment isn’t good enough).

Phoebe Dress, skirt 100% cotton and top 100% organic cotton, £55 by Seasalt. Made in Sri Lanka, in line with their Ethical Trading Policy

3) Wear it well

  • During the use phase, keep your clothes looking good for longer by washing responsibly, treating stains immediately and regularly do up-keep (mend buttons, fix hems etc, if you can’t sew, either find a good tailor or better still do an evening class or find a friend to teach you). Store garments neatly and carefully, and don’t over wear. Leather shoes for example will benefit from having a day of rest in between wears.
  • Review and edit your wardrobe regularly to make sure you are getting the best out of your clothes and they don’t go to waste (if you aren’t confident about doing this yourself you can find a friend or hire someone to help you).
  • After your shopping trip, contact the brand’s CEO: send them copies of your receipts from your recent purchase and explain that as a valued customer you would like to know more about what they are doing to improve their supply chains and / or tell them you are happy to have found a Fairtrade cotton vest in-store but that you would like to know what plans they have to extend their ethical fashion range. Not-for-profit workers rights campaign organisation Labour Behind the Label offers some useful templates for letter writing.
  • Support Fashion Revolution by taking a photo of your new purchase and share on social media asking the brand ‘who made my clothes?’

Gudrun Sjödén's Covent Garden store. The brand has a commitment to ethical production

4) It’s time to say goodbye

  • If you think a garment has come to the end of its useful life with you, consider first whether you can re-style, repair or adapt? If you love the fabric but it no longer fits, can you get someone to re-work or alter for you?
  • Fallen out of love? Then pass it on to a friend, take it to a clothes swap or charity shop, sell it online, at a carboot sale or dress agency.
  • If it really has seen better days and cannot be saved then find out the most appropriate place to dispose of the garment. Local council websites will have details of textile recycling facilities in your area.

I would also suggest that you talk to your friends and family – you may be surprised how many people hadn’t even thought about where their clothes come from. Please feel free to join The Good Wardrobe community; ask questions on the forum or share your skills and advice. If you can’t find the organic cotton shirt you are looking for, chances are, someone might be able to point you in the right direction.


Further resources and useful reading:

Title image: People Tree

About the author
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Founder and Director of The Good Wardrobe. Lover of charity shops and mending stuff.  New to Bristol. Follow on twitter

Replied to How to shop on High Street

These tips are so great! We really need to finding many creative ways to change our attitudes and build a sustainable fashion environment. Buy What You Love; Use What You Buy.

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