Cheap ethical clothing, food and household goods: can you do good on a budget?


Updated on 10 January 2020 | 2 Comments

We look at the cost of ethical food, household goods and clothes to see whether it's possible to shop with a clean conscience whilst sticking to your budget.

Many of us want to spend our money on products that are Fairtrade, organic, and good for the environment but we just don't consider it viable because of the cost.

But is it really that much more expensive?

Are ethical products things that we shouldn't be wasting our money on, or is it worth the extra pound here or there to improve the quality of both the product and the process that went into making it?

Ethical food

It's difficult to know what labels mean when it comes to food, with 'organic' and 'Fairtrade' often getting muddled, and 'line caught', 'sustainably farmed', and 'responsibly sourced' all sounding so similar that a trip to the fish aisle can feel like mental gymnastics.

We've chosen a selection of groceries ‒ bananas, eggs, chicken and salmon ‒ to see what you should be looking out for and to see whether it is possible to eat sustainably on a budget.

Bananas

In the supermarket, most bananas look exactly the same, and the key things that change the prices are whether or not they are loose or packaged, or if they are certified as Fairtrade or not.

From an environmental perspective, it's clear that the loose bananas are the better choice, and luckily more and more supermarkets are getting rid of the single-use plastic bags in the fresh produce sections.

But should you bother with Fairtrade?

The simple answer is yes, and here's why: by choosing items certified as 'Fairtrade', you are ensuring that everybody who has worked to get that banana to you has been paid a fair wage for the work that they have done.

And does that guarantee bump up the price? Not as much as you'd expect.

The best part about Fairtrade bananas is that they are only a fraction more expensive than those coming without that guarantee ‒ at the moment 1kg of Fairtrade bananas will cost you 85p in Sainsbury's, which is only 1p more than a non-Fairtrade kilo in M&S, Asda, or Tesco.

Verdict: for an additional 1p per kilo, you can enjoy your bananas knowing the work that went into getting them to you was fairly paid for. It's a no-brainer really.

Fairtrade banana label (Image: Shutterstock)

Eggs

M&S and Waitrose only sell free-range eggs, with Waitrose extending the rule to any egg in its ready meals, and M&S making free-range the standard across all of its products containing egg.

You'll also probably spot a 'British Lion' stamp on your eggs, but this has nothing to do with animal welfare ‒ it's just a food safety check that shows that your eggs should be free from salmonella.

At a glance, it's definitely the case that eggs from caged hens are cheaper compared to their free-range alternatives when it comes to bigger packs, although the difference is only 4p per egg:

Packs of 15

Eggs from caged hens Free-range eggs
Aldi everyday essential eggs from caged hens: £1.18 (8p per egg) Aldi medium free-range eggs: £1.75 (12p per egg)
Tesco 15 eggs (from caged hens): £1.19 (8p per egg) Morrisons free-range eggs mixed weight: £1.85 (12p per egg)

With smaller packs, there is even less of a difference and the free-range eggs can actually be cheaper.

Packs of six

Eggs from caged hens Free-range eggs
Tesco 6 eggs (from caged hens): 70p (12p per egg) Tesco medium free-range eggs: 84p (14p per egg)
Morrisons big & fresh eggs: £1.20 (20p per egg) Morrisons free-range large eggs: £1 (17p per egg)

So what's the difference?

Whilst battery farms were banned back in 2012, the conditions of caged hens really aren't much better as there are generally 13-14 hens per square metre, which restricts movement and their ability to behave naturally.

Barn eggs come from chickens that have a lot more space to roam but they are still kept inside for the entirety of their lives.

Eggs from free-range chickens might be a little more expensive on our end, but it makes a huge difference in terms of the chickens' welfare.

Every bird producing free-range eggs must have at least four metres of outside space in the daytime, and at night they are kept in barns that allow for nine chickens per square metre.

Verdict: given that there is very little difference in price between free-range and non-free-range eggs, and that the former is sometimes actually cheaper, it makes sense to buy eggs from happy chickens.

Caged hen eggs also often come in plastic packaging, giving them an environmental disadvantage compared to the free-range eggs in their cardboard containers.

The best supermarket deals this week

Chicken 

Choosing to only eat ethically-sourced meat is often far pricier than, say, swapping standard bananas and eggs for Fairtrade or free-range alternatives, but it doesn't have to be extortionate.

As with their eggs, food retailers M&S and Waitrose have high standards across the board when it comes to their meat, which means that even the cheapest products come with a good level of animal welfare. 

This includes controlled environment barns where birds are exposed to sunlight and have constant access to food and water.

We had a look at the prices of 1kg of fresh chicken breast (using the largest quantity packets available) and compared the prices across the supermarkets:

Low welfare standard High welfare standard
N/A

essential Waitrose British chicken breast fillets: £4.50 for 600g

£7.50 per kilo

N/A

Marks & Spencer Oakham chicken breast fillets: £4.50 for 570g

£7.89 per kilo

Morrisons chicken breast fillet: £5 for 1kg

£5 per kilo

Morrisons Market Street free-range chicken breast fillets: £3.10 for 295g

£10 per kilo

Asda Butcher's Selection British chicken breast fillets: £10.35 for 2kg

£5.17 per kilo

Asda Extra Special free range corn fed chicken breasts: £4.50 for 350g

£12.86 per kilo

Tesco British chicken breast portions: £3.80 for 650g

£5.85 per kilo

Tesco Finest 2 cornfed free-range chicken fillets: £5.21 for 380g

£13.70 per kilo

Sainsbury's chicken breast fillets: £8.45 for 1.6kg

£5.28 per kilo

Sainsbury's corn fed chicken breast fillets: £15.90 for 1kg

£15.90 per kilo

The only supermarket we found that didn't stock free-range chicken when we checked was Iceland, whilst Aldi and Lidl do not display the prices of their free-range products online so were not included in this comparison.

M&S has recently reduced the price of its chicken, along with hundreds of other products, for the launch of its Re-Marks-able Value campaign, and along with Waitrose, it is the cheapest place to find good quality poultry.

Sainsbury's is the priciest place to get your free-range meat. 

So it's pretty clear that it costs a lot more to eat chicken that has had a decent life compared to that that hasn't. So why should you bother? 

Free-range chicken (Image: Shutterstock)

Animal welfare is the most obvious reason ‒ if you care about an animal's quality of life before you eat it, then you should probably be buying the pricier meat.

Most of the 950 million chickens sold by supermarkets are not well-cared-for, such as the way they are reared to rapidly gain weight.

According to the RSPCA, if the current growth rate of supermarket chickens was replicated in humans, a three-year-old child would weigh a whopping 28 stone. And that can't be comfortable to carry around.

Verdict: whilst it may sound like a bit of a cop-out solution, the best way to eat ethical chicken and keep it budget-friendly is to reduce the amount of meat that you're eating.

Eating 'less but better' meat is probably one of the best steps you can take to help the environment, and by limiting yourself to smaller amounts of high-quality meat, you won't see your weekly grocery bill skyrocket.

It's also worth paying your local butcher a visit and having a look at the prices.

Even if the meat isn't necessarily free-range, it should be better for the environment in that it'll be locally sourced, and you might be able to snap up some great deals.

If you're stuck for meat-free meal ideas, have a look at our sister site loveFOOD's favourite vegetarian recipes for some inspiration.

Look out for this new food label to help you avoid plastic packaging on your weekly shopping trip

Fish

Fish is as much, if not more, of a minefield when it comes to working out what is ethical to buy.

Terms like 'sustainably fished' and 'responsibly farmed' are bandied about with stamps of approval from a whole range of organisations, so we've done a quick summary of what the terms mean:

Sustainably fished: the fish were caught in the wild, but it was done in a way that leaves enough fish in the ocean and is respectful of the habitat.

Responsibly farmed: the fish were raised in order to be fished, but the farms limit their environmental impact. 

Both of these methods are approved by the Marine Conservation Society.

The two important labels to look out for are the dark blue 'MSC Certified Sustainable Seafood' sticker, which means that the fish was sustainably fished in the wild, and the turquoise ASC 'Farmed Responsibly Certified' label.

MSC and ASC fish labels (Image: Marine Conservation Society)

So how does certified fish stack up price-wise?

Not MSC / ASC certified MSC / ASC certified

Princess tuna chunks in spring water (Asda): £3.50 for 580g

£7.81 per kilo

Sainsbury's tuna in spring water: £2.10 for 340g

£8.80 per kilo

Asda 4 cod fillets: £3.30 for 400g

£8.25 per kilo

Tesco cod fillets (frozen): £3.30 for 360g

£9.20 per kilo

Aldi salmon fillets: £2.85 for 240g

£11.88 per kilo

Sainsbury's responsibly sourced Scottish salmon fillets: £3.25 for 240g

£13.54 per kilo

Asda 4 smoked haddock fillets (frozen): £3.30 for 400g

£8.25 per kilo

Tesco 4 smoked haddock fillets (frozen): £2.95 for 360g

£8.20 per kilo

Asda smart price cooked and peeled prawns: £2 for 200g

£10 per kilo

Sainsbury's cold water prawns, basics: £2.53 for 250g

£10.12 per kilo

Asda 10 cod fillet fish fingers: £2 for 300g

£6.67 per kilo

Sainsbury's 12 cod fillet fish fingers: £2.10 for 360g

£5.83 per kilo

In most cases, the certified fish is more expensive, but the difference is nowhere near as big as with poultry, which makes it a lot more budget-friendly to adapt your shopping habits. 

The Tesco smoked haddock was actually cheaper than the non-MSC certified equivalent from Asda, and Sainsbury's own fish fingers beat Asda's non-MSC approved version.

Verdict: a surprising amount of MSC/ASC approved seafood is available in most supermarkets, so keep an eye out for it and choose it if you can, as a lot of own-brand products also carry the sustainability guarantee.

From 2020 buying good quality fish should be even easier, with Sainsbury's aiming to have all of their fish MSC certified in the next year. 

The MSC Good Fish Guide is also a really helpful tool for working out which fish is good to buy, as standards and regulations fluctuate fairly frequently. 

Ethical clothing

Fast fashion and the clothing industry as a whole has really come under fire in the last year, with it consuming more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined, according to United Nations.

But with retailers like Primark offering almost irresistibly cheap clothes, can it possibly be a sustainable place to shop? Or should we be looking elsewhere?

This section takes a look at some essential items and the cost of buying versions deemed to be a bit more ethical than the cheapest ones on the market.

In this run down, we're having a look at a basic white t-shirt, men's jeans, and socks, as well as alternatives to constantly buying new clothes.

Website and app Good On You gives fashion retailers a rating based on environmental impact, labour rights, and animal welfare.

We've used Good On You for insight throughout as to whether retailers can be considered to be 'ethical'.

White t-shirt

Cheapest: £4, Primark

Primark has received a lot of bad press for its sustainability and welfare measures, or lack thereof.

As part of its ongoing attempt to clean up its act, the cheap fashion retailer announced that over 160,000 cotton farmers would be trained in more environmentally-friendly farming methods by the end of 2022, but what about products being bought now?

Good On You's overall comment with Primark was 'It's a start' ‒ Primark shares 98% of its factories with other retailers, meaning that it can't control most of the manufacturing practice, so no matter how many pledges it agrees to, such as the Cotton Pledge and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, there are a lot of grey areas.

With Primark, there is also the issue of quality. A t-shirt may only cost £4, but if it is poorly made then it is likely to need replacing a lot sooner.

More ethical: £7.99 for two, H&M (Conscious range)

H&M is one of the biggest fashion retailers in the world, and that comes with a responsibility to produce clothes and look after workers in an ethical way.

In 2010, H&M launched its Conscious collection, and all products in that range have to contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton or recycled polyester.

Products can only contain up to 20% recycled cotton however due to quality restraints.

The two-pack of Conscious t-shirts actually works out cheaper than buying two t-shirts at Primark, which make it both a more environmentally friendly and budget-friendly alternative.

That said, there has been a lot of criticism of the Conscious range.

There is a real lack of information on the company's site when it comes to the manufacturing process of its Conscious clothing, and the fact that multiple collections are released throughout the year does support the idea of fast fashion, which contradicts the idea that the company is working towards becoming more sustainable.

For these reasons, despite its 'conscious' name, H&M also received an 'It's a start' rating from Good On You.

Ethical: £15, Rapanui

All products made and sold by Isle of Wight-based company Rapanui are made from organic cotton and are printed in the UK in a factory powered by renewable energy.

All of the company's packaging is also reusable and recyclable.

On top of that, last May saw the store officially launch Teemill, which is an online platform for selling t-shirts.

It follows Rapanui's principles when it comes to creating sustainable clothing, but also actively encourages people to recycle their clothes by offering £5 store credit to anybody who returns worn-out items to them.

T-shirts are only printed when they're ordered, meaning there is no unwanted stock that gets wasted.

Rapanui received the highest rating possible from Good On You, which is 'great'.

Verdict: the quality of items sold by somewhere like Rapanui is a lot higher than cheap retailers like Primark, which means that you should get a lot more wear out of it, making it better value for money.

A Rapanui t-shirt is a made more affordable when you remember that you get store credit once it's worn out, but the H&M Conscious products are a good alternative if you're not wanting to spend so much money.

Jeans

The production of jeans is notoriously bad for the environment, with it taking over 8,000 litres of water to make a single pair.

Distressed-looking jeans are the worst offenders, as bleaches and other chemicals are often used to create the patterns. But there are jeans with a better carbon footprint available, and they don't cost the world either.

Cheapest: £10, Primark

You can't get much cheaper than a Primark pair of jeans, and in March, the fashion retailer launched jeans made with 100% sustainable cotton.

The best part? They only cost £10.

This doesn't improve the environmental impact of the jeans in terms of how much water they use, but it is a step in the right direction and a good choice if you're looking for some cheaper jeans.

Cheap: £17.99-24.99, H&M

H&M has a range of jeans available in their Conscious Collection, and as we already discussed above there are some issues with H&M's sustainability policies. 

That said, the international retailer is taking steps to improve its sustainability and the jeans from H&M are made from 50% sustainable materials, which is probably a lot better for the environment than other high-street shops.

Ethical: £20-80, Monkee Genes

Whilst big-name retailers do have the odd measure in place to make them more sustainable than others, niche retailers like Monkee Genes claim to go all out to make sure their jeans are as eco-friendly as possible.

Jeans from Monkee Genes are made from 98% organically grown cotton, PETA approved, and even have plant-based mailing bags to top it off.

Whilst the price tag varies quite a bit with these products, the Monkee Genes sale section has jeans for as little as £20, which is even cheaper than some of H&M's Conscious Collection products.

Monkee Genes received the top score from Good On You, with a 'great', but they certainly aren't the cheapest.

High-end and ethical: £70, Levi's

Levi's is the biggest name in denim, and it's taking that responsibility fairly seriously with its environmental promises.

A lot of Levi's jeans are made using its 'Waterless' technique, which is where the company has reduced the amount of water that goes into its production by 96%. 

The company plans to have 80% of its jeans produced using this technique at some point this year.

Levi's environmental pledges (Image: Levi's)

One big plus point of Levi's is that the jeans are encouraged to be a long-term purchase, rather than a fast-fashion purchase like at cheaper high street retailers.

The company has made big efforts to educate people as to how to look after their jeans, making them last longer and reducing the number of jeans you should need to buy in your lifetime.

Levi's also now has an 'Authorized Vintage' collection at its New York flagship store, where shoppers can buy second-hand jeans that have been restored.

They are expensive though, so whilst they are great in terms of sustainability, they're not the budget-friendly option.

Good On You also gave Levi's a fairly poor rating based on the fact that it uses leather, wool and down in its products.

Verdict: if you're looking to make a long-term investment and have some cash to splash, Levi's jeans are your best pick.

If not, Monkee Genes has a good sustainable offering at a slightly lower sale price.

If you're looking to buy as cheap as possible with your jeans, keep an eye out for Primark's sustainable jeans, as it's only a select few from its offering that are 100% sustainable.

Buying less and buying second hand are also both good options for making fashion more sustainable.

Another idea gaining popularity is renting clothes, with sites like Hire Street offering a huge range of occasion dresses that you can rent for a fraction of the original price.

This means that you get to have different outfits for every event without having to pay the earth for them and it's much better for the environment to rent something and send it back rather than buying it to never wear it again.

Socks

Cheapest: £2.50 for five pairs, Primark

Unlike the jeans, Primark's socks aren't part of its sustainability roll-out just yet.

This means that the socks won't be made from sustainable materials, and the quality is likely to mean that they won't last that long.

For 50p a pair, however, they are easily the cheapest socks we could find.

Primark socks (Image: Primark)

Ethical and affordable: £5 for 7 pairs, M&S

M&S usually ranks well when it comes to ethical products and it regularly tops the Ethical Consumer Magazine's ranking of ethical high street retailers.

100% of Marks & Spencer's cotton is sustainably sourced, which means that at least 75% of the materials that go into making its cotton blend socks are sustainable, which isn't bad at 71p per pair.

Most ethical: £25 for five pairs, Rapanui

If you're looking to splash out a little, Rapanui also offer socks that are as environmentally friendly as its t-shirts.

All of the company's socks are 100% bamboo and as with the t-shirts, you are able to send worn-out products back to the factory, with postage covered if you are in the UK, and then you will receive money off of your next Rapanui purchase.

Verdict: socks show wear and tear pretty quickly, and cheaper socks will definitely need replacing more often.

The M&S socks are the best deal if you're looking to strike a balance between ethical shopping and sticking to a budget, whereas the Rapanui socks make for a great long-lasting purchase.

Ethical household products

All-purpose cleaning spray

Cheapest: Asda multi-purpose cleaner with bleach, 69p for 500ml (£1.38 per litre)

This was the cheapest multi-purpose spray we could find on the market, and whilst it's great value in terms of the quantity, reading the small-print might make it a little less appealing.

The website says that the product could be 'harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects' and obviously it contains bleach, neither of which are good for the environment.

Better for the environment: Method multi-surface cleaner, £3 for 828ml (£3.62 per litre)

Method's 'healthy' cleaning products are non-toxic and biodegrable, with a lot of the ingredients being naturally derived.

The company avoids what it calls 'dirty ingredients', including ammonia, bleach, ethylene glycol butyl ether and phthalates, which are deemed to be harmful to both us and the environment.

Because of its ingredients, Method products are also safe to be used around pets.

All Method product bottles are made from old bottles and they are designed to be recycled again after use.

Method multi-purpose spray (Image: Method)

Verdict: price-wise Asda's multi-purpose cleaner is a clear winner, but Method goes above and beyond in terms of its environmental efforts.

Also if you are conscious of the ingredients that go into your cleaning products because of allergies or environmental concerns, Method is a reliable brand in terms of its 'clean' contents.

Why we need more reusable plastic schemes

Washing up liquid 

Cheapest: Asda Original washing up liquid, 89p per litre

This washing up liquid is definitely good value for money, but in terms of its sustainability and ethics, it isn't a best buy. 

The bottle of liquid contains an array of chemicals, such as amphoteric surfactants, which can be harmful to the environment.

On the bright side the bottle is made of materials that are widely recycled in the UK and none of the product's ingredients are tested on animals. 

Better for the environment: Fairy Original washing up liquid, £2 for 1.35 litres (£1.48 per litre from Asda)

The nation's best-known washing up liquid has better credentials than Asda's own brand version, as the product was not tested on animals and the bottle is made of up to 50% recycled materials, according to Which?.

That said, the same research showed that the ingredients are not all-natural and that they are derived from crude oil or other petrochemicals, meaning it's not the best option out there.

Better still for the environment: Ecover washing up liquid, £1 for 450ml (£2.22 per litre from Asda)

Ecover has a whole host of eco-friendly products that have now become mainstream enough that they're available in all major supermarkets.

The washing up liquid only contains plant and mineral based ingredients, it isn't tested on animals, and the bottle is made with 100% recycled plastic.

The company did receive backlash a few years ago for using palm oil in its products, but it is now a member of RSPO, which means that it only uses sustainable palm oil.

Ecover washing up liquid (Image: Shutterstock)

Verdict: of the three products, Ecover definitely has the best ethical credentials, but the fact that it's almost two and a half times the price is slightly off-putting.

If you are opting for the cheaper products, be sure to recycle the bottles to minimise their impact on the environment.

Supermarket recycling schemes: how much you can earn?

Toilet paper

Most toilet paper sold in the UK will come with a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label, which means that it is made out of wood from certified forests that meet high environmental and social standards.

This is a start, but it doesn’t mean that it is all sustainable or that the materials are recyclable, and it's still worth double-checking as some products don't have this label.

Cheapest: Asda Smart Price toilet roll, £1.93 for 12 rolls (16.1p each)

Given how cheap this toilet paper is, its credentials really aren’t too bad.

The toilet paper is recycled which is good, however the plastic wrapping cannot be recycled.

Better for the environment: Waitrose ECOlogical toilet tissue, £3 for 9 rolls (33p each)

Waitrose’s ECOlogical toilet tissue is 100% recycled, which is a step up from Asda’s offering, plus it is cheaper per roll than Andrex (below).

The paper is also FSC approved which is a positive, however the packaging isn’t recyclable, which is a downside.

Best-known: Andrex gentle clean toilet roll (38.9p each, from Asda)

All Andrex toilet paper is either 100% recycled, recyclable, or both, as is the packaging.

That said, it’s almost 6p more expensive than Waitrose’s toilet paper and lacks the FSC stamp of approval unlike the supermarket’s version.

Environmentally friendly: Ecoleaf recycled paper toilet tissue, £4.39 for 9 rolls (49p each)

Moving away from the supermarket toilet papers, Ecoleaf can be bought from Ethical Superstore and it’s a step up from the cheaper options.

This toilet paper is 100% recyclable and the packaging is also biodegradable, so it can be composted at home.

Ecoleaf ethical toilet paper (Image: Ethical Superstore)

Better still for the environment: Who Gives A Crap 100% recycled toilet paper, £36 for 48 rolls (75p each)

This is definitely what you’d called high-end toilet paper (if such a thing exists) price-wise, but it is made with 100% recycled paper and is free of inks, dyes or scents. 

This is one of the only toilet papers you can buy that benefits other people too, as 50% of the toilet paper profits go towards building toilets for people in need all over the world.

Verdict: if you prefer to grab your toilet paper with the rest of your weekly shop, keep an eye out for recycled paper and the FSC logo to make sure you're not accidentally funding deforestation.

If you're happy to order online and have a bit more money to spend on getting ethical brands, both Ecoleaf and Who Gives a Crap are great options.

So should you be shelling out for ethical products?

In the cases of some of the products we looked at, it's actually cheaper to buy more ethical versions which makes it better for the planet as well as your wallet.

In most instances, it is a bit pricier to shop ethically and at the end of the day, it's a matter of personal circumstance as to whether you prioritise price or ethical credentials.

If shopping ethically is something that is important to you, it is possible to make it work with good financial planning and savvy shopping.

 

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