High Street Clothes Shops

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

We also look at the problem with fast fashion, workers' rights, shine a light on the ethics of Inditex and give our Best Buy recommendations. 

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:

  • 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.

  • 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 cotton.

  • People before profits? Many high-street retailers rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to continue to churn out fast fashion. Use our Ethical Clothes Shops guide to ensure that you are supporting the livelihood of the person who made your clothes.

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? Concerns have recently been raised about clothing made from synthetic materials releasing microplastic particles into the oceans when washed. Fleeces particularly have come under scrutiny.

  • 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 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.

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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

What is the problem with fast fashion?

Over the last two years, there has been a dramatic growth in general awareness of the impacts that the clothing industry is having on the environment. This was shown by the Extinction Rebellion blockade of London Fashion Week in February 2019.

Estimates of the likely climate change impacts of clothing markets rise as high as 25% of all global emissions by 2050. Because of this, we have published an article on the Carbon Cost of Clothing. Current trends involve increasing the output of cheap and disposable fashion items. This is only making the problem of fashion and the environment worse. 

For example, the average consumer buys 60% more clothing than 15 years ago, while less than 1% of the material used to produce garments is recycled into new clothing. Although we have reported on the idea of ‘fast fashion’ before, a swathe of new reports has now been published. This seems to have culminated in a damning review by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in early 2019. We explore all of this in more detail in our article ‘What is Fast Fashion and Why is it a Problem?’.

During our research into fast fashion companies Boohoo and Missguided, we noticed some strange company structures. The resulting article Clothing Companies and Tax Havens discusses who the best and worst performers are.

In the twenty years leading up to these new developments, fashion campaigners focused on sweatshop labour as a primary concern. And it's clear that the pressures of fast fashion are creating more and more problems for workers. In our Critical Workers’ Rights Issues article, we report on resistance to gender-based violence in garment factories, and the continued failure to provide a living wage for all workers.

image: trash queen wears a train of used clothing to promote a buy nothing day greenpeace
A 'Trash Queen' wears a seven-metre long train made from used clothing to promote a Buy Nothing Day on "Black Friday" as part of the Greenpeace campaign to reduce overconsumption.

How to fix it 

The rest of our guide and some other features that we have written dedicated to what people can do to help.

Our ethical ranking table for high street and online clothes shops identifies which companies are not really pulling their weight to help. 

Because there are quite a lot of ‘multistakeholder initiatives’ in the clothing sector trying to address some of the most entrenched problems, we have made a table to explain what these are in our guide to critical workers' rights issues to show which brands are joining in and which aren’t.

We also have a separate guide to ethical clothes shops where we look at the options that much smaller, more innovative, ethical companies are offering. These tend to score much better than the high-street stores and are each trying hard to show how an alternative to the fast fashion model can work.

Furthermore, we have articles on choosing sustainable fabrics and closing the loop. The first looks at new issues like viscose pollution, and the rise of concern about the release of microfibres of plastic into the ocean from synthetic clothing. The second explores what to do with clothes when they reach the end of their lives.

We also have a reflective piece on the need to teach slow fashion. It argues that education systems need to play a role if we are to ever find lasting solutions to slowing down the crazy race that fashion has become.

As we discuss in this report, although we aren’t going to fix everything by giving our money to the companies that try the hardest to be ethical, consumers do need to play a role. And as citizens, we can also lobby our political representatives. We have therefore summarised five key political asks further down this page.

Table highlights

Sustainability

It is estimated that around two-thirds of the climate impact over the lifetime of a garment occurs at the raw materials stage. We, therefore, marked some companies down on the Ethiscore table under Climate Change.

Companies lost half a mark for being named as ‘least engaged’ in the House of Common’s ‘Fixing Fashion 2019’ report (see our guide to fast fashion for more on this). They also lost half a mark if, in line with the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report produced by Baptist World Aid, they had not assessed the environmental impact of the top three fibres and materials they used and implemented these learnings into product design and production, and did not have at least 1% of their products made from ‘sustainable fibres’.

Toxic chemicals

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 antifungals, 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.

Only two companies on our table (Inditex and H&M) are highlighted by the Greenpeace Detox campaign as leading the industry to a toxic-free future, with “credible timelines, concrete actions and on-the-ground implementation”.

Workers’ Rights

The pressure to produce ever-faster also creates problems for workers in producer factories.

The situation is particularly bad in Bangladesh, where protests in 2018 against the minimum wage of less than half a dollar an hour, led to over 11,000 workers being fired. The Bangladesh Accord is now under threat too. This was set up after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013.

Also, out of that disaster came the excellent Fashion Revolution campaign. It has a website full of resources for taking action, from the hashtag #whomademyclothes to question brands on social media, to postcard templates for writing to policymakers.

Unusually for one of our guides, all the companies in this report lost marks in our Workers’ Rights category due to a wide range of campaign reports criticising clothing companies for the treatment of people in their supply chains. More details are available for logged-in subscribers on our website.

We also rated companies’ Supply Chain Management systems to see whether they addressed some of the key workers’ rights problems.

Animals

Companies were also assessed for Animal Rights (in relation to using animal products such as leather, merino wool, silk, goose and duck down angora or fur), and several lost marks for Animal Testing as they sold perfumes as well as clothes.

If they sold cosmetics they were also rated for their palm oil practices as palm derivatives are widely used in body care and makeup.

For the first time, perplexingly, we have discovered companies (including TK Maxx and Amazon) being criticised for using real fur labelled as fake!

Leather

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, 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.

The following companies received a worst rating for their use of leather:

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.

For more on leather see our guide to furniture shops.
 

Other issues

A large number of companies also lost marks under Anti-Social Finance. For some of them, this was because we thought they were making excessive annual payments to directors. The worst payments were astonishing:

  • GAP ($20 million)
  • Amazon ($19 million)
  • TK Maxx ($18 million)

When rates like this, which are nearly $10,000 per hour, are compared to the half dollar per hour received by workers in Bangladesh, the degree of brokenness in the system becomes apparent.

Other companies had tax havens in their corporate structures, and we look at this in more detail in our feature on clothing companies and tax havens.

On top of clothing-specific marks, some companies (such as Next and FatFace, both partly owned by large investment companies) lost extra marks for activities within their company group.

This also applied to supermarkets and other food companies which were marked down in the animals columns for selling meat products. This particularly affected three companies: M&S, Tesco and Primark. These companies otherwise did well in terms of being signed up to multi-stakeholder initiatives. See more about this and see who's in what initiative in our fashion workers' rights feature

Can High Street Clothing Retailers be Ethical?

Quick turn around 

Many of the high-street clothing retailers have adopted an approach to clothing production where turnaround times for it 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's all about how much clothing can be shifted and how quickly this can be done.

“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.”

Businesses that prioritise their aim to maximise profits over an aim to produce clothing under conditions which are fair to the workers, environment and animals are the dilemma that faces many 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.

A huge problem: throwaway culture in clothing

The garments produced in the world of fast fashion are generally of low quality, but many are thrown out before they have the chance to be worn out. While the average person buys 60% more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago, that clothing is kept only half as long.

It appears that this problem is worse among younger generations. A study commissioned by Barnardo’s suggested that a quarter of people would be embarrassed to wear an outfit to a special occasion more than once, but this figure rises to 37% for young people aged 16-24 and falls to just 12% for over 55s.

Another study found that 17% of questioned young people said they wouldn’t wear an outfit again if they'd already posted it on Instagram.

The solution: a circular economy for clothing

The potential for reuse and recycling with clothing is immense and could transform the industry.

While the carbon impact of clothing is concentrated at the start of its lifecycle, in the production phase, changing the structure of the fashion system could transform its relationship with the natural world. It could be economically transformative too: “In a new textiles economy, clothes, textiles, and fibres are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterwards, never ending up as waste.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has outlined what a new, circular textile economy could look like, and the four steps that the industry must take:

1. Phase out substances of concern and microfibre release

Companies should stop relying on materials that are of concern to health and environment, and should move away from fabrics that release pollutants into our ecosystems, for example, plastics into the sea.
 

2. Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature

“Designing and producing clothes of higher quality and providing access to them via new business models would help shift the perception of clothing from being a disposable item to being a durable product.”

Companies must make durability attractive and commit to producing garments that last. Where a clothing need is short-term – for example with children’s clothing or one-off occasions – we need to move towards short-term rentals.

3. Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing

It is not simply a matter of recycling more: clothing must be designed for reuse and adaptation and the infrastructure for collection needs to be put in place. Companies could, thereby, capture some of the value in more than USD$100 billion worth of materials lost from the system each year.
 

4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable input

The clothes industry is likely to always need some virgin materials but these need to come from renewable resources, using renewable feedstock for plant-based fibres and regenerative agriculture to produce any renewable virgin materials.

If we are to transform the industry, we must do it in a way that respects the rights of those working in the ‘new economy’. The industry cannot claim that change is not possible.

extinction-rebellion-fashion-protest-disrupt
Activists from Extinction Rebellion block traffic at Oxford Circus in April 2019, and stage a fashion show "intended to disrupt the language and symbols of the fashion industry." Models showed off garments made from recylable materials in a protest highlighting the wasteful and disposable nature of the fashion industry and its significant contribution to the carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming. See our feature on the carbon cost of clothing for more.

Extinction Rebellion calls for fast fashion boycott 

In May, climate change movement Extinction Rebellion called for a boycott of the fashion industry:

Members of the public are pledging to avoid new clothing for a year, “in order to disrupt business-as-usual and send a message to government, industry and public alike that enough is enough … The fashion system is broken.”

In February, XR members blocked roads around London Fashion Week. Tamsin Omand says that conversations in the industry need “to be about how we are dealing with the climate emergency and nothing else. Yet, fashion weeks continue ‘celebrating new fashion’”. In September, the group will be holding a funeral outside the Autumn fashion week events.

Act now! Join the Extinction Rebellion fashion boycott.

Company behind the brand

Inditex, which includes the Zara and Pull & Bear brands, has a ‘sustainable’ clothing range called Join Life, which we have not featured on our table because we were not confident about its standards.

Inditex said “The Join Life label is used on garments that are produced using the best processes and more sustainable raw materials, so that our customers can identify them easily.

To be labelled Join Life, a product must be from a factory that has “A or B in both social audits and environmental assessment”.

Digging into the company’s annual report, we found that suppliers simply had to comply with the Code of Conduct to achieve an A in the social audit, and could get a B with a minor breach. In 2018 96% of its suppliers achieved an A or B – so it was hardly distinctive.

Moreover, the Code of Conduct barely scraped by basic international standards. For example,

“Manufacturers and suppliers shall not require their employees to work, as a rule of thumb, in excess of 48 hours a week and workers shall be granted at least one day off for every seven calendar day period on average.”

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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