03/05/2013 11:29 BST | Updated 02/07/2013 06:12 BST

Ethical Living - An Issue of Class?


When news broke last week that yet another disaster had befallen a garment factory in Bangladesh, I was angered and upset, but not very surprised. It had been a matter of months since the Tazreen factory fire had claimed 112 workers' lives, and it was inevitable that tragedy would strike again before long. I sat at my laptop, scrolling through Twitter, as more details unfolded. Incidentally, I was wearing a Primark dress.

Then it was revealed that one of the ill-fated factories contained in the eight-storey building near Dhaka had been supplying to the popular fashion retailer. Suddenly, my pretty SS13 dress, and the hoards of Primark steals that dominate my wardrobe, felt dirty.

In truth, I felt foolish. Having recently committed to living a much more ethically sound life, I'd decided - upon a quick glance at the 'ethical trading' page on Primark's website - that the Irish chain would be the one and only 'fast fashion' weakness I'd permit myself. The rest of my clothes would be bought from charity shops or from brands with completely transparent policies with regard to their ethics.

It is a commitment I have, largely, stuck to. It doesn't stop at clothes - all of my cosmetics and personal care products must now bear the Leaping Bunny logo, or an equally trustworthy cruelty-free stamp. If a product's policy with regard to animal testing, environmental responsibility or human rights is at all vague, I will simply go without it. Much like vegetarianism, this is a personal choice I've made based on issues I feel are important.

As the media's collective finger pointed ever more so at Primark, opinions on who to blame began to splinter. While many called for the company to be boycotted, others ridiculed what they viewed to be middle-class political correctness. An image of Primark as the clothing retailer of choice for the nation's poor began to take shape among the comments, raising an interesting question - is ethical living an issue of class?

The suggestion that actively caring about human and animal rights and the environment is exclusively the pursuit of the high earning elite is one I found to be patronising and false. It is challenging to find affordable ethical alternatives to the budget fashion and beauty brands the nation adores, but it is not beyond anyone, regardless of class. Furthermore, anyone who has truly suffered financially would know that even Primark becomes an unattainable luxury.

Charity shops (a feature of almost every high street now) and car boot sales are not only as cheap, if not cheaper, than Primark; they are a brilliant way of recycling fashion and reducing waste. They might not provide the immediacy and range of a high street favourite, but this is where we need to stop making excuses. As consumers, we can choose to buy responsibly. If we don't want to totally give up fast fashion, we can opt to shop less often.

Ethical living is not without difficulty. Knowing which brands to buy from and which to avoid requires research, the resources for which are not always readily available to all. It goes without saying that those living in poverty are not in a position to give much thought to the wider consequences of their actions as consumers, but that doesn't mean they don't have the capacity to care about their choices.

The worldwide attention this latest disaster has gained in the press indicates that the penny might slowly be dropping - we are consuming too much, too often. A demand for cheap goods is driving the industry, but we are becoming increasingly concerned about how our clothing, cosmetics, food and electronics have been made, and at what cost. Greater transparency on the part of companies like Primark is needed to inform consumers, but the decision to change one's shopping habits is their own and no one else's. It is a lifestyle one chooses - dependent on ethics, not class.