Last updated: September 2016
Sports & Outdoor Shops
Ethical policies in this sector are generally not impressive. In this guide we look at companies’ ratings, their use of zero hour contracts, their connection (or lack of it) with the outdoors, and supply chain issues.
Sports Direct [see its extended company profile here] is by far the biggest player in the UK sports and outdoor shops market, being responsible for about half the sports retailing in the UK. JD Sports (in which Sports Direct has a minority stake) is the next biggest, accounting for 31% of the market in 2015. All of the other shops are tiny players by comparison, having only a few percent each.
Companies with a passion for the outdoors?
Some outdoor gear manufacturers were born of their creator’s own passion for the outdoors, and are still controlled by their founders. Climber Yvon Chouinard, for example, still owns Patagonia.
However, there are no major outdoor retailers in the UK that are similarly controlled by outdoor enthusiasts. Most were just offshoots of other retail businesses from the start – Decathlon, for example, was founded by the Mulliez family who already owned the French Auchan supermarket chain. While Go Outdoors was started by an obsessive climber, he stepped down in 2013, and the company’s current CEO was previously a director at Dixons.
All but Decathlon received our worst rating for Toxics and Environmental Reporting, and Decathlon only scraped a middle in both categories.
All companies sell animal down in jackets and sleeping bags, and none of them have a policy to prevent live plucking of ducks and geese. Our feature on animal down explains the animal cruelty prevalent in the outdoor industry.
There is only one key area in which these companies do well, and that is tax avoidance. Only Sports Direct and PAI Partners– the private equity owners of Cotswold Outdoor and Snow and Rock- have two or more high risk subsidiaries in jurisdictions we consider to be tax havens.
Zero hours contracts
Sports Direct has recently been the subject of a huge amount of publicity over the treatment of its UK staff, who are largely on zero hours contracts. It has been widely reported as paying them less than the minimum wage, and intimidating them to the extent that they dare not even go to the toilet.
Given this, some may be wondering whether other sports shops fare much better. And while it is only one factor, the extent to which a company uses zero hours contracts gives a flavour of its attitudes towards its staff.
The winner in this area is Decathlon, which says on its website “we operate a “no zero hours contract” policy.” None of the other companies have publicly available policies.
Although it can be hard to find out the extent to which a company uses zero hour contracts, we found a Go Outdoors job advert that mentions that zero hour contracts “are available”, and we found a JD Sports job advert that described working hours as “flexible”. 
No information could be found regarding zero hours contracts at Intersport, Cotswold Outdoor, Blacks & Millets, Mountain Warehouse, Snow & Rock or Trespass.
Supply Chain Management
Every single company received our worst rating for Supply Chain Management, as they either had no explicit supply chain policies, or had very poor ones.
However it is possible that companies in this sector may tend to have slightly better supply chains than other clothing companies just by default, due to the nature of their business.
In 2014 the FairWear Foundation put out a report on the outdoor industry, claiming that the makers of outdoor gear tend to have more stable relationships with their suppliers than is common in the wider clothing sector. If this is true, it is probably because making outdoor gear requires more specialised labour, and also because it is not sold so much on the basis of fleeting fashions so designs change less regularly, and thus it makes more sense to keep going with suppliers who know what they are doing.
The FairWear Foundation looked at a sample of six outdoor companies, and found that they sourced 90% of their clothing from factories with which they had had a relationship for five or more years, which is very different from the bulk of the clothing industry. The outdoor companies also had fewer suppliers– in many cases just one or two- and used longer lead times.
The Foundation did not suggest that this meant that everything was hunky dory. It still found issues, particularly excessive overtime, in factories making outdoor clothing. But it argued that the more stable supplier relationships found in the industry put it in a good position to lead the clothing industry on workers rights in its supply chain.
Company behind the brand
Decathlon only represents about 3% of the sports retail market in the UK but is a much bigger player internationally, being one of the world’s largest sports retailers.
Decathlon is owned by the Mulliez family, one of the richest families in France. The family also owns the French Auchan supermarket chain, and several other French retailers in the DIY, clothes, and electronics fields. It has many different own-brand names, although the main ones are Quechua for Outdoor Gear and BTWIN for Cycling equipment.
Decathlon has a moderately lack-lustre set of ethical policies, that are still better than most companies in the sector. As stated earlier, it does not use zero hours contracts and it gets our middle rating on environmental reporting and toxics, which puts it at the top of the league. But it got our worst rating for Supply Chain management and it has no policies on cotton sourcing at all. It uses animal down and we could find no reference to any policies to prevent live-plucking.
See our extended company profile of Sports Direct.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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1. Mintel 2016, Sports Goods Retailing
5. FairWear Foundation, 2014, Living Wage Engineering
6. Mintel 2016, Sports Goods Retailing