Ethical Shopping

13 October 2007

Not so long ago, a good day’s shopping was represented by unbridled abuse of our student loan and armfuls of carrier bags. But today, shopping for the sheer pleasure of it is no longer enough. Shoppers are wising up to the green debate and increasingly we want more than something new and pretty to take home – we want to know we made the world a better place by buying it and that the bag we’re carrying didn’t damage the environment.

Consumers have become the new eco-warriors and although they may not be taking to the streets in protest, they are putting their money where their mouth is, thus making successful companies sit up and take notice.

The big names on Britain’s highstreets seem to be spending millions of pounds on “going green” but is it just a ploy to seduce customers or are they really trying to save the planet?

Marks and Spencer is just one of the highstreet chains that are trying to incorporate an ethical and environmental awareness into its business plan. They are reported to have spent £200 million in an attempt to become a ‘greener’ company and Stuart Rose, the chief executive of M & S, is convinced that stores such as his must tackle environmental issues immediately. However, it is easy to question the motives of these highstreet stores as they are not fundamentally based on ethics or the environment but are instead driven by profit. In which case, perhaps they have all identified the need for ‘green’ as a huge marketing opportunity and see it as nothing else. After all, how far are businesses prepared to go in following the green agenda if it has a detrimental effect on their sales?

Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, insists that there is no conflict of interests between ‘green’ retailing and making money (the company recently committed itself to labelling every one of its 70, 000 products with details of its carbon footprint and cutting emissions by 75% over the next few years). However, the clothing industry is also one of the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage. According to the UN, enough cotton for one pair of jeans requires 10,850 litres of water and an unhealthy dose of some of the world’s most hazardous pesticides and carcinogenic chemicals. Growing cotton accounts for 24 per cent of global insecticide use and is believed to account for one million cases of poisoning and as many as 20,000 deaths a year. And for what? In Britain alone, 500,000 tons of unwanted clothing ends up in landfill sites each year and charity shops are bursting at the seams with discarded bargains.

After all, that £8 dress doesn’t look quite so pretty once we start to wonder whether the cotton was picked by a child in Uzbekistan then stitched together by someone working enforced overtime for less than a living wage in a sweatshop Asia. Unsurprisingly, as awareness increases, so does the demand for organic and fair trade fashion. And where once ethical clothing was deeply unfashionable in terms of cut, fabric and style, some brands have now become respectable enough that people are willing to pay more for a garment that appeals to both their style and moral conscience.

Designer Katharine Hamnett has always been dedicated to making sharp, sophisticated clothing that doesn’t wreck the environment or exploit farmers and factory workers in the process. When running her multi-million designer label back in the Eighties, Hamnett saw the need for fair trade and wanted to go organic but had found it impossible to buy the quantity and quality she needed. But by taking responsibility for every link in the supply chain Hamnett was able to guarantee that her spring/ summer collection for 2007 (featuring t-shirts with slogans such as “Make Trade Fair”) was 100 per cent organic and approved by the Fairtrade Foundation.

Always adept at copying the designers, the high street has been quick to recognise the ‘green’ trend, with Oasis stocking a new range of 100 per cent organic denim and jersey at 12 of its flagship stores. Topshop is giving pioneering ethical fashion labels People Tree and Made trial concessions and Marks & Spencer has introduced Fairtrade-certified cotton T-shirts and socks.

However, there is a lot more that these high street companies need to do to convince discerning consumers that their commitment to workers’ rights is real and that initiatives such as using Fairtrade cotton are not just a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of exploitation in their supply chains. Green might be the colour of the season but in order to have any real impact shoppers and businesses alike need to ensure that this trend is here to stay.

ot so long ago, a good day’s shopping was represented by unbridled abuse of our student loan and armfuls of carrier bags. But today, shopping for the sheer pleasure of it is no longer enough. Shoppers are wising up to the green debate and increasingly we want more than something new and pretty to take home – we want to know we made the world a better place by buying it and that the bag we’re carrying didn’t damage the environment.

Consumers have become the new eco-warriors and although they may not be taking to the streets in protest, they are putting their money where their mouth is, thus making successful companies sit up and take notice.

The big names on Britain’s highstreets seem to be spending millions of pounds on “going green” but is it just a ploy to seduce customers or are they really trying to save the planet?

Marks and Spencer is just one of the highstreet chains that are trying to incorporate an ethical and environmental awareness into its business plan. They are reported to have spent £200 million in an attempt to become a ‘greener’ company and Stuart Rose, the chief executive of M & S, is convinced that stores such as his must tackle environmental issues immediately. However, it is easy to question the motives of these highstreet stores as they are not fundamentally based on ethics or the environment but are instead driven by profit. In which case, perhaps they have all identified the need for ‘green’ as a huge marketing opportunity and see it as nothing else. After all, how far are businesses prepared to go in following the green agenda if it has a detrimental effect on their sales?

Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, insists that there is no conflict of interests between ‘green’ retailing and making money (the company recently committed itself to labelling every one of its 70, 000 products with details of its carbon footprint and cutting emissions by 75% over the next few years). However, the clothing industry is also one of the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage. According to the UN, enough cotton for one pair of jeans requires 10,850 litres of water and an unhealthy dose of some of the world’s most hazardous pesticides and carcinogenic chemicals. Growing cotton accounts for 24 per cent of global insecticide use and is believed to account for one million cases of poisoning and as many as 20,000 deaths a year. And for what? In Britain alone, 500,000 tons of unwanted clothing ends up in landfill sites each year and charity shops are bursting at the seams with discarded bargains.

After all, that £8 dress doesn’t look quite so pretty once we start to wonder whether the cotton was picked by a child in Uzbekistan then stitched together by someone working enforced overtime for less than a living wage in a sweatshop Asia. Unsurprisingly, as awareness increases, so does the demand for organic and fair trade fashion. And where once ethical clothing was deeply unfashionable in terms of cut, fabric and style, some brands have now become respectable enough that people are willing to pay more for a garment that appeals to both their style and moral conscience.

Designer Katharine Hamnett has always been dedicated to making sharp, sophisticated clothing that doesn’t wreck the environment or exploit farmers and factory workers in the process. When running her multi-million designer label back in the Eighties, Hamnett saw the need for fair trade and wanted to go organic but had found it impossible to buy the quantity and quality she needed. But by taking responsibility for every link in the supply chain Hamnett was able to guarantee that her spring/ summer collection for 2007 (featuring t-shirts with slogans such as “Make Trade Fair”) was 100 per cent organic and approved by the Fairtrade Foundation.

Always adept at copying the designers, the high street has been quick to recognise the ‘green’ trend, with Oasis stocking a new range of 100 per cent organic denim and jersey at 12 of its flagship stores. Topshop is giving pioneering ethical fashion labels People Tree and Made trial concessions and Marks & Spencer has introduced Fairtrade-certified cotton T-shirts and socks.

However, there is a lot more that these high street companies need to do to convince discerning consumers that their commitment to workers’ rights is real and that initiatives such as using Fairtrade cotton are not just a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of exploitation in their supply chains. Green might be the colour of the season but in order to have any real impact shoppers and businesses alike need to ensure that this trend is here to stay.