Shoppers with a conscience take over the high street

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The Independent Online

Clothes shopping is becoming an increasingly political pastime as buyers seek out organic, Fairtrade or recycled garments that are kinder to workers and the environment, according to new research.

The market for ethical clothes rose by 30 per cent in 12 months to £43m last year, the Ethical Consumption Report 2005 has found.

Published by the Co-operative Bank today, the report says that ethical shopping for everything from energy-efficient fridges to organic food is rising steadily year on year.

Last year UK consumers spent £25bn on ethical goods and services - a rise of 15 per cent on 2003.

Spending on ethical investment, solar panels and mini wind turbines and Fairtrade products (tea and coffee were up 43 per cent) all rose strongly. People also behaved more ethically, for instance by deliberately buying groceries at local shops instead of supermarkets or using public transport.

Most marked, however, has been the rise in "eco-fashion". Shoppers are buying more clothes made of organic cotton, which does not use pesticides that harm farmers' health and heavy-metal dyes that pollute rivers and soil.

Organic clothes are not generally available from high street chains, and specialist suppliers and mail order sites such as People Tree and are springing up. Rachel Neame, of People Tree, said: "Thousands of farmers die annually and three million face chronic illness in the developing world because of pesticide use. There are real nasties that you don't get with organic cotton."

Suppliers claim that organic cotton is also softer and feels better on skin.

The report says that demand is rising for Fairtrade clothes that guarantee better pay and conditions for workers from countries such as Thailand and Nepal.

Boycotts of companies because of concerns about sweatshop labour or animal welfare rose 8 per cent, the report says.

Of people buying second-hand goods, such as clothes, furniture or books, 10 per cent did so for environmental and 19 per cent for social reasons.

Written with help from two think-tanks, The Future Foundation and The New Economics Foundation, the report said that criticism of labour standards in factories in developing countries were resonating with consumers. However it said that until recently a lack of ethical products had "inhibited" purchasing behaviour.

Simon Williams, director of corporate affairs at Co-operative Financial Services, said that the growth of ethical clothing sales showed that more consumers were taking ethical considerations on board.

He said: "The report reveals many areas of accelerating growth such as Fairtrade and free-range eggs. What were previously thought by some as niche marketing exercises, are now becoming mainstream.

"However, there are some areas where much more intervention is needed by Government, particularly where unethical alternatives are so much cheaper.

"Sustainable timber sales are practically static after growing 18 per cent between 2002 and 2003 and growth in organics, while significant, is slowing."

The Future Foundation said that the report should make business and the Government take ethical consumerism "very seriously" when planning for the future.

The cost of ethical living

PERSONAL FINANCE There was a surge in the amounts people put into ethical finance, rising to £10.6bn. It took 15 years for the market to reach £5bn but just five years to double that. The biggest rise (31 per cent) was in ethical investment where people shun unethical companies. Ethical finance also includes ethical banking and credit unions.

FOOD Total Fairtrade sales reached £140m, compared with £92m in 2003. Tea and coffee rose 42 per cent to £62m, accounting for more than 5 per cent of all tea and coffee sales. Fairtrade bananas rose 26 per cent to £30m. Fairtrade chocolate soared 51 per cent to £16m. Organic food was up 11 per cent to £1.1bn.

TRAVEL Spending on environmentally-friendly transport fell by £3m to £20m. However there were some positive trends. The number of car-sharing schemes rose, and four times as many hybrid electric vehicles were sold, 1,569 in total. Seventeen per cent of people using public transport said they did so for environmental reasons.

COSMETICS Sales of cosmetics independently guaranteed not to have been tested on animals dipped from £182m to £172m. Beauty companies approved by the Humane Cosmetics Standard must allow independent audits of their supply chains to ensure adherence to animal testing rules.