Ethical Online Retailers

In this Ethical Consumer product guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 24 ethical online retailers.

This guide is part of our Amazon alternatives series, which help 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.

What to buy

What to look for when choosing an ethical online retailer:

    • Does it have a clear ethical policy? You should try to find 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 animal testing policies which 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? Avoid companies that avoid tax. Luckily all the companies in this guide score above the worst Ethical Consumer rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

    • Does it support its workers? Look out for companies that do not have a clear policy on how workers’ rights are guaranteed throughout their supply chain.

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    Score table

    Updated live from our research database

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

    Our Analysis

    This guide is part of our Amazon alternative series, which helps consumers avoid Amazon and its tax-avoiding ways.

    We have rated 24 alternative websites which offer a variety of products marketed as ethical. We’ve found that not all of the companies included have as stringent supply chain policies as you might expect. Nevertheless, the brands listed in this report score very highly compared to other retailers. Many pick up additional marks under Company Ethos by only selling products made under fair trade conditions, or that are suitable for vegans. In addition, many companies in this report use their profits to fund their charitable activities.

    Who’s in this guide?

    The brand list for this guide was based on feedback from our readers about which ethical stores they regularly used online. We couldn’t cover all the companies mentioned by those who completed the survey, but we have tried to include the most popular.

    The top three in the survey were Ethical Superstore, Natural Collection and Traidcraft which are all included in this guide.

    Other popular ethical online retailers included People Tree, which can be found in our guide to Alternative Clothing, and Hive, which can be found in our Book Retailers guide.

    The companies listed in this guide vary greatly in the type of products that they stock. Some sell food, others cosmetics, others clothing or a combination of the three. Lots of them provide products under the label ‘gifts’ making them a perfect place to pick up presents for family and friends.

    We have also included John Lewis and the Co-op Electrical Shop for consumers looking for more ethical mainstream brands and a wider selection of products, for example, both sell electricals such as TVs and refrigerators.

    Ethical market growth

    The Ethical Consumer Market Report, which tracks the sales of ethical goods and services, continues to show that the market for ethical goods is growing. In 2016, the ethical market was valued at £81.3 billion.

    One area that saw the largest growth (9%) is the ‘Ethical Personal Products’ market. In this market ethical clothing was found to have grown by 22.4%, while ethical cosmetics saw a 3.2% increase. Both clothing and cosmetics are areas which ethical online retailers are focusing on.

    Only Acala focuses exclusively on selling cosmetics, while many of the other companies in the report such as Animal Aid and Viva! offer vegan and cruelty-free beauty and cosmetic products as well as other items.

    Graph: ethical market spending

    Clothing is also a large part of the offering from many of the companies in this report. Amnesty, Animal Aid, Traidcraft, Viva! and WWF all sell clothing made from organic or fair trade cotton. Ethical Wares sells clothing produced under fair trade conditions or manufactured in the UK or USA. Amberoot, Mamoq, and Frank & Faith focus solely on retailing sustainable clothing brands.

    We also cover more ethical fashion brands in our guide to alternative clothing.

    Difficult market

    Since we last looked at ethical online retailers in 2014, several of the companies we covered have stopped trading: Cebra, Ecotopia, Nigel’s’ Eco Store, Made Closer, Evolution and Fairtrade Warehouse. Global Seesaw, told Ethical Consumer it would be shutting down its website at the end of September 2018.

    It is unclear why so many of the businesses have become unviable. However, an educated guess would point to these two things:

    Firstly, many of the products and brands on offer are very similar, making this market very homogeneous. Several of the websites are run by the same companies. Amnesty and Ethical Shop are both run by the New Internationalist, while Ethical Superstore owner Spark Commerce also runs Natural Collection, Frank & Faith and Spirit of Nature. The websites therefore offer the same products by the same suppliers at the same price.

    Secondly, ethical online retailers often offer a limited range of products in comparison to other mainstream marketplaces. For instance, Acala only has nine shampoos listed on its website, whereas Superdrug has over 300 products listed under shampoo. 

    New entrants

    Despite several companies exiting the market, we have also seen several new exciting ethical companies launching. Many of these newer companies are focusing exclusively on specific product ranges or ethical qualities.

    Acala, for example, is an online store offering natural, organic and vegan health and beauty products. It also ensures that all products are responsibly packaged and are plastic free.
    Another new entrant is Wearth, who only launched in 2017. It offers consumers products such as handmade jewellery and furniture made by independent UK brands.

    Charity online retailers

    Charities have long sought to raise funds for their activities through retailing – for example, second-hand shops – yet there are a growing number recognising that they’re in a unique position to also source their own-brand products which support the aims of the charity.

    Oxfam, for example, offers consumers a chance to buy products which support projects that help people trade their way out of poverty. It states that its suppliers practice fair trade principles. It also sells products which have been handcrafted or made by projects which specifically benefit women. 100% of its profits raised from sales of ‘sourced by Oxfam’ are reinvested into the charity’s projects.

    Image: Fairtrade coffee oxfam
    Oxfam's fair coffee range, credit Oxfam.

    Amnesty’s shop also offers products which support and promote fair trade. It states: “Many of our suppliers are registered with one of these organisations [Fairtrade Labelling Organisation or World Fair Trade Organisation] but we don’t insist; some can’t afford it, some are just starting out, some are too small, and some just don’t want to.”

    Animal rights charities Animal Aid and Viva! are among our highest scoring companies in this report due to the fact they only retail vegan products. Both sell a wide variety.
    RSPB sells a range of products mostly related – unsurprisingly – to birds, e.g., bird feed and nesting boxes. Many of its products carry environmental accreditation logos and it excludes products which contain PVC and peat. It also only sells FSC-certified timber and paper products.

    Ethical supply chains

    Most of the companies in this guide have a turnover of less than £10.2 million, which, as companies providing an environmental or social alternative, makes them exempt from Ethical Consumer’s supply chain rating. 

    However, while they promote themselves as ethical, not all had the rigorous standards one might expect when it came to workers’ rights.

    We considered many of the supply chain policies written by companies in this market to be quite vague about what guarantees were sought from suppliers in terms of workers’ rights. Many failed to publicly state how they monitored workers’ rights throughout their supply chain. This was of concern especially if they envision growing. 

    Only a few companies in this product guide received Ethical Consumer’s best rating for Supply Chain Management. Those that did demonstrated a commitment to workers’ rights throughout their supply chain. Companies such as Traidcraft, Oxfam, Shared Earth and Amnesty did this through only sourcing ethically certified produced e.g. fair trade. Others showed commitment to monitoring their suppliers against workers’ rights provisions. Nkuku went further, stating that it carried out “unscheduled checks to ensure the fairtrade principles are maintained”. 

    Image: meet the artisans at Nkuku
    Nkuku includes a 'Meet the Artisans' section on its website.

    Ethical Shop by New Internationalist had the clearest ethical buying policy which included clear definitions of workers’ rights that suppliers had to meet. Its policy also stated that it required suppliers to report progress on implementing the code annually either by describing actions taken or completing a questionnaire.

    During the research, Ethical Consumer found that some of the brands did not publicly set minimum workers’ rights requirements for categories listed on their website. For example, Green Tulip sold products in its ‘Fairtrade’ category, with no clear definition of what fair trade principles suppliers needed to meet.

    Only WWF scored worst for its supply chain management policy as it did not have a publicly available ethical buying policy which explained what workers’ rights it expected its suppliers to adhere to, although it was noted that its clothing lines used organic cotton.

    Cosmetics and Animal Testing

    Within our system, the Animal Testing rating expects that all companies retailing cosmetics must have an animal testing policy which includes a fixed cut-off date for animal-tested ingredients. As the animal testing certifying organisation Cruelty Free International explains: “A company’s fixed cut-off date is a date after which none of the substances in the products have been tested on animals. A fixed cut-off date enables a company to enforce their animal testing policy and gives suppliers a practical way to move away from animal testing.”

    While many of the companies in this report sold cosmetics labelled as being cruelty free there was a lack of definition over what was meant by this and whether brands had to meet a fixed cut-off date for animal-tested ingredients. Those who did not have a detailed policy lost half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s animal testing category.

    The following companies stated their products were cruelty free, however they did not provide information on how they ensured this:

    Acala, Ethical Market, Ethical Superstore, Green Tulip, RSPB, Traidcraft, Wearth and Veopolis.

    An example of best practice in this area was animal rights charity Animal Aid which stated on its website “Our own brand products, made for us by Honesty Cosmetics, are approved under the Humane Cosmetics Standard and registered with the Vegan Society, with a 1976 fixed cut-off date (FCOD).”

    Ethics of Online Retailers

    Online shopping currently accounts for 16.3% of all UK retail, and is growing fast. Some people have deep fears about the shift online, while others are excited about it. Josie Wexler compares shopping online with the high street. We look at how the major companies involved in online retailing stack up ethically?

    We look at the ethics of Paypal, eBay, Amazon and more. See our feature on whether virtual shopping can ever be virtuous.

    Company profile

    Spark Ecommerce Group states in its Annual Report that its principal activity is the trading of fair trade, organic and ethically sourced products to customers via ecommerce under its four brands – EthicalSuperstore.com, Natural Collection, Spirit of Nature and Frank & Faith. The group reported a turnover of £12.6 million in 2016 and is one of the largest companies operating in this market. 

    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. 

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