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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK
The true cost of cheap clothes
By June Woolerton
Producer, Five Live Report

Shoppers outside Primark
Primark is seen as a key destination for 'cheap chic' fans

In the last month 90,000 people have snapped up Primark's version of this summer's must have polka dot dress.

Its popularity means there's a good risk of running into someone else in the same outfit. But with a price tag of 10 it's a chance worth taking for the fashion hungry.

It's never been cheaper or easier to buy clothes. Low cost shops like Primark and Peacocks are taking the High Street by storm.

Supermarkets are getting in on the act as well. It can be cheaper to fill a wardrobe than a fridge freezer.

The latest figures from retail analysts Verdict Research show that 1 in every 5 spent on fashion in the UK is going to low cost shops.

But with easy prices come tough questions.

If the UK shopper is paying two pounds for a T-shirt - how much is the person who's making it being paid?

Ethical edge

The sweatshop scandals of the 1990s have left a lasting impression and top names want to get rid of that image.

Many High Street stores - including Primark and Peacocks - now belong to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which makes sure they stick to a code of conduct covering working conditions, wages and the right to belong to a union.

We can use fashion as a development tool to help people escape from poverty
Safia Minney, People Tree

It also carries out unannounced visits to factories and nowadays very few fail the test, says its chief executive, Alan Roberts.

"We have a process of challenge and disciplinary process which could lead to a member being removed from ETI," he tells BBC Radio Five Live.

"We've not removed any but we have been in the process with three or four over the years. We've been able to get them to buck up their ideas and get back on to the job they're meant to be doing."

There are firms that market their clothes as being totally ethical. Firms like People Tree which used to rely on internet sales are now moving into London stores.

The company's founder, Safia Minney, wants to do more than pay a decent wage.

"We can use fashion as a development tool to help people escape from poverty," Ms Minney says.

"Generally we're paying between two and three times more for a product than a High Street name would be paying to a factory in Bangladesh."

Origins tagged

But unless clothes are advertised as ethical there is no way of knowing how they were made.

There are growing calls for a label which would show fashion lovers they can hand over their 2 with a clear conscience.

Sweatshop in Hong Kong
Sweatshop scandals prompted shoppers to think hard about their buys

The Fraser Consultancy, which asks shoppers how ethical they think stores are, says a lack of a logo is a problem.

"People don't want to be bombarded with too much information but they do want to understand what ethically produced products mean in store and what organic means when they're in shops," says Fraser Consultancy founder Karen Fraser.

But the bottom line remains price.

With shops now offering six or eight collections a year rather than the staple winter and summer lines, shoppers want price tags in single figures.

The question for the High Street is whether it can convince us we're salving our consciences as well as saving the pennies.

Five Live Report: The True Cost of Cheap Clothes can be heard on Sunday 23 July at 1100 BST and 1930BST and will also be available at the Five Live Report website

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