Clothes Shops

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 29 high street shops 

We also look at the problem with fast fashion, transparency in supply chains, shine a light on the ethics of Inditex and give our recommended buys. 

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying clothing:

  • Is it organic? There are many problems associated with cotton production, from the use of child labour to the widespread use of toxic pesticides. Look for 100% organic cotton.

  • Is it recycled? The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the UK. Most clothing is worn only a handful of times and then sent to landfill. Help the environment by shopping secondhand or buying from a company that offers free repairs.

  • People before profits? Many high street retailers rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to continue to churn out fast fashion. Buy Fairtrade clothing to ensure that you are supporting the livelihood of the person who made your clothes.

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying clothing:

  • Does it use toxic chemicals? Clothes manufacturing often uses numerous chemicals that are then released, seriously damaging the environmental. Avoid companies that use toxic chemicals.

  • Is it fur or leather? Over one million animals are killed every year for their fur, and leather has a high cost in terms of the environment as well as animal rights. Avoid clothes containing these fabrics.

  • Is it viscose? This synthetic fibre is increasingly popular with designer and high street retailers alike. But its manufacture is causing serious water pollution, which has led to human rights as well as environmental harm.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

This product guide focuses on UK high-street retail brands.

The good news is that many high-street retailers are currently responding well to their critics and, unlike other industries, can be seen to be taking a proactive approach to addressing some of these issues, especially around workers’ rights.

The bad news is that, when it comes to the environment and specifically toxic chemicals, there is a long way to go.

Can High Street Clothing Retailers be Ethical?

How Workers Rights have improved in Supply Chains

Most of the high-street retailers perform well against Ethical Consumer’s supply chain management rating.

In 2011, we introduced a new, more sophisticated supply chain rating which went beyond looking for a basic workers’ rights policy and looked more widely at several key aspects of supply chain management.

The table below tracks the progress of 11 high-street retailers who have featured in each of our guides to clothing since 2011. There have been noticeable improvements in companies receiving the best or middle rating for their supply chain management policies.

UK clothes shops supply chain ratings table

Uniqlo, ASOS, H&M, Next and Arcadia have all moved up to a best Ethical Consumer rating.

ASOS and Uniqlo have both made considerable improvements over this time.

In 2011, both companies produced a basic code of conduct which covered freedom of association, discrimination, child labour and forced labour.

By 2017, ASOS’ code of conduct had been brought in line with the Ethical Trading Initiative’s base code and it was engaging Action, Collaboration and Transformation (ACT) on issues such as living wages within its supply chain.

Uniqlo had become a member of the Fair Labour Association and had produced more details on its website regarding how it monitored its supply chain.

In the case of Gap, our research shows that its reporting of auditing processes, audit results and involvement in projects related to difficult issues has weakened.

With Monsoon, unlike in 2011, it did not respond to a questionnaire so we lacked detail, in particular about its work with homeworkers.

Calls for Transparency 

In response to calls by civil society, many of the clothing brands featured in this guide are publishing their factory supply lists. 

In this guide, we have not marked down clothing retailers sourcing from oppressive regimes if they have published a full list of their factory suppliers with names and addresses. We feel that this level of transparency should be encouraged.

Brands which have published a full list of their suppliers are: ASOS, H&M, GAP, M&S and Uniqlo. Inditex (Zara) has some information on where its suppliers are based.

Image: garment workers

Analysis: Changing Attitudes to Supply Chain Management

While researching for this guide, we were surprised to find that over half of the high-street retail brands investigated scored an Ethical Consumer best for their supply chain management rating. This was a huge improvement from 2011 when it was around 20%.

In fact, only two brands, Matalan and Amazon, now receive a worst rating in this category compared to nine receiving a worst rating in 2011.

We believe that this change has occurred for three main reasons:

1. High profile campaigns and consumer action

Campaign and research organisations – such as the Clean Clothes Campaign or Labour Behind the Label – have consistently produced reports detailing the horrific conditions which workers are subjected to in clothing supply chains.

These exposés have led many clothing companies to accept the need to take responsibility for what occurs in their supply chains as a matter of risk. In doing this, most high-street clothing retailers now produce corporate social responsibility reports, or at the very least statements, detailing their actions and policies addressing workers’ rights violations in their supply chain.

Recently, the campaign around increasing transparency has led to many companies disclosing their full factory lists – something campaigners have been asking retailers to do for years. M&S, for example, has an interactive supplier map on its website which allows consumers to look at where its factories are located, what they produce and how many people they employ.

Acting on these reports, the consumer is now making a big difference. In a crowded market such as clothing, the ability to distinguish a brand for its sustainable qualities appears to be becoming more important. In part, this is driven by the consumers who demand clothing which has been produced under fair labour conditions. However, it is also a reaction by big retailers that fear losing consumers, driving them to innovate and work with others to address issues.

2. Emergence of supply chain initiatives

The exploitation of people making clothes for major global brands and retailers has led to the emergence of various supply chain initiatives – all sharing the goal of rising working standards within the industry.

It is widely acknowledged that many of the systemic issues facing the clothing industry are not problems one company can fix. The need for collaboration between different stakeholders is key in driving the change needed to improving workers’ rights within supply chains. 

One of the key organisations working in this space is the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) which was set up in 1998 by a group of UK companies, NGOs and trade union organisations. The aim was to build an alliance of organisations that would work together to define how major companies should implement their codes of labour practice in a credible way. 16 out of 21 of the companies in the high-street retailers’ product guide are members of the ETI.

However, the organisation is not without criticism. A report called “The Ethical Trading Initiative Negotiated Solutions to Human Rights Violations in Global Supply Chains?” challenged whether a voluntary initiative could be a replacement for legally binding mechanisms and found a significant accountability gap between companies committing violations and retribution within the ETI.

3. Regulation

Initiatives such as the ETI and others which focus on specific areas, i.e. Better Cotton and the Accord, can help to bridge a gap where state mechanisms fail. But the most effective tool in getting companies to at least report on their supply chains has come through regulation.

In 2015 in the UK, the Modern Slavery Act was passed which included a clause requiring companies with business activities in the UK and a turnover above £36 million to report on the actions they were taking to address the issue of slavery within their supply chain.

According to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre its registry – the only free, public and transparent database of company statements – currently holds over 2,000 statements from companies in 27 sectors, headquartered in 31 countries.

Again, there are weaknesses within this regulation. First of all, there is no one policing the statements. The idea was that civil society organisations would rate and rank the statements which would help to drive forward change.

Some analysis by CORE has found that “only 14% of statements comply with the legal requirements and most provide little information on the six areas that the Act suggests companies may wish to report on.” Secondly, a company can legally produce a report which states it is doing nothing.

The Modern Slavery Act follows other regulations aimed at forcing companies to step up and demonstrate responsibility to people and the environment.

In 2012 the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act was introduced.

In 2016 President Obama signed into law the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (the “Act”) which banned the import of “goods” produced using forced labour.

In February 2017, France passed a law requiring businesses with over 5,000 employees to conduct due diligence human rights abuses in supply chains.

By the end of 2017, EU member states will transpose the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive into their national laws, which will require about 6,000 large companies to report on Environmental Social Governance (ESG) matters including human rights.

Has this improved workers’ conditions?

Despite the rhetoric to change practices and respect workers’ rights, many of the brands are still facing issues which are systemic to the industry.

By way of example, a report released last year exposed the difference between practice and policy. SACOM conducted an undercover investigation inside four of Zara, H&M, and GAP’s supplier factories in China.

Despite the three brands’ CSR policies demonstrating commitments to workers and addressing issues within their supply chains, the investigation revealed the disparity between the brands’ supplier factory CSR Policies and the reality in their Chinese supplier factories.

‘Reality Behind Brands’ CSR – An Investigative Report on China Suppliers of ZARA, H&M, and GAP’ found examples of excessive hours, poor health and safety, low wages and no worker representation.

For many the answer lies in respecting and working with trade unions within the textile sectors.

Clean Clothes Campaign states: “Anyone serious about ensuring workers get a living wage and decent working conditions cannot ignore the role of trade unions. They offer the most effective and legitimate way to ensure that workers get a fair deal, by allowing them to stand together to defend their rights.”

Some brands have already started to make agreements with trade unions. In 2014, the Global Framework Agreement (GFA) between IndustriALL Global Union and Inditex was designed to promote decent work across the group’s vast supply chain, covering over a million workers in more than 6,000 supplier factories worldwide.

The Agreement “underlines that freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively play a central role in a sustainable supply chain because they provide workers with the mechanisms to monitor and enforce their rights at work.”

Tougher action needed

In conclusion, it is great to see that, at a policy level, companies are now beginning to address serious issues in their supply chains. The collective efforts of industry, civil society, consumers and governments are now having some impact. However, the extent to which this is impacting on the factory floor is still up for debate.

Companies need to be more proactive and work with international and local trade unions to ensure contracts are fairly negotiated. 

What’s also missing is a more detailed legal framework for holding companies to account for continually failing workers in their supply chains. At present, beyond the bad PR, there are no real consequences for brands who do not live up to their responsibilities and this needs to change.

The Problem with Fast Fashion

Sadly, policy and practice within this industry still does not match up. Nearly all the high-street brands lose a mark under workers’ rights for violations against workers in their supply chain.

This can be ascribed to the fact that many of the brands in this report produce cheap, mass-produced clothing. Colloquially known as ‘fast fashion’ it has engendered a race to the bottom, pushing companies to find ever-cheaper sources of labour.

Quick turn around

Many of the high-street clothing retailers have adopted a production approach where turnaround times for clothing to be designed, manufactured and sold is achieved within weeks. Retailers can now react to changing trends, or the weather, at a drop of a hat.

This shift in production has also gone hand-in-hand with a reduction in prices. Apparently though, “consumers will spend more over a year with regular low cost ‘fashion fixes’ than on more exclusive pieces that they fall in love with and will treasure.”

Tamsin Lejeune from the Ethical Fashion Forum argues that for the retailers it is about how much product can be shifted, and how quickly.

“Shifting product quickly means producing a lot of stuff at as low a price as possible, which puts pressure on suppliers to make huge volumes at a low price to tight deadlines. That pressure caused Rana Plaza in 2013.”

Fast fashion costs workers dearly. In July 2016, SACOM found that factories producing clothes for GAP, H&M and Inditex (Zara) regularly forced workers to work excessively long overtime to meet disproportionally tight delivery time; workers were exposed to toxic chemicals, cotton dust and hazardous dusts without protective gear; there was poor worker representation and workers did not receive a living wage.

In June 2017, an investigation by Danwatch and the Guardian found that in Cambodia, over the past year, more than 500 workers in four factories, supplying Puma, Nike, Asics and VF Corp, were hospitalised after fainting. According to unions, the use of short-term contracts was a key source of stress and exhaustion.

Business objectives of profit maximisation versus producing products under conditions which are fair to the workers, environment and animals is the dilemma facing many of high-street retailers. The issue has been referred to as the ‘elephant in the room’ by campaigners when businesses are discussing sustainability without mentioning their actual business model.

Table: what have clothing companies signed up to

Environmental Impact of Fast Fashion

Overall, the brands in this report score poorly against Ethical Consumer’s environmental reporting rating. Only M&S scored the best rating in this category due to the fact that under its Plan A – sustainability strategy – it had key targets around the sourcing of raw materials, including cotton, from sources verified as respecting the integrity of ecosystems, the welfare of animals and the wellbeing of people and communities. 

The majority of companies scored poorly because they lacked any detailed understanding of their main environmental impacts such as the use of toxic chemicals and sourcing of materials.

Primark, Inditex and H&M all demonstrated good understanding of their environmental impacts. Inditex had broken its reporting into sections with a water management strategy; energy usage; biodiversity strategy; and efficient stores, manufacturing and logistics.

Encouragingly, several of the brands are joining up to initiatives including the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) Commitment to help tackle the large environmental issues facing the industry, from resource depletion to pollution of water to dealing with waste. 

Toxic Clothing

One of the most pressing issues in the sector is the use of toxic chemicals. The chemicals are used in dyes, for cleaning and fireproofing, as anti-fungals, for water and stain-proofing, as solvents and as pigments. These hazardous chemicals have been found in effluent from supply chain manufacturers, in products and in the environment, despite decades of regulation and corporate responsibility programmes.

For local communities living near manufacturing facilities, water pollution has become a daily reality. Attempts to address this problem have typically involved setting and tightening the legal limits for the discharge and release of a relatively narrow range of hazardous chemicals. This ‘legalised pollution’ has not prevented the continuing release of toxic chemicals. But, for persistent, hazardous chemicals, like heavy metals, PFCs or phthalates, there is no ‘safe’ level.

How we rated the companies on toxic chemicals

  • Companies in all the guides included in this issue lost a mark under Pollution & Toxics unless they had one of the following:
  • They used 100% sustainably sourced materials (i.e. organic, recycled or cotton sourced under the Better Cotton Initiative,
  • Were listed as a leader in the Greenpeace Detox campaign,
  • Were a small company only selling sustainable, alternative clothing.
  • If a company had a target for the zero discharge of hazardous chemicals or more than 50% of sustainably sourced materials, then it got our middle rating.

A company that had none of the above got our worst rating.

Slow progress on the high street

Most of the high-street retailers received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for their toxic chemicals policy.

Only H&M and Zara received a best rating for toxic chemicals in this report as they have been recognised as leaders by Greenpeace’s Detox campaign. Others who are signatories and scored a middle, i.e. making some progress, are Uniqlo, Primark and M&S.

Gap is also a signatory of the Detox campaign but in the recent progress report was found to be a “toxic addict”, which refers to brands who fail to take responsibility for their toxic trail and have yet to make a credible individual Detox commitment. This is despite the fact that some of their products have been identified as polluting since investigations that Greenpeace undertook in 2013.


We found that most companies in these guides sold leather items – either clothing, shoes or accessories like bags and belts. Aside from the obvious animal rights issue, there are other problems with leather including pollution from toxic chemicals used in manufacturing, forced labour, and deforestation for cattle ranching.

Image: Deforestation due to leather
In 2009, Greenpeace linked deforestation in the Amazon for cattle ranching and the leather industry

Chemicals in tanning

One of the most polluting processes of leather production is the tanning phase - a process that uses toxic chemicals to turn animal skin into leather and stop it from decomposing.

One of the most problematic chemicals used is chromium. During the process, this produces a chemical by-product, hexavalent chromium, which is a known human carcinogen. Many other hazardous chemicals are used in the process including arsenic, heavy metals and cyanide.

According to the India Committee of the Netherlands’ report ‘Do Leather Workers Matter?’ in March 2017, all of these toxic chemicals have a negative effect on both the environment and the health of workers who often work in unregulated, unorganised small tanneries and workshops or are homeworkers.

How we rated the companies for leather

We asked companies if they had a policy on the use of leather, including how it is sourced and treated (e.g. covering pollution from tanneries and deforestation from cattle ranching). We used their responses or information taken from their websites to rate them in two areas: Animal Rights and Pollution & Toxics.

Companies that used leather got a Pollution & Toxics mark, unless they used organic or upcycled leather, natural vegetable dyes or if all their leather came from tanneries that are rated ‘Gold medal’ by the Leather Working Group.

Companies using leather are also marked down under Animal Rights.

Company behind the brand

In December 2016, Inditex (Zara and Pull & Bear) was accused by the European Green Party of using aggressive tax avoidance schemes to reduce taxes by €585 million, or $624 million, between 2011 and 2014.

According to the report“Inditex has used a complex web of licensing fees and intercompany loans to shift profits to zones such as Ireland and the Netherlands, where corporate taxes are lower.”

Inditex disputed the claims in a press release on its website. However, without country-by-country reporting, it was impossible to tell if profits were being shifted to lower tax jurisdictions. It received Ethical Consumer’s middle rating for likely use of tax avoidance.

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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