Ethical clothing

This page last updated May 1st, 2016

This page in brief

We in the rich west can buy some very cheap clothing because workers in poorer countries endure unsafe and unfair working conditions. In some cases child labour is used. In some cases, the workers are slaves.

Clothing manufacturers are starting to move away from unethical sources for their garments, but there’s still more to be done.

Some facts about the global garment industry


Almost three quarters of world clothing exports are made in developing countries. China makes about half the world’s clothing, India about a sixth, with most of the rest made in either Asia or central America. Thus the clothing industry provide a significant amount of income to low and middle income countries and employs millions of workers, but also has the potential for exploitation.

The countries causing most concern seem to be Bangladesh (many deaths a few years ago), China, India (child labour), Thailand, Pakistan and Egypt (also child labour, Uzbekistan (child slave labour in the cotton industry) and Honduras.


Only a small fraction (estimated 0.5-4%) of the final retail price reaches garment workers. Clothing is big business (approaching $2 trillion per year – I have seen a range of figures, but this seems to be about right) and competition has driven wages down. For example, in Bangladesh where 80% of the economy depends on the garment industry, wages in 2006 were 40% of what they were a decade before, while the price of essential food items doubled in the same period (Ethical Fashion Forum).

In many cases, wages can no longer sustain a living.

Working conditions

Labour organisations report demeaning and oppressive working conditions:

  • long hours (up to 16 hours a day),
  • use of young, often powerless child labour (it is estimated that 170 million children, 11% of the world’s total, are child labourers), and sometimes slave labour,
  • temporary work with poor job security – companies often move factories to other countries at short notice,
  • poor and unhealthy facilities, and
  • sometimes unsafe buildings.

However there are signs of improvements in recent years. Baptist World Aid reports that an increasing number of companies are investigating their supply chains and taking steps to reduce exploitation of poor workers.

Companies and their practices

At present, it seems that most major companies source materials from, or manufacture garments in, countries with poor labour conditions. I can only mention a few examples:

  • Oxfam says shoe companies Nike, Adidas, Puma, Asics, FILA, Mizuno, New Balance and Umbro generally employ young women who have to endure low wages and long hours in dangerous and hostile conditions.
  • UK retailers Tesco and Sainsbury’s score very low on the Ethical Consumer shopping guide, and other well-known names Marks and Spencer, Zara, Gap and Benetton score less than 50%. Only two retailers score above 50%, but there are many more clothing manufacturers who score well.
  • In Australia, about half of the 308 fashion brands and 87 companies listed in the Ethical Fashion Guide score satisfactorily, and many of the larger retailers and brands have improved to about average or better since the 2013 Guide. The top scores are shared between smaller brands like Etiko and Audrey Blue, and some major brands such as Zara, Reebok and Adidas. The lowest scoring brands likewise include a number of small brands, but also major brands such as Julius Marlowe, Roger David, Hush Puppies, Grosby and General Pants.


Things seem to be beginning to change, perhaps because of increasing consumer awareness. There are several possible avenues of change.


Some companies are moving their operations out of Bangladesh, because of the bad publicity and ethical dilemmas arising from recent disasters. Individual consumers are sometimes urged to boycott companies that victimise their workers.

Boycotts, and threats of boycotts, have their place – for instance in supporting other more positive action (see below) – but can lead to greater poverty for those who lose their jobs as a result. So we need better options.

Certification & accreditation

There are Fair Trade and other certification schemes for chocolate, tea and coffee, so why not for clothing? Clothing manufacture involves growing, producing fabric and making clothing, and certifying through all these stages is complex, so there are few effective schemes yet:

  • Fair Trade USA has conducted a trial program for ethical clothing, and a few brands have apparently now been accredited.
  • This review found 35 FairTrade or ethical clothing brands in the US.
  • Fair Wear Foundation is a European non-profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. Verification of compliance with standards is part of its program.
  • There are several FairTrade clothing brands in Australia, including Etiko, Change Threads, FairTees and Life Threads.
  • Some other accreditation programs, such as Ethical Clothing Australia focus mainly on justice for workers in Australia, with a lesser interest in fairness for farmers or suppliers from overseas.

Voluntary schemes

There are a number of schemes where garment manufacturers voluntarily agree (and sign off) to work towards fairer pay and conditions for workers. These include:

  • The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is an alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations [which] work in partnership to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable workers across the globe who make or grow consumer goods – everything from tea to T-shirts, from flowers to footballs.
  • Made By is another European non-profit that seeks to make sustainable fashion common practice and improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry.
  • The international Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is an agreement among labour organisations, retailers and community organisations to establish some minimum safety standards in the textile industry in Bangladesh, and so prevent repeats of the tragic fires and building collapses.
  • The Ethical Fashion Forum is a non-profit which supports “poverty reduction, education and the environment, in relation to the fashion industry.”

Ethical shopping

Guides to making more ethical clothing purchases are available in various countries:

Make a difference

Oxfam suggests writing to some well known footwear companies, pressing for fairer working conditions for third world workers. Those interested could write to any of the companies shown in an unfavourable light by the ethical shopping guides referenced above.

We can back this up by preferring brands with higher ethical ratings in the guides. This may require commitment to find the “right” products – in the UK, the Ethical Consumer guide shows most major stores generally sell less ethically-sourced products, while the more ethical options are (presumably) found in more obscure stores.

Picture: MorgueFile.

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