How to shop ethically

We all love to score a bargain once in a while. However, knowing that this makes us complicit in unfair working conditions and air pollution quickly spoils our enjoyment. Yet more sustainable and ethical fashion is possible. We offer you some tips on how to complete your wardrobe without having to feel guilty.

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Clothing on racks

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Try to resist Fast fashion

Fast fashion is the trend that has taken over the fashion scene in recent years. Large fashion chains try to seduce their customers with cheap clothing lines, adding a new item every week. Quality is of secondary importance, as long as the custumer buys as many items as possible. No big deal if you have to throw away the clothes after you have worn them just a few times. In the end, you only paid a few euros for them. A win-win situation for both producer and consumer, or at least that is the way it seems.

However, the negative consequences of this kind of fashion should not be underestimated. Firstly, cotton is one of the most environmentally harmful crops in the world. Cotton cultivation is responsible for a quarter of the world's insecticides use, more than any other crop. Two thirds of the cotton-producing countries use chemicals that are classified as dangerous by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In addition, cotton cultivation requires enormous volumes of water. For example, one pair of jeans requires 10,000 litres of water. Secondly, production must be as cheap as possible in order to maintain low retail prices. That is why it is often relocated to countries without strong trade union laws such as Bangladesh, where workers have to slave in poor working conditions for extremely low wages.

People stand in queues at the cash register

Fast Fashion: buying a lot of low quality clothes.
© Shutterstock

Slow fashion aims exactly at the opposite. Slow fashionistas refuse to buy a garment just because it is cheap. Instead, they search for sustainable clothing that lasts longer. Instead of a bulging wardrobe stuffed with bad bargains, they opt for a so-called 'capsule wardrobe' containing a limited number of garments that can easily be combined. This allows you to vary your clothes without being wasteful.

Buy second-hand

Every year, four billion kilos of unworn clothes are thrown away. After a short life span, three out of four garments end up as garbage, while only a quarter is recycled. We could easily reuse these garments so that we save water, avoid pollution from transport and do not have to use wasteful production materials such as cotton, dyes and bleaching agents again.

Second-hand shops are easy to find: in every larger city, there is an Oxfam, Kringwinkel, Spullenhulp or Think Twice shop. You can find an overview of all Kringwinkel shops in Belgium per location on this site. 

You do not even have to bring your wallet to buy second-hand clothing. The modern version of barter called ‘Swishing’ allows you to get rid of that one top that you never wear and get another for free in exchange. On the Swishing website, you will find where and when a clothing exchange event takes place. If these dates are not convenient, you can always organise a clothing swap among friends.

Be critical when buying clothes

If you decide to buy some new clothes, you should take a moment to think about your purchase. Where does the garment come from? In what working conditions was it made? And what is the impact of your purchase?

For example, it may be very tempting to buy a T-shirt for one or two euros. But if you think about all the materials and labour that went into making the garment, there is definitely something about its price that does not add up. Sara Ceustermans, spokeswoman for the NGO Clean Clothes (see box), is sceptical about the low prices that many clothing brands advertise: ‘There are so many factors that can quickly make the price of a garment go up, however simple they may be. The basic material, cotton, is not cheap to start with and on top of that, you have to take into account all kinds of costs: production costs, transport costs, the rent and furnishing of the shops and VAT. How much profit could a retail chain really earn if it produced according to the rules?’

Check the label

Suppose you are questioning the low price of a T-shirt and you do not want to buy it just like that. You first decide to check where and how the garment was produced. In that case, the first logical step is to check the label.

The place where the garment was made seems to give a good indication of how ethical the product is. Clothes labelled "Made in Taiwan" or "Made in Bangladesh", for example, are viewed with more suspicion than those labelled "Made in Italy".

However, be careful when drawing these kind of conclusions. The criteria for earning a "Made in" label are not so difficult to meet, as the Business of Fashion website discovered when examining the practices of various well-known fashion houses that use the "Made in" labels.

For example, it is sufficient that a T-shirt is packaged in Italy to be labelled "Made in Italy", even though other processes such as dyeing, finishing and quality control may have taken place elsewhere. Moreover, clothes made in developing countries are not necessarily unethical, whereas clothes that carry the "Made in Europe" label do not guarantee fair practices. This is a complex matter.

Yet you can find out a lot by looking at the label, which mentions the quality mark requirements the brand meets. If you see the following quality marks on the label, you can be sure that the garment has been produced in a more ethical way:

Fair Wear Foundation

The FWF is an association that controls all productions and guides clothing companies towards more ecological fashion. Some Belgian companies, such as JBC, Bel&Bo, Cotton Group and Mayerline, have already joined it and made it clear that they stand for sustainable entrepreneurship. Of course, this does not mean that a company participating in the Fair Wear programme automatically supplies 100 percent ethical products. Becoming a member of the FWF means that you make efforts to make progress. And that is already a step in the right direction. A complete overview of the companies participating in this initiative can be found here.

Fair Wear Foundation logo

Fairtrade International

Fairtrade is an international label for fair trade with the South. It mainly imposes a whole series of social criteria for cotton cultivation, among other things, including a ban on forced labour, trade union freedom, guaranteed minimum wage, a ban on child labour and a maximum working week of 48 hours. Producers receive a minimum price for their products that enables them to cover the costs of sustainable production.

Fairtrade is also an environmental label. For example, companies with the label make efforts to use organic cotton and to apply traditional finishing processes (mineral paints or paints on the basis of plant extracts). Genetically modified organisms or harmful pesticides cannot be used. The use of artificial fertiliser is permitted under this label.

Fairtrade logo


The ecolabel is awarded to clothing that has been produced in an environmentally friendly way. It sets limits on the use of chemical substances in clothing. The use of fibres from organic farming is promoted. The disadvantage is that the requirement for organic cotton is not made here.

EU Ecolabel logo

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

The GOTS quality mark is gradually becoming the international minimum standard. The standard was drawn up by IVN (Germany), OTA (USA), JOCA (Japan) and Soil Association (UK). There are currently about fifteen inspection bodies that monitor compliance with the standard. Garments with this label are made with environmentally friendly chemicals. The percentage of organic fibres must be at least 70 percent and is stated on the label. GOTS also sets social requirements such as a ban on child labour and safe working conditions.

Global Organic Textile Standard logo


Oeko-Tex 100 is an international environmental label for textiles. It guarantees that clothes do not contain pesticide residues or heavy metals. Note that Oeko-Tex 100 is not a social label, as it does not take into account working conditions.

OEKO-TEX 100 logo

Choose low-impact materials

The material from which a garment is made can have a huge impact on the environment. For example, the production of cotton, polyester and denim (jeans fabric from cotton) involves high energy consumption and pollution. The fashion industry is increasingly experimenting with alternative fabrics that are more environmentally friendly.

Cotton picker at work in cotton field

Coton is one of the most polluting crops.
© Shutterstock

The best-known of these is organic cotton, which offers many advantages over ordinary cotton. For example, no chemical pesticides or fertilisers are used in the cultivation process. Moreover they consciously work with crop rotation, which ensures that the soil remains fertile and protects biodiversity. So far, only 1 percent of total cotton cultivation is organic. Replacing ordinary cotton with organic cotton would make a huge difference to the environment.

There exist several other alternative materials that you may never even have thought of. For example, there is a naturally tanned variant of leather, created on the basis of natural tanning processes that use tannin and fish oil, for example. The use of fish leather is also becoming increasingly popular. Leather from the skin of perch, salmon, sea wolf, rye or cod is even said to be stronger than classic leather.

Hemp is another more durable material. The hemp plant grows very fast and does not need any fertiliser, pesticides or irrigation. Whereas one hectare of cotton produces 300 to 1100 kilos of fibres, one hectare of hemp produces 1200 to 2000 kilos. Clothes made from this material would also last longer and hemp has the great advantage of being biodegradable.

For the same reason, the bamboo plant is becoming increasingly popular in the textile industry. Just like hemp, bamboo grows quickly without chemicals or large amounts of water. The disadvantage is that bamboo is often converted into textile fibres by using chemicals that can poison soil and water. This is how the substance viscose is produced. The mechanical method of turning bamboo into a fabric is much more environmentally friendly. So make sure you check how the fabric is produced before you buy something with the bamboo label. There is now also a more sustainable variant of viscose on the market, called EcoVero.

Lyocell is a fibre made from lignocellulose or pulp. This tree grows fast and does not need any chemical products to extract fibres from it. Moreover the fabric is produced without the use of toxic substances. Lyocell is both recyclable and biodegradable. A final advantage is that you can wash the fabric at low temperatures and maintain clothes in this material in a sustainable way.

There is a constant search for new, innovative and sustainable materials. For example, the Dutch company Dutch aWEARness has developed the synthetic material Returnity (made from recycled polyester). In 2011 the German company Qmilch Deutschland GmbH made a milk fibre called Qmilk. Another innovative material is Piñatex. This material is made from pineapple leaves and can be used as an alternative to animal leather. Furthermore, CRAiLAR flax is a more sustainable method of processing flax that requires little chemicals and water, is softer than cotton and has similar characteristics as polyester.

Although these alternative materials are often much more expensive, they are certainly worth investing in. Less chemicals means better health for farmers, the soil and the environment in general. Besides, these substances often last longer and are easier to maintain, so that you consume less in the long run.

Get informed

Although you can already derive a lot of information about the sustainability of garments, it remains a complicated matter. Some aspects remain unclear if you are not an expert. Fortunately, some websites and apps have already done a large part of the research work for you:

Good On You

‘The choices we make in the stores have a major impact on the environment, the planet and the working conditions of employees. That is why we created the Good On You app making it easier for consumers to shop ethically’, as is explained on the app's website. Through the app, you can find out how much a certain company scores in terms of ethics and ecology. The user also gets to know new brands that are ethically responsible.

Fair Fashion

Fair fashion is an app that was created on the initiative of the Clean Clothes Campaign. For a year, this campaign investigated the working conditions of textile workers from more than 140 major clothing brands. The results of that large-scale research can be found on the app and can help you make the right decisions during your next shopping trip.

Rank a Brand

Rank a Brand is another website that allows you to compare different clothing brands. All brands are ranked on a scale from A to F. This website tries to encourage competition between brands in the field of sustainability and ethical responsibility.


On the Ecoplan website, you will find an overview of all stores in Flanders where you can shop ethically. It allows you to search for ethical (clothes) shops on the map and check which fashion chains are ecologically committed.

Ask questions

The customer is king. Shopkeepers want you to keep coming back. If they notice that customers find it important that the clothes they buy are not at the expense of workers or the environment, they feel the pressure to change that. So be sure to keep asking questions when you cannot clearly deduce from the label how a certain material is produced. You could, for instance, send an e-mail to the clothing brand of a garment you intend to buy and ask what the working conditions of the person who made it look like. What effect has the production of this garment had on the environment? If you keep asking questions like that, you have the power to change things.

Woman asks shoplady for jacket advice

Inform yourself before you buy.
© iStock

The search for fair fashion can be discouraging at times. Yet it is certainly worth it. Sarah Vandoorne, journalist and expert in fair clothing, emphasises: ‘Compare it to choosing a vegetarian diet. By saying no to that piece of meat, you do not suddenly solve all problems in the food industry. What you do is show that there is a demand for an alternative. This is how you set things in motion. The same goes for fair fashion. If we support brands that are committed to more ethical fashion, we make a well-considered choice. And that choice has consequences.’

The Clean Clothes Campaign

The Clean Clothes Campaign is an umbrella group dedicated to workers in the global fashion industry. It encourages fashion chains and politicians to take responsibility and improve the working conditions of textile workers. It also provides information to allow consumers to shop more consciously. Many members of the Clean Clothes Campaign (Oxfam, World Solidarity, trade unions...) are partners of the Belgian Development Cooperation. The French-language counterpart is achACT.