Ethical shopping guide to Sportswear, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Sportswear, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Which companies are running ahead and who's falling behind.

The report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 29 brands of Sportswear, both fashion and performance brands
  • In-depth environmental reporting ratings
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • Spotlight on Brooks
  • Chemicals in Sportswear
  • Uzbek cotton


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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Last updated: August 2016




Why sportswear brands are failing the environment


Growth in the sports good market grew by 7.0% in 2015. Growth in the sector often peaks every two years in line with major sporting events such as the Olympics or UEFA European Championship.[1] 

Our research concentrates on sportswear designed for playing sports, rather than the growing trend for hybrid ‘athleisure’ clothing. 


Image: ethical guide to sportswear



Our ratings


We identified the most important issues in this market to be:



Enviromental reporting

Despite promoting a healthier lifestyle, it would seem the brands included in this report don’t value the environment’s health, with over half of the companies rated receiving a worst Ethical Consumer rating for environmental reporting. 

In order to achieve a best rating in our Environmental Reporting category, a company must clearly demonstrate that it understands its main environmental impacts. In this market, this includes understanding the impacts of materials used in production – especially the pollution and toxics issues associated with the leather, glue and dye industries. A company must also have two quantified and dated environmental targets and have its report independently verified.

Smaller companies providing an environmental alternative are exempt from this category.


Worst rating:

The following brands scored a worst rating for Environmental Reporting but did at least demonstrate a reasonable understanding of their environmental impacts: Mizuno, Brooks, Puma and Pentland (Ellesse, Speedo).

Ronhill, Wolverine, Amer Sports, Umbro, Fila, Diadora, Mizuno and Sports Direct (Muddyfox, Slazenger, USA Pro) either failed to produce an environmental report or hadn’t demonstrated a reasonable understanding of their key environmental impacts.


Middle rating:

New Balance, adidas and Nike all received a middle rating for Environmental Reporting, as they had demonstrated a reasonable understanding of their environmental impacts and had environmental targets. However, their reports were not independently verified.

ASICS also received a middle rating for having its report independently verified and having dated targets, but it failed to get a best rating as it did not demonstrate a reasonable understanding of its key environmental impacts.


Best rating:

The following brands scored best for Environmental Reporting, all had a turnover of less than £8 million and provided either a social or environmental alternative: Yew, Gossypium, Earth Couture, Paramo and Howies.


The use of nanotechnology


For the environmentally conscious athlete, the issue of nanotechnology is particularly troublesome.

Nanotechnology is a subject of concern for environmental and health campaigners due to the release of nanoscale particles without full knowledge of the effects of many chemicals at nanoscale on the human body, animals and the environment.

The following companies were therefore marked down under Pollution and Toxics as they were found to be selling clothing that used nanotechnology: Nike, Sports Direct and Hi-Tec.

Read our in-depth company profile for Sports Direct


Cotton sourcing

Cotton sourcing is a hot topic in the clothing sector, due to the workers’ rights issues associated with its production, particularly in Uzbekistan, as well as the prevalence of GM cotton and the wide-spread use of toxic pesticides.

According to the Anti-Slavery international (ASI) website, Uzbekistan is the fourth largest exporter of cotton in the world, and every year the government forcibly mobilises over one million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. ASI also say that Europe is the biggest single destination for Uzbek cotton. Companies that do not have a system in place to ensure that their cotton is not sourced from Uzbekistan lose half a mark under the Workers’ Rights category.

Cotton is said to cover 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land and yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other major crop. As a result, companies that do not source 100% organic cotton lose half a mark under the Pollution and Toxics category.

You can read more about Uzbek cotton in our human rights feature. 


We’ve rated all the companies on their toxic chemicals policies, using our own rating system, because of the number of hazardous chemicals, such as PFCs, PVC, dyes and adhesives, used in the clothing and footwear industries.

A strong policy on toxics would include:

- a priority list of hazardous chemicals (HC's)

- a set of clear targets to remove discharge of all HC's (with dates)

- a requirement that suppliers disclose data on release of HC's

- publicly disclosed data on the HC's used and progress towards removing them

- a discussion of alternatives to current HC's used (ie. not reducing their use, but replacing them)


Only six of the companies on the table above received a best rating in this category (sign in and click the "more detail" button on the table to see how each company scored)


Other ratings systems

Three companies featured in our guides – adidas, Puma and Nike – were also ranked by Greenpeace but none of these companies were considered to be ‘Detox leaders’ and didn't score top marks.

Image: Detox Campaign from Greenpeace


Greenpeace have been at the forefront of the campaign to get companies to stop using toxic chemicals. In 2016, Greenpeace assessed 19 Detox-committed companies from the fashion and sportswear sectors.

Greenpeace grouped the companies according to their commitments and actions under three criteria:

  • Detox 2020 plan – a system for eliminating hazardous chemicals that is proactive and precautionary.
  • PFC elimination – substituting hazardous PFCs with safer waterproofing alternatives.
  • Transparency – disclosing information on suppliers and the hazardous chemicals they discharge.



Company behind the brand:


Berkshire Hathaway, owner of the Brooks sports brand, was included in a list of large American companies that were said to benefit disproportionately from American tax policy on large multinational corporations.[2] 

According to the 2015 report by Citizens for Tax Justice, US based multi-national corporations used accounting tricks to pretend that a substantial portion of their profits were generated in offshore tax havens, where a company’s presence could be as little as a mailbox. Berkshire Hathaway was found to hold approximately $10 billion offshore, and maintained nine subsidiaries in the following tax havens: The Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. 


Want to know more?

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1. Mintel, Sports Goods Retailing – UK – July 2016




What about footwear? Read our ethical shopping guide to Trainers. 


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