The Ethics of the Top Selling Clothes Shops
This guide examines the ten biggest selling UK high street clothes shops, four supermarkets and top 3 e-tailers. We discover that the positive impact of campaign action has led to increased transparency in the clothing industry.
Progress on the High Street
Small steps have been made on the catwalk to ethical fashion. The aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed over 1100 garment workers in Bangladesh, has led to the creation of a number of different initiatives such as the Accord.
Many high street clothing companies have signed The Bangladesh Accord. The level of transparency required by the Accord sets a new precedent and has set the bar for companies future reporting.
All these companies have signed the Bangladesh Accord:
They have all agreed to work towards a safe garment industry in Bangladesh where workers are not at risk of fires or buildings collapsing.
Read our report 'Aftermath of Rana Plaza' for progress on the Bangladesh Accord and other initiatives that have arisen out of the fatal incident at Rana Plaza in 2013.
Campaigners have also welcomed other changes to the industry:
- 160 companies have signed the Cotton Pledge against child and forced labour in Uzbekistan.
- There has been an increase in awareness among brands on the issue of living wages for garment workers as a core issue.
- 10% of the global retail fashion industry has committed to get rid of toxic chemicals by 2020.
- Outdoor companies are paving the way in cleaning up their goose and duck down supply chains to banish animal cruelty in clothes production.
Spotlight on Supply Chains
Nearly half of the big clothes shops companies are now scoring our best rating for their supply chain management, an improvement since we last looked at the sector.This has been the result of many years of campaigns against clothing retailers to improve working conditions of workers within their supply chains.
Next, M&S, Arcadia, New Look, Primark, H&M, Tesco and John Lewis all received our best rating for supply chain management.
We are pleased that pressure has led to clothing retailers taking more responsibility for their supply chains, although there are still many industry-wide issues that badly need to be addressed.
We look at the progress being made towards living wages and safe working conditions in our special clothing report.
In light of this progress it is very disappointing that there are companies in this report who still have very little to say on the whole subject. TK Maxx, Matalan, River Island, Amazon and Net-a-Porter all received our worst rating in this category. Matalan, in particular, have hardly any publicly available information.
Journey Towards Transparency:
(Click on image to enlarge)
Comparison table of ethics between high street clothing shops
There has been growing pressure from both inside and outside the fashion industry to shift focus towards a production cycle that no longer harms people or the planet.
Despite this, there remains a general lack of Fairtrade, organic and recycled clothes on the high street, although John Lewis and H&M do sell organic clothes.
However, one thing that has happened recently is that a couple of companies have started their own clothes recycling schemes. Read our 'longer-lasting clothes' feature for more information on this.
Our alternative clothes shop guide highlights how smaller organisations are putting ethics at the forefront of their design and production policy.
Our Best Buy from the previous alternative clothing guide was People Tree who produce Fairtrade and Organic clothing. Also a Best Buy was menswear company Brothers We Stand.
It is not just outdoor companies that use animal down – it is now a fashionable filling for many jackets from high-street retailers. Several of the companies rated in this clothes shop report have made commitments not to use down which comes from live-plucked or fois gras birds. Yet none of them has adopted a methodology capable of ensuring that they actually don’t, which requires tracing their whole down supply chain back to the higher-risk parent farms.
Read our report on the 'Problem of Down'.
Excessive executive compensation:
Next, M&S, Arcadia, Primark, TK Maxx, Amazon, ASOS, Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis all pay their top executives over £1 million, which we rate as excessive.
We covered the latest on Amazon’s tax avoidance in issue 157, and a full version of the article can be found on our website. Neither of the other two e-tailers – ASOS and Net-a-Porter – show any signs of being engaged in tax avoidance.
Other companies in the report who receive our worst rating for tax avoidance include: Arcadia whose ultimate holding company is registered in Jersey; Matalan which is registered in Guernsey; and H&M which appears to use holding companies based in Hong Kong for operations in China.
More stories behind the rankings:
Marks and Spencer does pretty well in a lot of our rankings. It receives our best rating for its supply chain and environmental policies, has signed the Bangladesh Accord and was rated a leader in Greenpeace’s ‘Detox Catwalk’. It has checks in place to ensure that none of its cotton comes from Uzbekistan, and aims to procure 70% of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2020 (i.e. either Better Cotton Initiative, Fairtrade, Organic or recycled).
It was also one of a very few companies to receive the Clean Clothes Campaign’s top rating in 2014 for its work towards improving wages in its supply chain (none of the others who received it are in this guide), although the campaign group’s assessment is still fairly circumspect:
“We are pleased to see M&S has been doing work to make sure there are financial incentives for buyers to source from factories that M&S says pay living wages...[but] it is impossible to judge the real benefit to workers...because no figures have been disclosed... it could all still be smoke and mirrors.” 
On the downside, Marks and Spencer is involved in several free trade lobby groups such as the World Economic Forum and EuroCommerce.
Next is the biggest selling UK clothes retailer, having overtaken Marks and Spencer in 2014. Its CEO, Simon Wolfson, is a Conservative peer who has donated over £500,000 to the Conservative Party over the past ten years, co-chaired the party’s Economic Competitiveness policy review and, in 2010, was one of 35 signatories of an open letter calling on the Government to press ahead with public spending cuts.
Indian companies that supply Next were found, in 2012, to be employing Indian women under the Sumangali Scheme, which is a form of bonded labour that requires low-caste women to work for several years to earn money to pay for a dowry. 
As Primark made its name by selling implausibly cheap clothing, it has been much focused on by campaigners. However in its favour, Primark was the first UK company to sign up to the Bangladeshi Accord and it has donated far more to Rana Plaza victims than any other retailer.
Primark is owned by Associated British Foods. One of Associated British Foods’ foreign subsidiaries, Zambia Sugar, was accused in 2013 of ripping off its host country by avoiding paying millions of pounds of tax, which is really shocking given that Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. 
For more information see our company profile page for Primark.
H&M has promoted itself as a more ethical clothing retailer and produces reams of material about its supply chain policies, although it is unclear how much is just talk and how much makes a real difference.
H&M has been slammed recently for lagging behind on its commitments under the Bangladeshi Accord. However, activists say the issues are not unique to H&M, and the reason that they have focused on it is simply because it is such a big buyer from Bangladesh.[4[
H&M has a ‘Roadmap to a Fair Living Wage’ aimed at increasing wages in its supplier factories, which has been both praised and criticised by Labour Behind the Label – praised for including solid targets and dates, but crucially, criticised for failing to define what a living wage actually is.
Like M&S, H&M aims for all its cotton to come from “more sustainable sources” by 2020.
Amazon currently has a boycott call against it, called by us, for its use of tax avoidance strategies.
ASOS scores middle for its supply chain policy, it has banned sandblasting in its supply chain and is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative. On the downside, it has no policy on toxics.
2. Maid in India report, 2012 – India Committee of the Netherlands
3. ActionAid, 2013, “Sweet Nothings”
4. Financial Times, 1st October, 2015, Unions censure western brands over Bangladesh factory safety delays
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Fashion. See what's in the rest of the report.