The ethical consumer: a four-step guide

by 15th Dec 2016
A garment worker in Cambodia A garment worker in Cambodia

Since starting an internship at CARE International UK in the Policy and Advocacy team, I’ve had the chance to support research on women’s economic empowerment programmes, with a specific focus on the ready-made garment sector in South East Asia. CARE’s broader role in training value chain workers in partnership with companies like Mondelez, establishing savings groups with women, and committing to a Dignified Work agenda, is crucial to tackling widespread injustice in global value chains across all industries. Researching ready-made garment value chains specifically has led me to re-evaluate some of my own shopping habits, and shown me that change has to come from consumers.

Before our Christmas sweaters are donned, they’ve seen quite a lot of the world. They have travelled from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan or Cambodia, before eventually making their way on to a high street rack. Few of us can resist the lure of a reasonably priced pair of jeans, and even fewer have the time or money to sustainably source all of our clothes. From large-scale disasters such as the deadly Rana Plaza collapse, to consistent failures in ensuring basic factory safety for workers, small adjustments to our shopping habits can go a long way. Here’s how you can reduce your individual impact, and even influence others:

1. Know your clothes

Knowing where your clothes come from is an important first step. You can read your labels and spot the countries your newest purchase has come from, then read around labour laws and working conditions there. You can also have a look at the brands you are purchasing from, because some have been far more successful than others at tackling human rights violations in their supply chains. The Ethical Consumer Guide ranks high street brands on their sustainability and social responsibility, allowing you to choose socially responsible brands over those that have consistently failed to follow best practice.

Familiarising yourself with ethical clothing labels is also a useful tool, and can encourage repeated purchases from responsible brands like these.

2. Think twice

The average modern consumer can attest to the amount of clothes that lie unworn in their cupboards for months - 85% of Britons said they have spent money on things they’ve never, or rarely, used. Shopping has never been easier or cheaper, with clothing websites running sales year round to tempt their customers into impulse buys. Thinking twice about purchases will significantly reduce your climate impact, not to mention benefitting your bank balance.

3. Buy and sell second hand or vintage

Not only is buying second hand or vintage clothes fashionable, and again reducing your climate impact, it has also become a cultural statement in response to the failures of fast fashion. Fast fashion can impose serious burdens and risks on the mainly female factory workers who produce it. On the other hand, vintage clothes are often cheaper and likely to be made of better quality fabric, meaning they are more durable than the low-quality materials used to produce fast fashion. Selling on unused or forgotten buys is just as important. A pair of too small shoes, bought in a panicked sale-induced flurry, could prove the perfect fit for someone else, and it’s never been easier to sell on your second hand possessions than it is today. Have a look at the Telegraph’s handy list of the best fashion resale sites out there. 

4. Get active

Draw inspiration from global communities that challenge the inescapability of abusive value chains and the lure of fast fashion. In the US, over 40 cities and 118 school districts have adopted sweat-free procurement policies. Individual action in tackling value chain abuses is not only less impactful, but harder. Community action can be as simple as encouraging neighbours and friends to buy from more ethical high street brands, or even just passing on some of the information you have gained from exploring the world of ethical consumerism.

While it is difficult to be a 100% guilt-free consumer, making small adjustments to purchasing habits (and telling your friends about it) can make a significant difference. It is somewhat ironic that women suffer most on account of value chain rights abuses, while also being the largest consumer market of the very same garments. It has become increasingly apparent that high street brands will do little to improve their value chains unless customers alter their purchasing habits. Primark’s sales rose 20% in the three months following Rana Plaza despite initial backlash, showing that indignation will only take us so far. Brands will lack incentive to change their global value chain culture if sales not only remain stable, but actively rise. Adopting certain purchasing habits, and buying from brands that have been consistently improving their factory conditions, will encourage others to follow suit.

Read more about CARE’s work empowering women in global value chains:

Maja Bayyoud

Maja was formerly an intern with the CARE International UK policy and advocacy team. Maja is completing an MSc in Conflict Studies at the LSE, and has previously studied International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. She has worked as a Refugees Welcome coordinator at Citizens UK, supporting refugee resettlement in Tower Hamlets. Maja is passionate about women's economic empowerment, as well as the study of civil war and the impact of domestic conflict on women.