With so many UK high street retailers and online fashion brands bringing our conscious, committed, and responsible collections, it feels like a good time to post a guide to shopping for ethical fashion in these stores.
You already know I’m a big ethical fashion shopper, having changed my ways a good few years ago. I tend to buy online, from independent brands, and showcase them here on the blog.
That being said, there’s so much hubbub around all these new mainstream collections that I feel like I’m missing out. Time to find out…
How To Shop More Ethically
Before we begin, I wanted to add in a note about ethical fashion, and how it takes a little more than changing what you buy. It’s about how you buy, too.
Here’s a few ways you can shop more ethically, no matter where you buy your clothes:
- Reduce how many new clothes you buy generally
- Buy second-hand clothes from charity shops, thrift shops, auction sites, or resales apps
- Swap clothes with friends, family, or at clothes swaps
- Avoid products with pre-made rips and tears, or anything clearly poorly made or damaged
- Look for garments made from sustainable materials, recycled fabrics, or organic cotton
- Learn how to fix or mend your clothes, or pay for someone else to fix, mend, and alter them for you
- Wear your clothes more than the average of eight times (which is like hardly any times at all!)
Where to Find Ethical Fashion on the UK Highstreet
Now, for the retailers, their collections, and my thoughts… When putting together this guide, I decided to do my own sleuthing (i.e. visiting stores and websites) as well as consulting the ratings on ethical fashion shopping app, Good On You.
The beauty of Good On You is that they’ve done a lot of the digging already – they look at the policies, processes, and reports from each fashion retailer, and rate their efforts on a five-point scale, across Planet, People, and Animals. I’ll be listing my own ratings alongside theirs for each brand below.
First up, ASOS…
ASOS: Responsible Edit
@curiouslyconscious Could @asos ever be a sustainable fashion brand? I'll give you a clue: no. #asos #fastfashion #sustainablefashion #fyp ♬ original sound – Besma | Curiously Conscious
ASOS unveiled their Responsible Edit in May 2019. It was announced as if it was a brand new addition to the site, but in all honesty it’s their Eco Edit with a new name and a drop-down button.
On first glance, I’m a little taken aback – they list over 2,000 styles in the Responsible Edit. 2,398, to be precise. How are there so many?
A quick scroll, and I suss it out – ASOS has dumped all of their own-brand collections into their Responsible Edit, as they’re part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Put simply, ASOS sources cotton that is generally made in a more ethical way, but in my opinion that doesn’t make their pieces responsible. I don’t know anything about their labour practices for garment workers, or items made from anything other than cotton. Is this how lazy greenwashing is these days?
And while their shoppable range is surprisingly large, their Responsible filter is surprisingly lacking. Only two different ways to shop:
- Recycled (335)
- Sustainable Materials (2063)
So yes, that means out of that mammoth figure, only 335 are made from recycled materials (although not wholly) and 2063 leave you to guess what it is that make all those items sustainable. From a click through the top eight, I found:
- 90% Cotton, 10% Linen (+ Note on BCI)
- 100% Cotton (No note on BCI)
- 100% Cotton (+ Note on BCI)
- 100% Viscose (+ Note on EcoVero Viscose)
- 100% Cotton (No note on BCI)
- 90% Cotton, 10% Linen (No note on BCI)
- 100% Viscose (+ No note on EcoVero Viscose)
- 100% Cotton (No note on BCI)
…Which is confusing at best. It’s like ASOS want to look like they’re educating customers, but at the same time, they can’t be bothered.
If you are going to shop on ASOS, I’d recommend shopping from other third-party ethical brands like: G-Star, The North Face*, Patagonia, People Tree*, and Stella McCartney*. Oddly, many of these didn’t make it into the edit at all!
And if you’re wondering about ASOS’ range more generally – here’s why ASOS is fast fashion and always will be.
UPDATE 03/05/2022: ASOS no longer has a Responsible Edit, Eco Edit, or whatever you want to call it. Yay! No more greenwashing.
MY RATING: 4/10
GOOD ON YOU RATINGS: 2/5 for Planet, 3/5 for People, 3/5 for Animals
LIKE ASOS? TRY: Organic Basics* for basics, People Tree* for similar styles and pricing, and Brothers We Stand for menswear.
Boohoo: For The Future
@curiouslyconscious How does @boohoo's sustainable policy come out in the wash? #boohoo #fastfashion #greenwashing #sustainablefashion #fyp ♬ original sound – Besma | Curiously Conscious
If you want to “#doyourthing and do your bit for the environment”, apparently Boohoo’s For The Future range is what you should wear. Brought out just a day after the Fixing Fashion Report was rejected, Boohoo is nothing if not bold!
Their 72 recycled polyester-and-elastane-blend dresses and tops were already 20% off on launch day, and amazingly two weeks later everything is 50% off. It begs the question: How cheaply did you make these clothes?!
The collection is also included in their Sustainability Guide. Yes, Boohoo, one of the most criticised brands in the Fixing Fashion report, wants to teach us sustainability. My favourite tip: “Wash at a low temperature; this helps to reduce micro plastic fibre release and also helps to reduce CO2 emissions.”
Better yet, why not avoid buying their micro plastic fibre garments?
One thing I will say about Boohoo’s range is that it blends in well with the rest of their collection. There’s no sacrifice in terms of style, which can’t be said for many of the other ranges out there. Still… just buy something else, please. Boohoo = fast fashion.
MY RATING: 0/10
GOOD ON YOU RATINGS: 0/5 for Planet, 2/5 for People, 3/5 for Animals
LIKE BOOHOO? TRY: Reliked* for second-hand fast fashion (+ get 10% off with the code CURIOUSLY)
BonPrix: Sustainable Collection
Yes, even the “Cheap Fashion for Women, Men & Kids” retailer BonPrix has its own sustainable fashion line. Launched in April 2019, BonPrix announced the arrival of their Sustainable Collection as their ongoing commitment to corporate responsibility (which is a bit outdated, let’s be honest).
Comprised of 20 styles, the collection is made from materials such as recycled polyester, organic cotton, TENCEL, lyocell and recycled cotton. A random click through of five different items, and colour me impressed – lots of 100% organic cotton tops, 50% linen and 50% Tencel dresses, although the low, low prices make their labour practices questionable.
Plus, Shel from West Yorkshire said her £8 organic cotton top smelt funny, and was poor quality, and I have my suspicions she might be right.
Good try, but we need better quality clothing, and it’s not coming at that price unfortunately.
H&M: Conscious Collection
Interestingly, H&M’s Conscious Collection is often the first place many conscious shoppers start their journey into ethical fashion. I know it was one of the first ranges I noticed when I started switching to ethical fashion back in 2014.
Five years later, and it seems the range hasn’t really changed. It’s full of basic cuts in boring colours, made from organic cotton with no other real credentials.
H&M has been cleaning up its act, most likely as a reaction to pressure from Fashion Revolution, and the Fixing Fashion Report investigation, but there’s still so much they need to do. Net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is too late. Showing which third-party factory products are made in is not transparency. And if H&M’s Conscious Collection is anything like ARKET, steer clear.
Now, I’m going to be honest – I last looked at Mango’s Committed Collection in A/W 2018. The picture here is the collection I saw, and I’ll be honest, I was a little let down. Everything was… frumpy.
Looking at their most recent collection, and it seems like they’re still going with this boho-boring vibe. I don’t want a pom-pom kaftan or a tie-dye swimsuit…
Ignoring the designs, and looking instead to the materials, and there’s a good choice of items made from linen, organic cotton, or recycled polyester (even if it’s blended with polyamide, which isn’t so eco).
One thing that does concern me is their phrase “thoughtfully crafted”, which sounds like they’re striving for good labour practices, yet Good On You says “There is no evidence that it has any worker empowerment initiatives. It sources its final stage of production from countries with extreme risk of labour abuse.”
EDIT 09/2019: Mango has since removed its Committed collection altogether. Mango continues to be a fast fashion brand through and through.
MY RATING: 3/10
GOOD ON YOU RATINGS: 2/5 for Planet, 2/5 for People, 3/5 for Animals
LIKE MANGO? TRY: NinetyPercent* for similar styles
Net-A-Porter: Net Sustain
In May 2019, Net-A-Porter (N-A-P) caused a stir with the launch of their Net Sustain minisite. The platform sits slightly away from their main site, but provides the same experience, which is great for ethically-focused consumers, but doesn’t invite the uninitiated into the conversation.
N-A-P scores points for putting ethical and sustainable fashion brands at the front of their collection, including Catbird Jewellery, Mara Hoffman, Ninety Percent, and Stella McCartney. However, the Net Sustain collection also includes sustainable ranges from not-so sustainable brands, so it is a bit of a mix.
That being said, they do provide a range of search criteria, more than ASOS’ disappointing two. You can search for:
- Locally made
- Craft and community
- Considered materials
- Considered process
- Reducing waste
Shopping by values is becoming a big part of the ethical fashion space, so it’s interesting to see N-A-P has also included an artisanal fashion section (rarely seen) and of course, given them their own, exquisite lexicon for a luxury shopping experience. Strangely though, you can’t shop by product type, which needs to be fixed.
MY RATING: 7/10
GOOD ON YOU RATINGS: None available
LIKE NET-A-PORTER? TRY: Content* for high-end sustainable designers, MATCHESFASHION Responsible Edit* for similar styles, and Farfetch* for pre-owned luxury fashion.
Zara: Join Life
And finally, we come on to Zara. If I’m honest, I miss shopping in Zara. I used to love spending my lunch-break browsing the minimal styles (and weirdly messy shelves in every store), so I was excited to see that Zara has brought out their own answer to sustainability, called Join Life.
Join Life certainly looks like Zara, which is always a positive – I hate ethical collections that are still seemingly designed for hippies. Sadly, that’s kind of where the positives stop.
Like many of the other high street brands listed here, Zara relies heavily on eco synthetic fibres like lyocell and Tencel. Weirdly, they also list “ecologically grown cotton” as a sustainable fibre, stating: “Ecologically grown cotton is grown using practices that help us protect biodiversity, such as crop rotation and the use of natural fertilisers.” That’s not actually saying anything at all… and just shows how bad their regular cotton is, implying it’s a mono-crop using manmade fertilisers.
This same vagueness is also applied in to the material their Join Life shoes are made from: “at least 25% polyester recycled from recovered plastic bottles, and more sustainable polyurethane produced using a new technology that helps us protect the environment.” Please, tell us more.
All in all, it would make me nervous shopping this range. Sure, it’s better than the rest of Zara’s collection, but that’s not saying much: Zara is the epitome of fast fashion.
So, this guide turned out to be more of a rant, which I am sort of sorry for, but also sort of blaming on the high street brands that continue to do as little as possible in the way of sustainable and ethical fashion.
Why is ethical fashion on the high street so lacking? When asked, Sandra Capponi, Founder of Good On You, said, “All the big fast fashion brands have various schemes in place to reduce their environmental impact and protect workers… But the fast fashion model is unsustainable at its core. Mass-producing mountains of cheap, throwaway clothing will never be truly ethical.”
“Sadly, the majority of the high street brands we looked at had no information about their supply chains – they get a poor rating because we believe consumers have a right to know this information.”
We need more transparency, and a slower supply of clothes, before we can really find ethical fashion on our high streets. Until then, I hope the alternatives I’ve offered after each brand rating will help you find new, more ethical places to shop!
P.S. Want to read up on more high street brands? Check out my guide to 100+ fast fashion brands!