How ethical is Specsavers?

Specsavers aims to provide excellent eye and hearing care to their customers. But how much does the company care about ethical issues such as the environment, people, and animals?

Specsavers scored worst ratings in all of the following categories: Animal Testing, Carbon Management and Reporting, and Environmental Reporting. Overall Specsavers received an Ethical Consumer score of 10 out of a possible 15.

Here we take a closer look at the ethics of the world’s largest privately owned opticians and ask the question - should we really go to Specsavers?

What’s the truth behind Specsavers’ incorporation in a tax haven?

Attention has periodically been drawn over the years to how Specsavers is incorporated in Guernsey, a jurisdiction which scores 98/100 on the Tax Justice Network's Corporate Tax Haven Index 2021, putting it up there with the most prolific tax havens.

The fact that it’s incorporated in a tax haven, while most of its operations are in the UK, seems especially alarming considering that 60% of Specsavers’ customers are NHS patients. The company is the largest provider of free digital hearing aids, and the NHS also sometimes pays for patients to have Specsavers eye tests or vouchers towards its glasses or contact lenses. Specsavers is therefore generating significant income from the NHS - and by extension, public money. 

No clear policy statement was found stating that its policy is not to engage in tax avoidance activity, and instead less substantive statements were found such as “Specsavers is committed to operating within the tax laws of all the countries in which it operates”.

However, unlike many companies headquartered in tax havens, it seems possible that Specsavers’ owners have a legitimate reason for incorporating the company in Guernsey. Specsavers’ founders, Mary and Doug Perkins, claim to have moved to Guernsey in order to be closer to Mary’s retired parents who lived there.

According to one article published by Guernsey Press, “all its stores are registered in the UK and pay corporation tax at the full 19%.” In fact, the couple were actually listed in a 2020 Sunday Times ranking of Britain’s top 50 taxpayers

Specsavers also has a holding company in the Netherlands, which is also on Ethical Consumer’s list of tax havens. However, as Specsavers trades in the Netherlands, with over 140 opticians located there, it appears to have a valid reason to have a holding company in the Netherlands.

Considering that Specsavers was able to provide narrative explanations for why it had operations in tax havens, and was listed as a top tax contributor in the UK, it scored our best rating for Tax Conduct.

Excessive pay for directors?

Specsavers does not publicly disclose what it pays its directors. With an annual turnover just above £1 billion, the company could easily be paying directors vast amounts of money. Lack of transparency around this means the company loses half a mark under the Anti-Social Finance category. 

Excessive remuneration seems excessively likely as Mary and Douglas Perkins made the 2021 Sunday Times Rich List with a net worth of £1.2bn, and Specsavers is listed as the source of their wealth. In 2011 Mary Perkins became Britain’s “first female self-made billionaire”, according to the BBC.

These fortunes seem especially extravagant in light of how in 2020 Specsavers announced that 450 support office jobs were at risk of redundancy as a result of a “downturn” in business due to the coronavirus pandemic. John Perkins (son of Mary and Douglas, and now joint CEO of the company with Douglas) stated “We have done everything we possibly could to avoid making people redundant”.

Profiting from Covid relief funds in Australia

In addition to the UK, Specsavers also operates in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Spain and Sweden. 

In 2021 Specsavers was criticised for receiving $92m Australian dollars (£49m) from the Australian Covid emergency wage subsidy known as ‘JobKeeper’. An article on the ABC website stated that it paid back just AUS $4m back of this, despite its revenue falling by only 1% between March 2020 and February 2021.

This meant that overall Specsavers’ profit doubled from AUS $78m to $150m - the majority of which seemingly came from Covid relief payments.

Glasses, contact lenses and lens solutions in bottles on table

No animal testing policy, and sells products from companies that test on animals

We expected Specsavers to have a policy surrounding animal testing, due to the risk of contact lenses and lens cleaning products being tested on animals. No animal testing policy was found. 

Johnson & Johnson contact lenses were available for sale on the Specsavers website, and this company is known to test on animals. Johnson & Johnson’s ‘Humane Care and Use of Animals Policy’ confirms this, stating for example “Live animals used in research and teaching shall be obtained from approved sources.”

As Specsavers does not have a Fixed Cut Off Date (a date after which none of the ingredients in its products have been tested on animals) for its own brand products, and sells products from companies that are known to test on animals, it scores a worst rating under Ethical Consumer’s Animal Testing category.

A short-sighted approach to the planet

Specsavers appears to avoid looking too closely at its carbon emissions. It received our worst rating for Climate Management and Reporting. 

The company shows a reasonable understanding of where its emissions come from, such as the energy use of its stores, manufacturing and distribution sites, and office administration and IT infrastructure (though it does not appear to mention raw materials beyond stating they should come from “socially-responsible suppliers”). It discusses some efforts it has made to address these, such as energy efficiency auditing and use of some solar energy. 

However, the exact impact of these initiatives is unclear. For example, its 2019 Annual Review states “We generated more than 45,000 kWh of electricity from the installation of photovoltaic technology (solar panels) at two of our UK manufacturing and distribution sites, reducing carbon emissions by 16 tonnes”. Without providing statistics on what its annual carbon emissions are, however, statistics like this provide little insight into how much (or even whether) the company’s net carbon emissions are reducing. Specsavers does not report on its carbon emissions, or have any climate reduction targets in line with international agreements. 

In relation to the environment more broadly, Specsavers has not published any future quantified environmental reduction targets, and its environmental performance data has not been independently verified. For these reasons it received a worst rating in the Environmental Reporting category.

What about its supply chain?

Specsavers scored a middle rating under the Supply Chain Management category. 

For a company of its size we would expect Specsavers to have clear policies surrounding child labour (including stating the age of a child), and clear statements about what was considered excessive working hours within its supply chain, but these policies were not found. 

Specsavers does not appear to work with any of the leading stakeholder engagement initiatives such as Ethical Trading Initiative, Fair Labour Association or Social Accountability International. It also does not appear to work with NGOs or trade unions to verify its supply chain audits, and no information was found about whistleblowing hotlines to report instances of non-compliance. 

It had a reasonably transparent auditing schedule, auditing each supplier every two years, and took measures to ensure corrective action took place in instances of non-compliance with its policies, which was considered positive. However it did not appear to publish the results of its audits. 

Specsavers had developed e-learning modules related to modern slavery for employees, which was considered a positive step.

Should we shop at Specsavers?

As we have not reviewed many other eye- or hearing-care companies other than Boots, (which scored 0 in our ethical ratings), it is not possible to be sure whether Specsavers is the best place to shop in this industry. 

For those concerned about issues such as climate change and animal testing, however, Specsavers is definitely falling behind.

Alternatives to Specsavers and Boots

Choosing local independent stores, or smaller chains, is often the best option when shopping in any industry.

While Specsavers scores significantly higher than Boots, finding a local optician is probably the safest choice if you want to source your specs from an ethical company – at minimum you'll be supporting local business, and there's a much lower risk that the company will be involved in issues such as excessive directors pay.