Stylish AND sustainable: the best ethical fashion alternatives to brands like Zara and H&M
We all want to make more people and planet-friendly fashion choices but ethical fashion can be so boring, right? I used to feel like this too, and my misconceptions about the style credentials of ethical fashion stopped me from embracing a more conscious wardrobe for years. Yes, there’s plenty of ‘safe’ ethical brands out there, but even if you’re a real style lover there’s places you can shop that are way better than the likes of Boohoo, Zara, H&M, and ASOS – they don’t actually cost that much more either.
I want to break down why UK High Street brands just cannot be ethical as things stand (despite their ‘green’ marketing trying to convince us otherwise), as well as the most stylish alternatives to shop online.
Primark, H&M, and ASOS all have sustainable ranges – should I buy them?
Primark Cares, H&M Conscious, ASOS Reponsible… it feels like each month there’s more sustainable fashion options popping up, right? Erm, not exactly. Sorry about that.
Let’s take the recent example of Primark Cares. The fashion discounter recently announced TV presenter Laura Whitmore as its new sustainability ambassador, as it wheels out a range of new styles using ‘better’ cotton and recycled fibres. This would be great news… except Primark is hopping on a bandwagon, not making a big businesswide commitment here.
And it’s not just them. This is exactly the same as when stores like H&M, Missguided, Zara, and ASOS etc. release a capsule sustainable collection, or put out press releases about their sustainability goals.
The first and most important point is that sustainable does not equal ethical. High Street brands can use all the organic and recycled fabrics they like, but until they start offering full transparency about who makes their clothes and how those people are treated, then they cannot claim to be ethical. Sorry ’bout it.
Secondly, these are heeeeuuuge companies, who produce hundreds of thousands (or even millions) or garments each year. This is far more clothing than the planet can sustain. If fashion brands like Zara or Primark were really keen to lessen their environmental impact, then they would commit to producing less. Except they aren’t ever going to do that.
The marketing trick of over-hyping sustainability initiatives is what’s known as ‘greenwashing’. It happens a lot in fashion, and is becoming increasingly prevalent as more consumers like you and me want to take stock of our impact on other people and the planet. At best it’s ignorance on the side of brands who don’t truly understand why their clothing is unsustainable (it’s not just the fabrics used), and at worst it’s a devious effort to take money from people trying to make better choices.
So should you buy a sustainable collection from a High Street brand? Not all ethical fashion advocates will agree with this, but I see these as ‘least worst’ options for average consumers like you and me. As much as I will shout about ethical brands forever, sometimes we just don’t have the financial capability to support them the way we’d like. If the High Street is what’s accessible to you, then these more sustainable products from mainstream brands are absolutely a positive choice on your end. You are not solely responsible for changing the fashion system when it’s so difficult to escape the system in the first place.
And shopping with these companies doesn’t mean you can’t also hold them to account for their labour rights issues. In fact, as a customer you’re a stakeholder! So keep tweeting brands, signing petitions, and only buying as much as you actually need to help shape a better fashion system for everyone.
Is And Other Stories ethical? What about Arket?
If greenwashing proves anything, it’s that big fashion companies love a distraction tactic, and that’s exactly what brands like And Other Stories and Arket are all about. Both are owned by the H&M group, and act as ‘halo brands’. By that I mean they are marketed as a properly ethical and sustainable brand in an attempt to make the wider H&M family look good.
Equally, H&M loves an ethical collaboration, which can muddy the waters for us as consumers even more. Recently H&M released a trainer collaboration with ethical footwear brand Good News, and previous collections from the High Street giant have experimented with up-and-coming sustainable fabrics, like vegan leather substitute Pinatex (it’s made from pineapple leaves and I think this is amazing). But notice that these products are attention-grabbing. They are little signposts saying, ‘hey, we are super into this sustainability stuff you know!’, instead of a business-wide commitment to sustainability. Why produce one, premium-price item made from Pinatex, for example, when instead H&M has the funds and influence to fully get behind this fibre and make it a mainstay of their collection?
This isn’t a blog post dedicated to bashing H&M and its sibling brands like And Other Stories and Arket though. Almost all High Street brands, including the premium names that would sit in a similar bracket to And Other Stories, aren’t ethical or sustainable. Paying a higher price point doesn’t guarantee the workers have received more money, or that fabrics have been sustainably sourced. We still need to do the same digging into brands’ corporate responsibility pages and supplier maps to figure out how these brands shape up. Alternatively, the app Good on You is really useful for cross-checking sustainability claims. It’s a lot of work I know, and that’s why us ethical fashion advocates are so eager for a more ethical fashion system overall, so there’s less of this work on shoppers to figure out if a brand is ethical or sustainable.
How can I tell if a brand is ethical or if they are greenwashing?
I get it, figuring out the ‘good’ brands from the ‘bad’ brands is really hard, especially when the likes of H&M and Primark spend an absolute fortune on marketing that tries to convince us they are all about corporate responsibility.
Here’s a few questions to ask when trying to decide if a fashion brand is actually ethical, or if it’s more likely to be marketing:
- Do you know who made the clothes? Is there information easily available about the factories the brand uses and its relationships with them?
- Is this ‘sustainable’ product one of hundreds of new styles released that week?
- Are sustainable options part of a small, capsule collection rather than across a brand’s whole offering?
- Is the corporate responsibility buried away in the bottom navigation bar, or is it easy to find and clear to understand?
- Does the brand focus on meaningless words like ‘green’ ‘conscious’ ‘eco’ etc.?
- Is the style of garment something super trendy, or is it designed to be wearable for years to come?
Here’s my favourite stylish, affordable ethical brands to shop now
Looking for those ethical alternatives to the likes of Boohoo, Zara, and Missguided? I’ve done the hard work for you and sourced the most stylish (and relatively affordable) brands that have ethics and sustainability at their heart. My one criticism, however, is that many of these brands don’t offer great sizing accessibility. I’m hopeful this could improve over time as the brands continue to grow.
If you’re loving these brands but not sure which pieces you should be investing in, then my online personal shopping service is exactly what you need. Happy browsing!
NOTE: This section contains some affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you purchase when clicking through. These are marked with a *
Sisterhood* (affiliate link) – Puff sleeves, wrap dresses, and midi skirts are central to Sisterhood’s ultra trendy style. If you’re a fan of And Other Stories and Zara then this is definitely a brand you need on your radar! Clothes are generally made from viscose and cotton, though there’s some polyester in the collection too. Ethics-wise, Sisterhood works closely with a small factory to ensure garment workers are treated well, although the website doesn’t offer detailed information about where the factory is located.
Extra AF – The brand may be called Extra AF, but in fact you’ll find really wearable, stylish pieces. If you love fashion-forward pieces similar to Pretty Little Thing and Missguided then you’ll love Extra AF. Think day-to-night dressing that includes flattering dresses and smart-casual tops, dreamy pastels, and stylish prints. Clothing is produced in Lithuania and Bulgaria in limited runs. According to Extra AF’s website the fabrics used are currently 80% sustainable, and it’s working to achieve 100%. There’s also menswear on offer with serious style points.
Omnes – Omnes popped onto my radar last year as a stylish sustainable brand, and I’m especially loving the current spring/ summer collection. Clothing is produced in India, Romania, Portugal, and Turkey, and there’s detailed information on Omnes’ website about these factories.
Molby the Label – The good thing about the whole ‘cottagecore’-type trend right now, is there’s lots of independent makers who are producing clothes that are incredibly stylish and covetable. One indie maker brand that’s garnered a cult status is Molby the Label, with its iconic midi dresses. As Molby is a small operation, orders open and close periodically. Follow Molby on Instagram for information on when the next drop is available.
Before July – Another made-to-order must-follow brand is Before July. Dreamy smock dresses, puff sleeved crop tops, and wide leg trousers are the brand’s staples, in on-trend pastel hues. Like Molby, you should follow Before July to secure your slot when the shop reopens.
Lauren Chivers Studio* (affiliate link via Etsy) – Last up in my made-to-order brand trifecta is Lauren Chivers, a one-woman operation creating styles inspired by vintage bohemian styles. Her multi-way Cher wrap tops are a brilliant addition to any wardrobe, as they offer so much versatility! Lauren offers great styling suggestions for all her pieces on Instagram, so you’ll always have ideas of how to make the most out of your purchase.
Ninety Percent – If you’re fed up of brands prioritising profits above all else, then the concept of Ninety Percent should intrigue you: 90% of its profits are donated to charities, and shoppers can vote on where they’d like the money from their purchase to go. The general aesthetic of this brand is sportwear-inspired, and perfect if you’re looking for a high-quality alternative to the likes of Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing. The prices are a little higher than other, but there’s great deals to be found in the sale.
Saint and Sofia – If you’re after an ethical alternative to All Saints with a touch of Zara thrown in the mix, then this is it! I love Saint and Sofia’s edgy aesthetic, and even the brand’s basics offer a little something extra to keep things interesting. All styles are made in Europe from sustainable fabrics. The Magazine section on the site features some great reads, too.
Baukjen* (affiliate link) – If you’re into that chic, pulled-together look that is often found in the spanish brands like Zara and Mango, then this is an ethical brand you should check out. Baukjen is a Certified B-Corp, which is one of the toughest ethical certifications to achieve, and requires a whole-business commitment to conscious practices. Style-wise, you’ll find elevated basics for lounging at home, dreamy day dresses, and work-appropriate clothes too.