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High Street Clothes Shops

In this guide, we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 44 high-street brands.

We also look at the problem with fast-fashion, workers' rights, shine a light on the ethics of Boohoo and Shein, and give some recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping 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.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when buying clothing:

  • Fewer new clothes. Clothing production has serious carbon and other environmental impacts. Buying second-hand and reducing the quantity of clothes we buy is one way of helping to reduce this impact.

  • People before profits? Many high-street retailers rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to continue to churn out fast fashion. Opt for our Recommended buys in this guide or use our Ethical Clothes guide to ensure that you are supporting the livelihoods of the people who made your clothes.

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

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What fabrics to avoid when buying clothing:

  • Is it made of synthetic or fleece material? The fashion sector is a sea of synthetic materials such as polyester. These plastic materials are derived from fossil-fuels and can shed microfibres, which find their way into our bodies and the wider natural world. Opt for natural fibres such as cotton, linen, and hemp.

  • Is it fur or leather? Around 100 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 materials. ‘Faux’ animal fabrics that are made from synthetic materials are not much better.

  • Is it dirty viscose? Campaigners are targeting viscose clothing, which may also be labelled as rayon or bamboo, because it has a very polluting manufacturing process. Cleaner viscose will be labelled as lyocell, Tencel or Monocel.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

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 guide will be updated in March 2024.

As many clothing brands now operate largely, or even entirely, online we have used the term ‘high-street’ as a catch-all term to signify brands that are bigger, more mainstream, or clearly less ethical than those found in our guide to Ethical Clothing.

The three brands that scored at the top of our score table (Patagonia, Reformation, Nobody’s Child) are notably more ethical than most of the others in this guide, but we felt they were better suited to this guide because they had a wider and more mainstream reach.

A changing landscape

The Covid-19 pandemic brought about some significant changes to the clothing sector, with two major clothing companies, Debenhams and Arcadia Group, unable to survive the economic hit brought about by UK lockdowns. Debenhams and its associated brands were hoovered up by Boohoo in January 2021, while the Arcadia Group was carved up and its numerous brands split between Boohoo Group and ASOS: the former acquiring Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Burton; the latter buying up Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge, and HIIT.

ASOS and Boohoo have been some of the winners throughout the pandemic as online shopping has increased, though recent years have also seen the rise of a number of other online fast-fashion brands, such as: I Saw It First, In the Style, Missguided, Quiz, and Shein.

We included these brands in our guide because, even though some aren’t nearly as well-established as other mainstream brands, they are growing fast, aiming their products almost exclusively at younger consumers, and have been subject to less scrutiny than the likes of Primark and H&M.

There are a vast array of brands in this sector, so it wouldn’t be possible to cover all of them, but we have made sure to cover the biggest players as well as some of the smaller, but rapidly growing online fast-fashion brands.

Missguided update

Missguided collapsed at the end of May 2022, leaving suppliers and workers out of pocket for months of completed orders.

The Frasers Group, controlled by the Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley, has reportedly bought the company out of administration for £20m. This process will take around two months to complete.

We will review the impact of the collapse and new owner in due course.

Meanwhile, Labour Behind the Label have launched a petition to demand workers and suppliers are paid, amidst reports that many are owed thousands of pounds.

What’s wrong with the clothing industry?

The clothing sector continues to grow at an extraordinary rate. Garment production has doubled since the early 2000s and is predicted to grow from 62 million tonnes in 2015 to 102 million tonnes by 2030. This increase is only partly explained by population growth, with the average person today buying 60% more clothing than in 2000.

The mass overconsumption of clothing, fuelled by fashion brands, is having enormous environmental impacts. The sector requires huge amounts of resources, every year using 93 billion cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.

It is also incredibly polluting and wasteful. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles, while less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments.

At present the industry is responsible for up to 10% of total global carbon emissions, and estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

It’s not just the environmental impact of clothing that blights the sector. For years, brands have ‘chased the cheap needle’ around the world, seeking out countries with the lowest labour standards so that garment workers can be exploited and costs kept low. In recent years, many fast-fashion brands have found the cheap needle closer to home, often in quasi-legal factories in cities such as Leicester where workers have been found to be paid under half the minimum wage.

What’s the fix?

In this guide we take an in-depth look at the many ethical issues of the clothing sector and explore what actions you can take to address them. This includes cotton sourcing, animal rights, workers' rights and greenwashing. We also outline the key environmental and social initiatives, many of which involve a variety of stakeholders, that are working to resolve issues in the sector.

In separate articles we examine the carbon impact of clothing and how it can be reduced, and explore workers’ rights in the context of global supply chains.

We also have a feature article on fabrics and identify the most sustainable and those to avoid.

If our advice on clothing could be summarised in a sentence it would be this:

Buy fewer clothes; preferably buy second-hand; recycle and upcycle; and if you need to buy new, support ethical brands.

You can also read 'Ethical Fashion: 10 consumer actions' in the ethical clothing guide for more advice on making your clothing choices more sustainable, and read our feature article on upcycling, repairing and buying second-hand.

Clothes on rails in shop

What is fast-fashion and what's wrong with it?

Fast-fashion brands are almost exclusively online-only brands, but many of the following features that define fast-fashion are also found in more traditional high-street brands, though usually to a lesser extent.

Fast production
Clothes are produced and ready for sale in a very short time span. This has been driven largely by social media and influencer culture. A celebrity wears an outfit on Instagram and then companies rush to sell the consumer a cheap imitation as quickly as possible.

In the BBC’s ‘Breaking Fashion’ show we see Manchester-based fast-fashion company, In the Style,
reproducing a bodysuit worn by Kylie Jenner. The company manages to have the piece designed, manufactured and on sale within 10 days of the piece first being worn publicly by the celebrity.

The drive to produce garments rapidly has led many fast-fashion companies to use suppliers in the UK.
Leicester has become a central hub for clothing production and many of the scandals associated with workers’ rights have been found in factories in the city.

Synthetic fibres
The rise of fast-fashion is heavily dependent on synthetic fibres, which are derived from fossil fuels. These plastic fibres such as polyester are far cheaper to produce than cotton and therefore allow companies to keep producing clothes cheaply, though with a high environmental price-tag.
Worker exploitation
The pressure put on suppliers by brands to produce clothing as quickly and cheaply as possible acts as a strong driver for worker exploitation. Numerous exposés have found workers for companies such as Boohoo being paid well under minimum wage. While some would argue that this is not, in theory, an essential feature of fast-fashion, in practice it appears a common feature.

Fast sale and delivery
Clothing is cheap, but even if you are out-of-pocket you can buy items using Klarna and other easy credit services. Most companies offer cheap deals for quick delivery. At the time of writing, Boohoo offered unlimited next-day delivery for one year for just £7.99.

Fast use
Clothing is not built to last. Due to super-fast production, designs are generally not well stress-tested before sale, and cheap synthetic fabrics are used in order to keep costs low. Much of it will end up in landfill after only being worn a handful of times.

A systemic problem

Whilst it is important to highlight the poor practices of companies such as Boohoo, it is also essential not to lose sight of the bigger picture. When Ethical Consumer first wrote about Primark in 1999 we commented that its low prices were frightening other manufacturers, and it said nothing at all of ethics. But sustained pressure since then from campaigners, journalists, and civil society groups forced it to make improvements – though it is still far from perfect.

The problem was not solved, but rather just shifted, as several years ago we saw the rise of brands such as Boohoo and Missguided. As with Primark, these new fast-fashion brands threatened others with super-low prices, in part facilitated by their lack of ethical practices and poor supply chain governance.

Since we last ranted about Boohoo in our previous high-street clothing guide, sustained pressure has forced the company to make some improvements. But, as this happens, we see the rise of even newer brands such as Shein, following the same pattern as before – offering lower prices and a flagrant disregard for people and environment. Indeed, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce – then dressed in nothing but a £1 bikini.

The need for regulation too

At Ethical Consumer we urge readers to use their money to support ethical businesses and to stay clear of the worst offenders. When we previously looked at high street clothing in 2019, we wrote of the need for formal education in schools about the consequences of buying super-cheap clothing. However, it is important to recognise that the workers’ rights and environmental abuses endemic to the clothing sector will not be solved until we also see adequate regulatory change.

Labour Behind the Label stressed the need for regulatory change in response to Alison Levitt’s independent review of Boohoo's Leicester supply chain, stating: “Abuses in Leicester garment factories must be set within a wider landscape of laws and business practices that are clearly failing to provide adequate protections to garment workers across the UK... The government must take action to curb the abusive business practices of brands that have contributed to this situation and urgently assess the need for mandatory due diligence.”

We explore problems with the global supply chain and workers' rights in a separate feature, including information about some of the campaigns which are aiming to bring about political change in the sector and guidance on how you can best support them.

Democratised fashion?

Fast-fashion has made clothing more accessible to a wider demographic, particularly those on lower incomes, a point acknowledged by Alison Levitt QC in her independent review of Boohoo. Some have even claimed that it has ‘democratised’ fashion.

Of course, there is some truth in this statement, but to what extent can we really see fast-fashion as a democratising force when the system relies so heavily on the exploitation of workers in its supply chains? Ancient Greece is often praised for its democracy, but any classicist worth their salt will tell you it was only a democracy for those who were not slaves or women ...

Cartooon of business men discussing clothing and women

Supply Chain Management

For every company that produces physical goods we examine its approach to supply chain management of workers’ rights. We asses several key areas: supply chain policy (usually a supplier code of conduct), stakeholder engagement, auditing and reporting, and its approach to difficult issues.

In our last guide to clothing, published in EC180, a significant number of brands received our best rating for Supply Chain Management – which is not the norm in other sectors.

Over the years the clothing sector has received sustained criticism following numerous reports of workers’ rights abuses in company supply chains. As a result, most brands have developed seemingly comprehensive supplier codes of conduct and audit schedules, and joined various industry initiatives. Taken at face value, these developments are intended to improve the conditions of workers in company supply chains. However, report after report has shown that low pay, excessive working hours, and a host of other issues are still endemic.

The cynic might argue that the purpose of these codes of conduct and audits is not primarily to do something about these problems, but rather to give the impression of doing something.

Indeed, an extensive report in 2019 by Clean Clothes Campaign, titled ‘Fig Leaf for Fashion’ argued just this: “Overseen by business-led or business-dominated social compliance initiatives, these have become the central tools through which brands seek to demonstrate to their customers that they are addressing workers’ rights in their supply chains. The actual supplier assessments are carried out by corporate-controlled, for-profit auditing firms whose priority is mitigating reputation risk.”

For the reasons stated above, we have raised the bar for clothing companies in these guides, making it more difficult for companies to receive our best or middle rating for Supply Chain Management, and by the same logic making it easier for them to receive our worst rating.

The brands that received our best rating were considered to have a thorough and robust approach to upholding workers’ rights in their supply chains. The likes of Boohoo and Missguided had made improvements since the last time we examined the sector in 2019, but were not considered to be doing enough to move beyond our worst rating.

Shein is worthy of note for its distinct lack of effort in this area. The company had almost nothing on its website about upholding workers’ rights in its supply chain, bar a couple of statements such as, “We never. EVER. engage in child or forced labor.” 

If the age of the child is not defined, such a statement is essentially meaningless and therefore offers little assurance that they are ensuring child labour isn’t used. On the other hand, they have written the word ‘EVER’ in fully capitalised letters, which is always an indication that a statement is indisputably true! Or rather: TRUE!

Supply chain management ratings
Best Middle Worst
ASOS Group, H&M Group, Patagonia, Primark, Uniqlo Gap, I Saw It First, In The Style, Inditex Group, M&S, New Look, Next, Nobody's Child, Reformation   Amazon, Boohoo Group, Missguided, Quiz, Shein, TK Maxx, White Stuff

Report on fashion industry transparency

The latest report by Fashion Revolution assesses 250 clothing companies on how transparent they are on a range of issues such as supply chains, workers’ rights, the climate emergency and pollution.

Although there have been improvements in the industry over the last few years, the 2022 Fashion Transparency Index report found that 50% of major brands still disclose no information about their supply chains.

The average score across all indicators for all 250 brands was 24%, with the highest score was 78%.

Fashion Revolution says that "when brands publicly disclose information, it allows anyone to scrutinise their policies, hold them accountable for their claims and advocate for positive change."
What can consumers do?

  1. Explore the full report on the Fashion Revolution website
  2. Fashion Revolution is also calling on people to take action by asking brands #WhoMadeMyClothes?, #WhoMadeMyFabric and #WhatsInMyClothes.
  3. EU citizens can sign their new campaign for living wage legislation:
  4. Non-EU citizens can help by spreading the word!

Pollution & Toxics

As well as a workers’ rights problem, the clothing sector has an environmental problem. Cotton production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. The sector is also awash with plastic with fabrics such as acrylic, elastane, nylon, and polyester, which are made using fossil fuels, discussed in our fabrics article. According to a recent report by the RSA, titled ‘Fast Fashion’s Plastic Problem’, the use of these synthetic fibres in clothing has doubled between 2000 and 2020.

The problem is particularly pronounced in the fast-fashion sector. When the RSA looked across the websites of ASOS, Boohoo, Missguided, and Pretty Little Thing, it found that the “average item is at least half plastic, and that as many as 88% of the items listed on some websites contain ‘virgin’ plastics.

As the problems of pollution and toxics are so widespread across the sector we expected each brand to take adequate measures to address these issues. To receive our best rating, a brand had to be using 100% sustainably sourced materials.

Whether a material is sustainable depends not just on what it is, but also how it was made. Such materials include organic or recycled materials, and cellulose fibres such as lyocell, Tencel and Monocel. For more on sustainable fabrics see our feature article.

ZDHC Roadmap to Zero

A brand could receive our middle rating if it was a signatory to the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero, an initiative which works with brands and retailers in the textile, apparel and footwear industries to implement “sustainable chemical management best practice across the value chain.” The goal of the initiative, which started in 2011 and now has over 160 contributors, is to advance towards “zero discharge of hazardous chemicals” in the sector.

Pollution & Toxics ratings

No brand received our best rating in this category. Many of the well-established brands (as opposed to the newer, faster-fashion brands) were signatories to the ZDHC. Nobody’s Child received our middle rating because over 50% of its materials were considered to be sustainable (only about 10% were not considered sustainable). Reformation and Patagonia also received our middle rating for using over 50% sustainable materials.

Ratings for Pollution and Toxics - clothing*
Middle Worst
ASOS Group, Gap, H&M Group, Inditex Group, M&S, Next, Nobody's Child, Patagonia, Primark, Reformation, Uniqlo  Amazon, Boohoo Group, I Saw It First, In The Style, Missguided, New Look, Quiz, Shein, TK Maxx, White Stuff

* Brands that sold household and personal care products were also rated for their pollution and toxics policies for these products, and a mark in the Pollution & Toxics column on the score table may relate to this.

Who owns whom?

Many of the brands in this guide share the same company owner. Throughout this guide, reference to these companies encompasses all their brands, unless otherwise stated.

  • ASOS Group: ASOS, Miss Selfridge, Topshop, Topman.
  • Boohoo Group: Boohoo, Burton, Coast, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Maine New England, MissPap, Nasty Gal, Oasis, Pretty Little Thing, Wallis, Warehouse.
  • H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) Group: & Other Stories, COS, H&M, Monki.
  • Inditex Group: Berksha, Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Pull & Bear, Stradivarius, Zara

Supermarkets and luxury brands

We have not included several of the big supermarkets this time, choosing instead to look at companies that focus on clothing. However, supermarkets generally score very low in our rankings because they sell a large range of products which throws up a wide variety of ethical issues generally not faced by other clothing companies.

We have also not included well-known luxury brands in this guide, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the higher prices charged by these companies is any sort of guarantee that their supply chain workers are being treated well! Know the Chain’s ‘2021 Apparel and Footwear Benchmark Report’, which ranks companies according to how they address forced labour and human trafficking in their supply chains, found that luxury brands were among the poorest performers, with Prada scoring only 5/100. So we also recommend that you steer clear of luxury brands.

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

Cotton growing in field

Cotton sourcing

As discussed above, our Pollution and Toxics ranking takes into account the environmental impacts of cotton, but there are two other issues associated with the material that we assess as part of our Cotton Sourcing rating: forced labour and genetically modified (GM) cotton.

Due to the prevalence of forced labour in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, the Responsible Sourcing Network is still asking companies to pledge that they will not source cotton from these countries. At the time of writing the Uzbekistan cotton pledge had 328 signatories and the Turkmenistan pledge had 135 signatories. We expect companies to have made a clear commitment to not sourcing from these countries. (Note - since March 2022 the boycott call against Uzbek cotton has been lifted.)

GM cotton is widespread, with around two-thirds of the world’s cotton grown using GM seeds. There are several key problems with GM cotton which we discuss in our feature guide to fabrics.

For a company to receive our best rating for Cotton Sourcing it had to prohibit GM cotton and cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. If they only met one they received a middle rating, and if they met neither they received a worst.

No brand received our best rating for its cotton sourcing policy, but several brands that scored middle are worthy of praise.

Nobody’s Child stated that it did not source from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan and also aimed to prohibit the use of GM cotton. However, in an email to Ethical Consumer the brand explained that it used a "small amount" of Better Cotton (BCI), which does not prohibit GM seeds, due to supply issues related to Covid-19. It explained that due to the availability of organic cotton, it might continue to use small amounts of BCI cotton in future. The brand stated that it would remove the GM reference from its website until it had sold the small number of products that contain BCI cotton.

Patagonia only uses organic cotton, a commitment it has stuck to since 1996. However, the company scored a middle because while it had made a clear commitment not to source cotton from Uzbekistan, no such commitment could be found in relation to Turkmenistan.

Marks & Spencer is worthy of note because it sources all of its cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative. While this isn’t as good as organic cotton, it’s better than non-certified cotton and limits the use of pesticides and water in production, though doesn’t limit the use of GM seeds.

The following banned Uzbek cotton, but did not prohibit the use of Turkmen cotton: Inditex, TK Maxx and Uniqlo.

Cotton sourcing policy ratings
Middle Worst
Amazon, ASOS Group, Gap, H&M Group, In The Style, M&S, Missguided, New Look, Next, Nobody's Child, Patagonia, Primark, Reformation, White Stuff Boohoo Group, I Saw It First, Inditex Group, Quiz, Shein, TK Maxx, Uniglo

Research finds cotton from Uyghur Region is found around the world

In November 2021, Sheffield Hallam University published a report, ‘Laundering Cotton’, which tracked shipping data and detailed, link by link, how cotton from the Uyghur Region is very likely to make its way onto shop shelves around the world.

Our in-depth feature looking at whether people should boycott 'Made in China', explores the issue of forced labour in the Uyghur Region. Over half a million Uyghur workers have been forced to act as cotton pickers, after being released from the ‘re-education camps’. The Uyghur Region produces around 20% of the world’s cotton.

Laundering Cotton: How Xinjiang Cotton is Obscured in International Supply Chains, investigates the supply chains of major clothing brands. The report found that many brands are running an extraordinarily high risk that the garments they are importing to the U.S. contain cotton from the Uyghur Region, which, if the case, would be in violation of an import prohibition imposed by the U.S. in January.

The report identifies 53 contract garment suppliers — in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, China, and Mexico — that purchase fabric and yarn from five leading Chinese manufacturers that use Uyghur Region cotton. The suppliers use the fabric and yarn in the clothes they make for leading apparel brands, with no indication to consumers of the cotton’s origin. 103 well-known international brands are supplied by those intermediaries and are thus at high risk of having Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains. Brands named include Adidas, Nike, Levi's, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, Primark, Gap, H&M, Decathlon, Jack Wolfskin, PVH Corp, Tesco, River Island, Topshop, VF Corporation, Ikea and Uniqlo.

“This report details, link by link, how some of the world’s most well-known fashion brands are very likely selling products produced with Uyghur forced labour to unwitting consumers,” said Louisa Greve, Director of Global Advocacy at Uyghur Human Rights Project.

“This pioneering research makes it clear that only through a firm commitment to exclude Uyghur Region cotton can brands provide any meaningful assurance to consumers and regulators that they are taking all the steps they can to remove the risk from their supply chains. This report leaves leading apparel brands, from Anthropologie to Uniqlo, with nowhere to hide.”


Animal Rights

All the companies lost marks for use of animal products with the vast majority losing a full mark. Those that used animal products but had adequate policies only lost half a mark in the Animal Rights category. These were: In the Style, Nobody’s Child, and Quiz.

Of these, Nobody’s Child is worthy of note because it stated that the only animal material it used was sheep’s wool – which needed to be certified by one of the following standards: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), ZQ™ (a wool standard based in New Zealand), Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), or Global Recycled Standard (GRS).

Most of the fast-fashion companies have replaced many animal products with synthetic alternatives – leather has become ‘faux leather’, wool has become ‘wool look’. While this may appear positive from an animal rights perspective it raises other issues, notably environmental impact. These fake animal materials are usually comprised of synthetic products which are environmentally damaging to produce and dispose of. The reduction of animal-derived materials by brands is therefore not something wholly worthy of praise.

Shein’s website states that the brand has “a strict no animal policy.” Such a policy might be somewhat admirable if it wasn’t patently false. While it may not use real leather or fur, we found products made from down, silk and wool, with no accompanying animal welfare policies in relation to sourcing these materials.

Product Sustainability

In recent years, campaign groups and consumers have pressured clothing brands to become more sustainable and environmentally conscious, but this is yet to have led to substantial change. Many brands now offer limited ranges of clothing that are organic, or recycled, or Fairtrade, but when the vast majority of a company’s output is clothing produced unsustainably, such a paltry offering is maybe little more than an exercise in greenwashing.

For this reason, we have only awarded Product Sustainability marks to brands that are sourcing all their cotton sustainably.

  • A whole Product Sustainability mark was awarded to brands that sourced 100% sustainable cotton defined as organic, recycled or Fairtrade.
  • Half a Product Sustainability mark was awarded to brands that sourced 100% sustainable cotton, defined as organic, recycled, Fairtrade or Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

While the BCI cotton is not as sustainable as organic or Fairtrade cotton, it is better than uncertified, conventional cotton. It is also important to acknowledge that it is far easier for smaller brands to source 100% organic cotton than it is for larger brands due to a lack of supply of organic cotton on the global market. In 2018/19 organic cotton only made up 0.93% of global cotton production.

Group of women standing among fabric


The clothing sector is awash with greenwash. The 'Synthetics Anonymous' recent report by Changing Markets examined 46 of the biggest clothing brands in the UK and Europe and found that 59% of sustainability claims were unsubstantiated or misleading. The worst offenders were H&M with 96% false claims, ASOS with 89% false claims, and M&S with 88% false claims.

One of the biggest problems with the clothing sector is the rampant consumerism it encourages: clothes are bought frequently and worn only a few times before being discarded. Much greenwashing aims to assuage consumer guilt to ensure people will continue to buy more clothes than they need.

An interesting example is the reGain ‘recycling’ app, which is promoted by many fast-fashion brands as a sustainability initiative. Consumers are encouraged to package their unwanted clothes and send them to be recycled from one of 25,000 drop-off points around the country – for which they are rewarded with discount codes for high-street retailers and clothing brands.

On the face of it, encouraging consumers to recycle their clothes is a good thing, but such initiatives do nothing to challenge the toxic ideology of consumerism – indeed, they actually serve it by encouraging people to buy yet more new clothes. As such, they are the equivalent of offering someone cheap cigarettes as a reward for them quitting smoking.

So how should you spot greenwashing? The best advice is to choose brands at the top of our score tables (especially those in our guide to Ethical Clothing). In general, it is best to avoid brands that operate on a fast-fashion business model. The nature of fast-fashion itself is not sustainable and is putting huge pressure on people and the environment, so any sustainability claims should be taken with a large pinch of salt – or preferably not even taken at all!

You can also read our top 10 tips to avoiding fast-fashion.

Fast fashion cartoon
Cartoon by Mike Bryson

Patagonia to fund environmental causes

In September 2022, Patagonia announced that future profits will go to “save our home planet”. Patagonia's owner and founder Yvon Chouinard has donated 2% of all stock and all decision-making authority to a trust, which will oversee the company’s mission and values. The other 98% of the company’s stock will go to a non-profit called the Holdfast Collective. Patagonia will remain a private, for-profit company but any profits not reinvested in the business will be distributed by the Collective to environmental causes. According to the BBC this could amount to around US$100 million a year.

Boohoo: A fast-fashion case study

We take a closer look at Boohoo, which has become something of a symbol representing all that is wrong with fast-fashion.

Fast-fashion finances

Boohoo has hit the headlines numerous times over the past few years, but rarely for good reasons. Repeated claims of workers’ rights abuses in the company’s supply chain have been widely reported yet have apparently done little to harm its financial success.

In 2021, the Boohoo group, which includes the company’s eponymous brand plus a plethora of others, boasted revenue of over £1.7 billion, a 41% increase on the previous year. Just four years ago the company was reporting revenues of ‘only’ £295 million.

The company’s financial success has allowed it to hoover up a host of other brands, now making it a significant rival to other mainstream brands. In 2021, it acquired Debenhams (along with its associated brands), and Burton, Dorothy Perkins, and Wallis from the ashes of Philip Green’s Arcadia Group.

Workers' rights abuses

Like most of its counterparts, Boohoo’s financial success has relied heavily on the exploitation of workers within its supply chain, both in the UK and abroad. While the pockets of Boohoo’s directors are bursting at the seams, the people who actually stitch the seams of its clothing are paid a pittance.

The abuse of workers’ rights in Boohoo’s supply chain, notably among factories in Leicester, has been well-documented for over a decade, with documentaries by Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2010 and 2017; research by the Ethical Trading Initiative in 2015; analysis in the Financial Times in 2018; and an investigation by the Environmental Audit Committee in 2019.

Following the publication, in July 2020, of yet another article alleging poor working conditions and underpayment of workers in Boohoo’s UK supply chain, the company commissioned an ‘independent’ report by Alison Levitt QC. 

The 234-page report, which was published in September 2020, concluded that there was no evidence that the company itself had committed any criminal offences.

However, it came to a number of damning conclusions, including:

  • "The allegations of unacceptable working conditions and underpayment of workers are not only well-founded but are substantially true."
  • "Boohoo’s monitoring of its Leicester supply chain was inadequate and this was attributable to weak corporate governance."
  • "From (at the very latest) December 2019, senior Boohoo Directors knew for a fact that there were very serious issues about the treatment of factory workers in Leicester and whilst it put in place a programme intended to remedy this, it did not move quickly enough."

Levitt also stated that the problems described in the report were not merely down to a few mistakes or bad apples but were endemic and likely to have occurred across the company’s supply chain.

Boohoo has since enacted a number of the report’s recommendations, such as publishing its first tier UK supplier list. Such transparency is a good start and the company appears to be making efforts to clean up its act.

However, it is doubtful whether a company with a fast-fashion business model at its core can really make meaningful, long-lasting changes, especially if the regulatory system in which it acts remains the same.

Should we boycott Boohoo?

Rankings for companies involved in multiple sectors

When we rate brands for their ethics we ‘follow the money’ and examine what other sectors they or their parent companies are involved with. We believe such an approach is important to fully understand how ethical a brand is, but it can result in brands that are involved in numerous markets scoring badly in our rankings.

There are three brands that are notable for their involvement in sectors other than clothing: Amazon, Marks & Spencer, and Primark (which is owned by Associated British Foods). If we were to only consider policies and practices applicable to clothing, they would score the following:

  • Marks & Spencer: 8.5
  • Primark: 7
  • Amazon: 4.5

Multi-stakeholder initiatives

Due to the myriad problems within the clothing sector (and the complexity of solving them) there are a vast number of groups and multi-stakeholder initiatives. A multi-stakeholder initiative is one that includes a variety of stakeholders, for example, brands, trade unions, and NGOs.

Below we give a brief examination of some of the key initiatives and the table further down shows which brands are in which initiative.

Action on Living Wages (ACT)

ACT is an agreement between 20 global brands and IndustriALL Global Union which aims to realise living wages for workers in textile and garment supply chains. The initiative works on the principle that living wages can best be achieved through collective bargaining at industry level, as opposed to unions negotiating with each brand separately. Among other commitments, brands agree that they will:

  • Work to ensure that purchasing practices support long-term partnerships with manufacturers.
  • Ensure that purchasing practices facilitate the payment of a living wage.
  • Exchange necessary information regarding strategic supplier factories with IndustriALL.

Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI)

Founded in 1998 by a group of UK companies, NGOs, trade unions and the UK government, the Ethical Trading Initiative set out to protect workers’ rights in global supply chains. The ETI’s membership now comprises of over 90 companies, in theory reaching nearly ten million workers across the globe.

Upholding workers' rights in global supply chains is no easy job. The ETI has now been active for over twenty years and yet exploitation in global supply chains is still the norm, particularly in sectors such as the garment industry.

In recent years, it has become clear that exploitation of garment sector workers is not just a problem in other countries, with numerous exposés highlighting worker exploitation in UK factories.

Better Work

A collaboration between the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank, Better Work aims to bring together “all levels of the garment industry to improve working conditions and respect of labour rights for workers and boost the competitiveness of apparel businesses.” It is currently active across nine countries and covers 1,700 factories.

Responsible Sourcing Network

The RSN is a project of US organisation As You Sow. It runs several campaigns, including the Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan cotton pledges. Brands are asked to sign these pledges and commit to not sourcing Uzbek or Turkmen cotton due to the state-driven forced labour involved. (Note - since March 2022 the boycott call against Uzbek cotton has been lifted.)

Sustainable Apparel Coalition

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s members are mostly brands, manufacturers and industry associations, but also academia and NGOs. The SAC created the HIGG Index, a set of tools for companies to self-assess and measure environmental and social sustainability throughout their supply chains. In 2021, it launched the first phase of a transparency program for publicly sharing data on a product’s environmental impact, starting with its materials content.

Social and environmental initiatives - members

It should be noted that being a member of initiatives does not mean a company is necessarily performing well on these issues. Also, most of these initiatives are primarily aimed at larger brands. It is therefore unsurprising that larger brands dominate the table, while some smaller brands are only engaged in few, if any, of these initiatives. 

Brand Better Work Member of Ethical Trading Initiative Member of Better Cotton Initiative RSN Cotton Pledge Turkmenistan RSN Cotton Pledge
ACT (Action on Living Wages) Sustainable Apparel Coalition WRAP Textiles 2030 ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Total
H&M Group Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes   Yes 8
Primark Yes Yes   Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 8
ASOS Group Yes Yes Yes     Yes Yes Yes Yes 7
Marks & Spencer Yes Yes Yes   Yes   Yes Yes Yes 7
Inditex Group Yes Yes Yes   Yes Yes Yes   Yes 7
Next   Yes Yes     Yes Yes Yes Yes 6
Gap Yes   Yes Yes Yes   Yes   Yes 6
New Look   Yes Yes     Yes Yes Yes   5
Uniqlo (Fast Retailing) Yes   Yes   Yes   Yes   Yes 5
Amazon     Yes Yes Yes   Yes     4
Patagonia Yes       Yes   Yes     3
Boohoo Group     Yes       Yes Yes   3
Missguided   Yes           Yes   2
White Stuff   Yes               1
I Saw it First                   0
In The Style                   0
Nobody's Child                   0
Quiz                   0
Shein                   0
TK Maxx                   0
Reformation                   0

Companies behind the brands

Shein is a brand owned by Zenith Business Co, itself owned by Zoetop Business Co, a company based in Hong-Kong (which is on Ethical Consumer’s list of tax havens).

Shein describes itself as “an international B2C fast fashion e-commerce platform”, focused on women’s wear but offering other items. It is a mysterious player on the fast-fashion scene and there is not a lot of information out there about it. It was founded by CEO Chris Xu, an American-born graduate of Washington University, and revenues are estimated to be over $10 billion annually.

The first thing that is obvious from the brand's website is that its clothes are extremely cheap, and the number of ‘daily new’ products is astounding (21,139 at the time of  writing). Its website stated next-to-nothing about how it was upholding workers’ rights in its supply chain, which probably means it is doing next-to-nothing.

Shein received our worst rating for every applicable category, with the exception of its animal-testing policy, for which it received a middle. It also claimed to have “a strict no animal policy” when it came to the materials it used, but we found clothes made from down, wool and silk. The last time we checked, these products came from animals!

Nobody’s Child was founded in 2015 and describes itself as “an eco-conscious fashion brand for women”. The brand is still relatively small, but a recent partnership with Marks & Spencer means that its products can be found on the M&S website.

Compared to the more well-established brands in this guide, Nobody’s Child scored well and is a good alternative to these brands. However, it still has some way to go in order to meet the ethical credentials of some of the brands found in our Ethical Clothing guide.

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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The abbreviations in the score table mean the product gets a sustainability point for: [O] = use 100% organic cotton [S] uses 100% sustainable cotton (including Better Cotton etc).