If you own a clothing store, how the clothing is made, where it comes from and even how it is advertised may present ethical issues that can either attract or repel customers. For many people, clothing does more than cover the body and provide warmth. They choose clothing to reflect their values and ethics, and well as personal style. Being aware of these ethical issues can help you make smart business choices.

Fakes and Knockoffs

People love a bargain, but if the price on a piece of designer clothing or an accessory is too good to be true, you could be looking at a fake. According to the United States Department of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, counterfeiting of goods accounts for between $200 and $250 billion in losses to the U.S. economy each year. If you deal in counterfeit goods, you risk not only angering customers who feel deceived, but raising the ire of the U.S. Customs Service, which could seize the goods and hit you with big fines and even jail time. To avoid making a mistake, deal with reputable wholesalers and pass up any deal that seems too good to be true.

Sweatshop Labor

Much of the clothing sold in American stores is made overseas. Publicity over factories where workers, sometimes young children, worked long hours in inhumane and unsafe conditions for very little pay made retailers from Gap to Wal-Mart pledge to enforce requirements for better working conditions from their foreign manufacturers. If you purchase clothing made overseas, ask about the factories where it was made. You may have a tough time getting accurate information, though, as Salon.com’s Jake Blumgart reported in March 2013. The supply chain in the apparel industry is multilayered and complicated, and the companies involved keep it that way for profit motives. No one watchdog group oversees all manufacturers. You could also look for alternatives made in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and other countries where sweatshop labor is much less common. The Ethical Fashion Forum also maintains a database of ethically sourced clothing suppliers (see Resources).


How you advertise the goods you sell influences consumers’ opinions of your store. In 2013, Victoria’s Secret faced backlash from some consumers who felt the store’s sexy ads for its Pink line were targeting pre-teen girls. And clothing retailer Roxy heard complaints about an ad featuring a female surfer who some said was unnecessarily sexualized. Sex may sell, but some consumers find overly sexual ads offensive.


People of all sizes may be attracted to the clothing in your store, but if shoppers don’t find their size represented among your offerings, or if they don’t feel the sizes are realistic, you could find yourself at the center of an ethical discussion. Abercrombie & Fitch got caught up in such a debate, and faced negative publicity and consumer boycotts, when the firm’s CEO affirmed a policy of not carrying larger sizes in the company’s stores. More recently, Target responded to a mom’s campaign to get the retailer to carry clothing sized appropriately for young girls, with longer hems and less skimpy cuts. As a retailer, you could take advantage of this kind of discussion by making it a point to carry age-appropriate clothing for children or fashion that fits the whole range of women's sizes.

Fair Trade, Organic and More

Consumers may have other ethical issues in mind when they shop for clothing. Some look for vegan, or animal-free clothing with no leather, wool or real fur. Others are interested in organically sourced materials, such as organic cotton tinted with natural dyes. Still others focus on fair trade goods, for which the maker, often a small business, has been fairly compensated. Offering goods that fall into these categories can satisfy the needs of these consumers and can help you reach new customers.