fashion,  style

Ethical fashion: where do I shop now?

Earlier this week I talked about ethical consumerism and calculating your “slavery footprint” (you can read that post here). Today I wanted to talk a bit more specifically about ethical fashion, cheap chic chains, and some steps you can take to balance high fashion with ethical shopping habits.

In her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline points out that “cheap chic” retailers now churn out massive amounts of clothing at incredibly low price points, with Americans buying on average a new garment each week…but at what cost? She goes on to make the case that cheap chic fashion is damaging the economy, the environment, and the lives of the countless sweatshop workers who are employed to produce these goods. It’s hard to argue against her: roughly 900 thousand tons of clothing go into landfills each year, mostly from cheaply made garments that are purchased at cheap chic chains or outlet malls, worn a few times, and then discarded for something else. The workers who make these garments work for long hours in dangerous conditions are paid mere dollars a week for their work.

With the April collapse of the Bangaldesh garment factory that killed over 1100 people, the spotlight is being shown more fiercely than ever on the link between cheap clothing and the dangerous working conditions in third-world factories. The collapse was the worst in the history of the garment industry and the death toll is roughly eight times that of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911.

What’s really sobering about all of the back-and-forth that has followed the disaster is this figure released by the Workers’ Rights Consortium:

We have a general cost estimate for the renovations, upgrades and retrofitting of buildings that is needed across the industry in Bangladesh to make the factories safe. The figure is $3 billion. That translates to about 8 cents per garment at factory price. 

The WRC goes on to lay out some different ways that $3 billion figure could be spread out and absorbed by consumers rather than retailers, and even at the high end, they estimate that most pieces of clothing would be marked up about thirty cents to absorb the bill. Try to wrap your head around that number for a moment, because I can’t. If you knew thirty cents per garment would guarantee better and safer working conditions for someone–including proper fire exits, better emergency alarms, and the closure of unsafe factory structures–wouldn’t you willingly pay it?

What happens now?

Public pressure on major retailers to change their production practices has led to the creation of a new legal accord aimed at providing Bangladeshi workers with a safer working environment. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh requires a five-year commitment to conduct independent safety inspections of factories and requires retailers to pay up to $500,000 per year toward safety improvements in those factories.

However, there’s been a lot of resistance to the accord. While some brands have willingly jumped on board, others have refused, including:

  • Walmart 
  • Target
  • Macy’s
  • JC Penney
  • Sears
  • Gap
  • Kohl’s
  • VF Corp. (owns The North Face, Wrangler and Vans)
  • Carter’s (owns Oshkosh B’Gosh)
  • Nordstrom
  • American Eagle Outfitters
  • The Children’s Place
  • Foot Locker 
  • Cato Fashions

Some retailers (such as Walmart) have said they will work on their own initiatives to create a safer working environment for these factory workers, but what their plans are exactly remains to be seen.

Quantity vs. quality

I think we all need to reexamine the definition of “affordable” clothing. It’s true that I can go to a cheap chic chain with $100 in my pocket and leave with several new dresses, but that doesn’t mean those $25 dresses are any more “affordable” than a single $100 dress from a different store. It just means that I have to be more selective and only buy one new piece instead of an armful. That difference is what drives so many consumers into the arms of cheap retailers, but if you know what’s gone into the production of a piece, doesn’t it make you want to shop elsewhere–even if you emerge with just a few garments, instead of a whole new wardrobe?

Quality is something else to consider. While more expensive clothing is not always made of a higher quality–there are exceptions–by and large, investing in pieces that will last for several seasons is not only worth the extra cash, it’s a great way to keep from wasting money on items you’ll only wear once before throwing them in the trash. We’ve all bought jeans or shoes that broke down so quickly there wasn’t even anything left to donate to the thrift store! Why waste your money on those items?

In my opinion, a short spending ban could help wean you from the habit of dropping into the mall each weekend for a new blouse or skirt. Personally, while I used to frequent some of the fourteen stores listed above, I’m making it my choice to step away from purchasing their garments in the future. There are lots of places where I can shop for new clothes and crossing a few stores off of my list is not going to kill me. Going forward, I’m going to plan my clothing budget more carefully so I can buy a few new pieces each season that I’ll really love, instead of buying a ton of cheaply made items at the mall.

Where do I shop now?

The intersection of ethical consumerism and affordable fashion is a small one and it takes some work to find it, but it does exist. The best way to find ethically produced clothing is to dig through company websites and read the labels on the garments themselves. Look for items that were made in the U.S.A. If the company imports lots of their garments, read up on company practices involving overseas workers.

H&M, Mango and Calvin Klein are all signees of the new Bangladesh accord. On the Overdressed website, Elizabeth Cline points out that you can search “made in USA” on and to find domestically produced clothing at a range of price points; I also tried this on one of my favorite sites,, so it’s worth trying on different e-tail sites to see what you get. You can also find a full list of Cline’s recommend retailers here.

Some of my other favorite new sites to browse: EcoFabulous (highlights ethical and eco-friendly consumerism) and the e-tail sites Etrican, Fashion Conscience, One Mango Tree, People Tree and Shopanthropic (find the links below). While I don’t have the budget to go bananas on these sites the way I can in Walmart or Target, I think I’d rather save up for one or two nice pieces anyway and enjoy my splurge!

More eco- and ethical fashion options

  • I’m going to be putting together a wishlist of clothing picks next week so you can see some of the items I’ve got my eye on!
  • Thrifting is huge right now thanks to that ubiquitous Macklemore song. Upcycling clothing is not only wallet-friendly and eco-friendly, most thrift shops are run with the goal of funding local charities (like a homeless shelter or the local humane society). Even consignment shops are worth a dig, though the items there may cost more. The less new items you buy, the less you feed into the supply and demand cycle that keeps cheap chic retailers pumping out these cheap garments. So much win! I’ll be writing a post on thrifting later this month.
  • If you’ve got some basic sewing skills, sewing your own clothes or refashioning options from the thrift store is an awesome way to beef up your wardrobe! I’ll be posting more on refashioning later in the month, including some tips to make it less scary.

More resources


  • Katrin

    Very interesting article, Martha! Sometimes it can be hard to make the right choice. I buy most of my stuff at H&M and Zara and I guess those are not the best options but I think H&M does a little effort towards these goals. You can never be completely sure what you buy. I mean, even when you buy a dress for 200 dollars it is possible that it was made by child workers who have to work under really bad conditions. On German TV there is always a “company check” and it is really interesting to watch these things.

    • Martha Woods

      That’s very true–more money doesn’t necessarily mean a fair wage. It really bothers me that Europe takes these things so much more seriously than we here in America–it’s such a terrible attitude, like “whatever, it’s not my kid”. :(

  • Yun, The Polish Hideout

    You raise a really good point, and I wish this is something we take more seriously here. But a lot of times as consumers, it’s almost impossible to do anything about this. The retailers you listed are numerous and cover almost every single convenient shopping location for the vast number of consumers. Also, buying a more expensive garment isn’t necessarily a guarantee against this practice. Retailers can charge more and have a bigger profit margin while paying workers the same. Hopefully what’s happened recently can bring awareness and be a catalyst for real change. :-)

    ~ Yun

    • Martha Woods

      That’s very true–I used to get almost all of my clothes from Target! I also forgot to point out that blanket boycotts are kind of pointless if people don’t also write and call the companies and let them know WHY they aren’t buying clothes there anymore. Without that feedback retailers just assume a drop in sales based on economy, etc. and move on without changing anything.

      I hope all of the outcry will finally force retailers to adjust their practices. I mean, I love sewing my own clothes, but I don’t want to do it ALL the time! :P

  • Eton

    If I ask you a question having two options then what would you choose? Quality or Quantity? If know most of you will say quality. However, there are people (about 65% of the people) who belong to middle class family, they would go for Quantity only.

    • Martha Woods

      True, some people do value quantity over quality, but that’s part of why I wrote this post–I hope with more information, people will begin to see why quality is so important.

  • Anonymous

    The good news is that more companies are agreeing to join the alliance. This from carter’s website:

    While we worked hard individually to improve our social compliance program and the workplace conditions of factories we source. We recognized that we alone cannot solve many of the pressing issues facing the industry. To effectively address these issues we believe that multi-stakeholder engagement and dialogue are the most productive approaches. To this end, we partner and participate in industry wide initiatives and organizations such as:
    American Apparel & Footwear Industry – Carter’s is a member of the American Apparel & Footwear Association Social Responsibility Committee, through which we learn and share information and best practices with industry peers
    The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – Carter’s is a founding member Alliance, a collaboration of more than 20 North American retailers and brands to develop and design a large-scale program to improve working conditions at factories by:
    – Training, educating, and empowering factory workers, supervisors, and management
    – Working with the Bangladeshi government and other stakeholders to develop and implement a common standard for assessing fire and building safety in factories
    – Ensuring 100% of member factories are inspected within one year using the common standard
    – Public reporting of member factories inspected, issues identified and remediation plans developed

    And actually, Target was one of the founders of the Bangladesh alliance:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.