Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A woman standing in a boutique Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Filed under:

A Beginner's Guide to Ethical Shopping

Here's what it means and how to do it.

Racked has affiliate partnerships, which do not influence editorial content, though we may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. We also occasionally accept products for research and reviewing purposes. See our ethics policy here.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Ethical shopping, as we've already said, can seem nearly impossible. But though difficult, it can be done with the right tools and information. While you may not be able to check every single box when trying overhaul your buying practices, even doing a little bit better — by avoiding brands that violate your own code of ethics, or by supporting companies that put in the work to make things better for the people in every part of their supply chain — can make a big difference.

But where to begin? Here, we talked to ethical-labor watchdogs about what matters to them, gathered tips and tricks for how to shop more sustainably in your everyday life, and even picked out a few Project Just-vetted brands to help you get started.

Three female Guatemalan artisans.
Guatemalan artisans who work with the socially responsible fair-trade brand Raven + Lily.
Photo: Raven + Lily

What Does It Actually Mean to Shop Ethically?

In case you missed the memo: Ethical shopping is hard. Production chains are so complicated that major companies often can’t guarantee what conditions their products were made in, and even alternatives like the Salvation Army aren’t always ideal because of their anti-LGBTQ track records.

That doesn’t mean we should give up hope. A Nielsen report shows an increase in the number of people willing to pay more for products from companies they consider to be socially responsible, with a consumer trend report for 2017 published by NPD forecasting that, “given the highly charged political atmosphere [consumers will be] giving their business to brands and retailers that share their values and shunning those who do not.” These are encouraging steps that show we want to do better, and with reports that brands are embracing transparency, it seems that retailers are starting to listen.

Here, ethical shopping experts explain what to look for in a brand »

A woman holding a stack of fabric Photo: Trinette Reed/Getty Images

10 Things You Can Do to Shop More Sustainably

The 2015 documentary The True Cost has largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.

But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, that 1,715 million tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?

Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, which makes it exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or an item that is purported to be fairly made.

As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet.

See the small — and big — changes you can make today »

Danish brand Aiayu, which sells gorgeous knits and textiles made in Bolivia, India, and Nepal from natural materials like alpaca wool, organic cotton, and yak fibers.

Sustainable Shopping: The Brands to Trust

If you’re ready to make a change in the way you shop, we suggest you familiarize yourself with Project Just, an organization committed to documenting the production practices — and specifically, their environmental and social impact — of some of the biggest names in fashion, from Zara to Nike.

Project Just’s researchers comb publicly available information and reach out directly to brands in order to answer a long list of questions related to supply chains, codes of conduct, labor conditions, and environmental commitments (and then meticulously fact-check what they’ve found). One of the coolest things the organization does with this info is its “Seal of Approval” lists: category-by-category guides that highlight brands you can turn to for denim, leather goods, athletic clothes, underwear, and more.

We’ve checked out all the brands that made the cut, and put together our own short list of labels with the most options, best styles, and fairest prices across all categories.

Get to know the vetted list of brands »


What Does It Actually Mean to Shop Ethically?


10 Things You Can Do to Shop More Sustainably

Ethical, Sustainable Brands You Can Really Trust