How to be an ethical shopper

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Consumers have immense power to change companies, which respond to boycotts and other protests.

The US clothing giant Gap acquired such a reputation for sweatshop labour that it opened its supply chain to scrutiny and published the results. So how can you be sure your money does not go into the pockets of multinationals who are beneficiaries of China's sweatshops?

Buying Fairtrade is one way of ensuring goods have been made under acceptable conditions, and many clothes retailers specialising in such goods can be found on the Web. If you shop on the high street, the unfortunate truth is that Chinese products are highly likely to have been made in poor, if not atrocious, conditions. You could choose not to buy them.

That option is harder at some retailers, such as Primark, which do not always state the country of origin on labels.

A band of retailers is trying to improve conditions by joining the Ethical Trade Initiative, and they should be encouraged. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, New Look and Monsoon are among the high-street names that have committed themselves to improving conditions and avoiding slave and child labour. You can check the full list at ethicaltrade.org. Trade unionists urge customers to ask in shops about the conditions for workers making their prospective purchases. One said: "When we are buying a garment we look at the size, we look at the material, we look at what the washing instructions are, but we should also be looking at the conditions in which it is made. If consumers were to ask questions in stores, such as, 'Was this product made using exploitation?' the retail industry would be much more responsible and responsive."

That sounds far-fetched but parents' inquiries about the flammability of children's clothes resulted in a huge improvement in safety and labelling. One of the most notable high-street names which is not a member of the Ethical Trade Initiative is the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, Etam, Burton and Dorothy Perkins. It is owned by Philip Green, the Monaco-based tycoon who paid himself a dividend of £1.2bn last October.

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