Ethical Online Retailers

In this Ethical Consumer product guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 21 ethical online retailers.

This guide is part of our Amazon alternatives series, which helps consumers avoid the companies that aren't paying a fair rate of tax.

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.

Learn more about us →

What to buy

What to look for when choosing an ethical online retailer:

  • Does it have a clear supply chain policy? Support retailers that have clear ethical policies, a good relationship with their suppliers and sell independently accredited products.

  • Is it cruelty free? Pick companies with clear ‘no animal testing’ policies, which ideally include a fixed cut-off date for animal-tested ingredients.

  • Is it not-for-profit? Go for companies which have a not-for-profit trading structure or only sell vegan or fairtrade products.

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when choosing an ethical online retailer:

  • Is it paying tax? Luckily, none of the companies in this guide score the worst Ethical Consumer rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies. But Amazon does. See Companies to Avoid.

  • How ethical is it really? Look out for companies that use appealing words but don’t explain what they mean by them.

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 was created as part of our ‘alternatives to Amazon’ series, to help you find other online retailers, not guilty of the same misdeeds.

Amazon’s massive tax avoidance is the key reason for our Amazon boycott, but it is also widely criticised for workers’ rights issues, as well as the domination of the market which leads to the closure of other businesses, and manipulation of customers through data collection. For some of the latest criticisms, see our updates on Black Lives Matter, and our feature on Amazon's poor response to the pandemic.

The problem with avoiding Amazon is that with over 1.7 million third-party sellers listing 250 million products on Amazon Marketplaces worldwide, it’s not just another online retailer. And of course, Amazon has been doing very well out of the recent rush towards home delivery. However, if you can tear yourself away from its one-stop-shop personalised honey-trap, most of what you need can, and really should, be found somewhere else. At a time when public services around the world are under such strain, it is ethically absurd to think that corporates can still avoid paying a fair rate of tax.

The good news is there are alternatives out there, which, as well as simply not being Amazon, also deliberately offer a more ethical selection of products, or even fund campaigning through their sales.

Brands in this guide are generally retailers rather than manufacturers, so offer a range of more ethical brands of staple food, body care and household products, as well as clothes, books, stationery, furniture, gifts and jewellery.

Other guides in our Amazon alternative series focus specifically on books, tablets and e-readers, and clothes.

What’s in this guide?

This update includes a new entry, Social Supermarket, which aims to become “the most comprehensive marketplace for social enterprise products in the UK”. We’ve also added in one of our old favourites for office supplies, the Green Stationery Company, and two online retailers which we regularly recommend for readers who don’t have a local wholefood shop, Planet Organic and Big Green Smile.

The Animal Aid shop is temporarily missing, as it was closed due to the pandemic, likewise the Centre for Alternative Technology. Oxfam was almost left out too, as it works by collating listings of donations from its high-street shops, which were all closed. Having reopened online, you can once again browse its eclectic selection of second-hand clothes, shoes, books, music and bric-a-brac, as well as the fair trade ‘Sourced by Oxfam’ range.

The push to online shopping

Online shopping was already a growing trend, which coronavirus has accelerated. Various surveys have found large percentages of people saying their new habits are likely to continue.

Worker mistreatment

Under lockdown, online shopping became a relief for many, but an unnecessary risk for others. Although depended on more than ever, the people who pack and deliver the goods for major retailers have in many cases seen poor treatment get worse. Staff in warehouses including Sports Direct and JD Sports reported that social distancing measures are not good enough, and Royal Mail workers have been walking out over safety concerns.

Both DPD and Hermes courier companies are on our list of ‘Ten companies to avoid over their response to COVID-19’. Both make annual profits in the millions, yet offered such low compensation to drivers who need to self-isolate that they have effectively encouraged them to continue working when they may be contagious.

Should I shop online?

It is not online shopping itself that is the problem, but the companies which put profit before the people who create it for them. As well as tackling the abuses by Amazon and others, we have to promote the virtuous players, virtual or not. Our three recommendations are to:

  • Support local shops and suppliers. You may well have a local wholefood shop, veg box supplier, fairtrade or zero waste shop that offers online shopping, even if it didn’t pre-pandemic. Search online if you’re not sure, or check their social media. These small businesses will especially appreciate your custom now, in the struggle to survive. They are also likely to be doing the deliveries themselves, rather than using a dodgy courier. See our blog ‘Covid 19: Lockdown for a local shop’.
     
  • Reuse. Freegle, Freecycle and OLIO are online tools for the free exchange of all sorts of items, to cut waste and reduce landfill. You can keep it local, leave items on your doorstep for contactless pickups, and collect items on foot or by bike while doing daily exercise.
     
  • If not local, go ethical online. You’ll discover brands and approaches to trade that are rarely available on the high street. Retailers in our guide include a wide range of plastic-free, recycled or upcycled small-batch products, often from fair trade, charitable or social enterprise suppliers.

All of the companies in this guide have at least some fair trade products, from food, to clothes, bedding, jewellery and crafts, but Traidcraft, Shared Earth and the Sourced by Oxfam range are particularly focused on fair trade principles.

Oxfam is in a particularly worrying position as it has been losing £5 million a month due to shop closures and, in May 2020, announced it had to close operations in 18 countries including Afghanistan and Haiti.

Who sells what?

Best rated for supply chain management

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton clothes/bedding.

Organic and fairtrade cotton Amnesty merchandise, Small fair trade jewellery selection, social/political books, music, diaries and cards.

Limited clothes selection, limited bodycare selection, fair trade jewellery, social /political books, diaries.

Worst cotton rating for clothing. Sells food through Waitrose which has good detail on animal welfare but sells meat.

Sells body-care and cleaning products. John Lewis has a fixed cut-off date for animal testing in its own brands but sells other brands that are known to test on animals.

Sells jewellery, but no mention of responsible sourcing. Wide range of gifts and games for sale.

Sells second hand clothing as well as Fairtrade foods, jewellery and gifts. Oxfam also sells bodycare with a ‘no animal testing’ policy, but without any clear policy on toxics. Assumed to use ‘sustainable’ palm oil in body care products.

Sells fair trade jewellery and gifts.

Sells clothing made of Fairtrade cotton, sells Fairtrade food and 'sustainable' fish. Also retails own-brand natural soap with Fairpalm palm oil, ‘no animal testing’ policy as well as Bio-D cleaning products and fair trade gifts.

Sells clothing made of certified or upcycled cotton, and vegan food as well as body care and cleaning products. For these it provides a list of excluded toxics and requires brands to be certified cruelty-free with ‘sustainable’ palm oil.

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

Middle rated for supply chain policy

Sells body-care and cleaning products. Provides a list of excluded toxics, only retails ‘sustainable’ palm oil, has a ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Sells clothing with no policy on cotton but all bedding organic or Fairtrade.

Sells body care and cleaning products for which it has an unclear policy on toxics and no ingredients lists. Does however provide a palm oil free list and has a ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Jewellery is hand-made. Includes uncertified gold. Gifts toys and games are all made by independent brands.

Retails some Fairtrade cotton clothes but not all their clothes are.  Also makes vegan shoes.

Sells vegan chocolate, lipstick, nail varnish and soap with a ‘no animal testing’ policy. The jewellery and ornaments that they sell are fair trade.

Sells Fairtrade / organic tea, coffee and sugar in bulk.

Retails professional eco-cleaning supplies by brands known to be cruelty-free or ‘no animal testing’. Sells recycled paper, writing, storage and packaging.

Sells bodycare and/or cleaning products with an unclear policy on toxics, certified palm oil only and a ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Retails fair trade jewellery made from recycled materials and also reusable containers.

Sells organic clothing with GOTS certified cotton as well as organic or surplus food to tackle food waste.

Sells bodycare and cleaning products where it only lists organic/’sustainable’ palm oil. Also has a ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Jewellery on the website is made of recycled materials and you can buy gift boxes of food from social enterprises.

Sells clothing made of organic cotton as well as Viva! merchandise. You can also buy vegan treats and wine on their website.

 

Sells clothing made of organic or upcycled cotton.

Has a good toxics policy for cleaning and bodycare products, although it's not public. They also have a ‘no animal testing’ policy, and are palm oil free.

Jewellery is made of recycled materials and gifts/toys and games are made by independent UK brands. Independent brands also for certified/ reclaimed wood furniture.

Worst rated for supply chain management

Sells a wide range of vegan or organic options. Also sells meat however.

Sells bodycare and cleaning products but without a clear policy on toxics or palm oil or animal testing.

Sells organic cotton clothes/bedding. Sells food with a wide range of vegan or organic options.

Sells body care and cleaning products with a labelling system for toxic-free, all products are either palm oil-free or ‘sustainable’ palm oil, and the company has a ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Jewellery is made of recycled materials or fair trade. You can also find wooden and recycled plastic toys on their websites.

Ethical online retailers that sell face masks

Of these options, KN95 masks (equivalent to N95) offers the highest protection but are disposable and its generally suggested they should be reserved for health workers or those at particularly high risk.

Even homemade face masks are said to contribute to reducing transmission of COVID-19. For regularly updated advice on what mask to wear see this Guardian article.

Big Green Smile

£7.99 for two KN9 masks before postage and packaging. Buy here.

Ethical Market

From £7.49 to £18.50 before postage and packaging.

From £16 they have a filter pocket (filter not included) and wire nose clip. Handmade in Britain. 10% of sales of the £7.49 option will be donated to charity partners Find Your Feet. Buy here.

Green Stationery Company

£55+vat for 50 (3 ply), £12.50+vat for 10 (3 ply), £6.95+vat for 1 (KN95)  before postage and packaging.

Medical masks (not surgical grade) / KN95. Buy here.

Shared Earth (Best Buy retailer)

£3.99 - £5.99 before postage and packaging.

A WFTO Guaranteed Fair Trade product. Handmade. Washable, with filter/tissue pocket (filters not included) and wire nose clip. BLUESIGN certified. Large or medium. Buy here.

Veo.world

£15 before postage and packaging. Handmade, reusable, made from upcycled sari materials, vegan company. With filter pocket (filters not included). Buy here.

Wearth

£25 before postage and packaging. Made from recycled ocean plastic, vegan company. Includes 6 filters, lasting 1 month each. Additional 20 filters (PM 2.5) £20. Not surgical grade. Buy here.

Company profile

Spark Etail was acquired by the delivery company Whistl in December 2018. With an annual turnover of over £600 million, this is by far the largest company group in the Ethical Online Retailers guide other than John Lewis, and is trailed by Planet Organic at £35 million.

The Spark Ecommerce Group already handled more than its own more ethically focused websites. It was led by a consortium of investors and provided outsourced contact centre and fulfilment services to a range of bigger brands including Toys R Us, Fitflops, Rocket Dog and Barbour.

Spark did score well in the product related categories as all of its cotton clothing was organic, it had a clear policy on toxics in bodycare and household products, and a good approach to animal testing, timber and animal products. However, it had little detail in terms of the environmental reporting of the company operations, or how it monitored workers’ rights in its supply chain.

One reader wrote to us to complain that as the company ran four separate ethical shopping websites, it was misleading for customers who didn’t know they were connected and were trying to make price comparisons.

Another asked us to reconsider our score of Spark given that it stocked over 400 product lines from China, known for its human rights violations. China is on our list of oppressive regimes, but our rating only applies if companies have manufacturing operations in two or more oppressive regimes, and then we would not mark them down if all products were marketed as fair trade. With over 400 lines we couldn’t check them all, but several products checked did mention fair trade.

We asked Spark for a response. They said they are transparent about where products are manufactured, and always favour those made locally, or by small- scale suppliers who hold Fairtrade certifications. They said they work with suppliers who audit and regularly visit their manufacturers and will be adding this information to all manufacture descriptions going forward.

They also stated, “There are many producers working in China using innovative technologies and new materials to create their products, such as sustainably sourced bamboo and recycled plastics – a huge market in China. Many who use these materials opt to have their products ethically made in China rather than ship the raw materials to another country, as the carbon footprint of products is also an important issue to take into consideration.”

Want more information?

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. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.