Skip to main content

Ethical Online Shopping

Find ethical online shops with our research and ratings for 25 retailers.

We look at the UK ethical shopping market, product ranges, ebay, how to avoid Amazon, environmental issues, and whether it is ethical to shop online.

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 encourage re-use? Support retailers that sell second hand, recycled and upcycled items.

  • Does it have a clear supply chain policy? Pick companies that have clear, ethical policies on workers’ rights in their supply chains, long-term relationships with their suppliers, and positive policies on living wages and freedom of association.

  • Is it a charity? Use your consumption to support the charitable causes that are important to you.

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 only slightly ethical? Avoid products that meet only one ethical criterion and look for those which meet high standards on workers’ rights and a range of environmental issues.

  • Is it all about the branding? Look beyond the name and the marketing and read up on what the company is doing on the issues that matter to you.

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

Ethical online shopping in the UK 

When this guide was first produced in 2014, it was based on feedback from readers about which ethical online shops they used most. Sadly, many from that list are no longer trading, including the popular and high-scoring Global Seesaw and Nigel’s Eco Store.

This gives an indication of what a difficult market online retail is, particularly for small companies. The internet is a big place and Amazon dominates every Google product search. Larger retailers have other advantages too, such as being able to offer discounts that undercut competitors and having multiple warehouses around the country which makes delivery cheaper.

Ethical online retailers also have a limited range of products to sell, precisely because they’re ethical. And the products they do sell often crop up on the sites of several ethical retailers and on Amazon and eBay as well. It’s worth bearing these difficulties in mind when looking at the score table.

Ethical shopping in 2021

Our Ethical Consumer Market Report, which tracks the sales of ethical goods and services, shows that the market for ethical goods is still growing.

The 2019 report valued the ethical market in the UK at £41.1 billion, an almost 400% increase over 40 years.

The 2020 report focused on the impact of the pandemic on people’s predisposition to shop ethically. The image below shows pre-lockdown vs. post-lockdown behaviour change.

The big winners appeared to be shopping locally, reducing energy consumption and cycling more, with public transport set to be the big loser, at least in the short term. In terms of food shopping, buying fair trade and organic increased following lockdown.

 

Outline drawing of house with different behaviours pre and post lockdown
Ethical consumer behaviour pre- and post-lockdown. From ECMR 2020.

The ethical online shops in this guide

Because Amazon sells everything (Nicolas Cage pillowcase anyone?), providing ethical alternatives to cover it all is difficult. That’s why we’ve included John Lewis and – maybe controversially – eBay. None of the small retailers sell electrical items so we’ve introduced Electrofarm, a specialist in second hand and refurbished electricals.

This guide also includes retailers with a range of ethical credentials.

The Amnesty Shop, Viva! and Oxfam are charities which use retail to raise funds and advertise their causes with related merchandise.

Four of the retailers are 100% vegan: Veo; Wearth; the vegan campaigning charity Viva!; and Ethical Wares, the vegan shoe seller that started trading over 25 years ago, long before veganism was mainstream.

Other veteran ethical retailers included in the guide are Traidcraft, the fair trade pioneer; and Ethical Shop, owned by the not-for-profit co-operative publisher, New Internationalist.

A previous Best Buy in this guide, Amberoot, wasn't included because we left out those which only sell clothing, and then in 2022 they sadly folded.

What the shops sell

Organic and fair trade cotton Amnesty-branded merchandise.

Wide range of organic and/or fair trade groceries, snacks and drinks.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Good approach to toxics, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Small fair trade selection of jewellery.

Human rights/environment-themed books, games, toys diaries, cards.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Good approach to toxics, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Beauty gift boxes.

Wide range of clothing and bedding. No cotton policy but organic and fair trade available.

Wide range of food, organic and fair trade available.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. No policies on toxic chemicals or animal testing.

Wide range of jewellery, gifts, books, toys/games.

Wide range of new and second hand electrical goods.

Wide range of second hand and refurbished electrical goods.

Direct link to website.

Clothes/bedding - No cotton policy but majority of items sold made from organic and fair trade cotton.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Unclear policy on toxics, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Large range of fair trade and hand-made jewellery.

Large range of gifts, toys and games.

Small clothing range.

Range of organic and/or fair trade groceries, chocolate and drinks.

Small range of bodycare and cleaning products.

Small range of fair trade jewellery.

Social /political books, diaries, toys.

No cotton policy; some fair trade cotton clothes but not all.

Vegan sweets and chocolate only.

Vegan lipstick, nail varnish and soap, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Fair trade jewellery.

Vegan-themed books, and fair trade ornaments.

Tea, coffee, sugar, some fair trade and organic.

Professional cleaning supplies, brands listed as or known to be cruelty-free or ‘no animal testing’.

Recycled notebooks, paper, card, and storage items.

No cotton policy; range of organic cotton baby clothes.

Chocolate, herbs and spices and tea, some fair trade and organic.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Unclear policy on toxics, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Some recycled and fair trade jewellery.

Range of food and bodycare gift boxes.

Poor cotton policy but wide range of organic cotton clothing and bedding available.

Wide range of food and drink through Waitrose. Good detail on animal welfare. Sells meat.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. No policy on toxics, no fixed cut off date in animal testing policy and sold other brands known to test on animals.

Wide range of jewellery. No mention of responsible sourcing.

Wide range of gifts, books and toys.

Wide range of electrical products.

Only second hand clothes sold.

Fair trade and some organic food and drink.

Small range of soaps and cleaning products from brands with ‘no animal testing’ policies and lists of excluded toxics.

Wide range of second hand jewellery.

Wide range of second hand books, gifts and toys/games including collectables.

Wide range of food with vegan or organic options. Also sells meat.

Sells bodycare and cleaning products, but no clear policy on toxics, no fixed cut off date in animal testing policy.

Small range of hampers.

Fair trade household and garden items, soaps and shampoo, jewellery, accessories, stationery, gifts.

Includes a wide range of recycled and upcycled products.

No cotton policy but all clothing sold GOTS (organic) certified or labelled organic.

Groceries, drinks, chocolate, some organic and/or fair trade.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Good approach to toxics, though policy not publicly available. No products tested on animals but unclear policy on ingredients.

Fair trade jewellery and some from recycled materials.

Wide range of hampers from social enterprises.

Majority organic cotton clothes/bedding.

Wide range of organic, vegan or fair trade food and drink.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Good approach to toxics, 'no animal testing’ policy.

Jewellery from recycled materials and fair trade available.

Large range of gifts, toys and books including recycled plastic toys.

Small range of energy-efficient lighting, kettles and radios.

Separate websites: Ethical Superstore; Frank & Faith (clothing); Natural Collection; Spirit of Nature

No cotton policy but all clothing sold is fair trade and organic.

Sells fair trade groceries, drinks and chocolate. Also sells ‘sustainable’ fish.

Small range of cleaning products from brands which exclude toxics, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Some fair trade gifts.

Good cotton policy, certified organic or upcycled cotton.

Vegan groceries, drinks and chocolate

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Good approach to toxics, no animal testing’ policy

Wide range of jewellery, including fair trade and upcycled.

Reusable gift wrap.

Organic cotton Viva! branded merchandise.

Vegan sweets and snacks, vegan wine and other alcohol.

Small range of jewellery.

Sells books, toys, stationery and 'adopt an animal' gift schemes

Organic or upcycled cotton clothing.

Majority of food and drink is organic staples sold in refillable, plastic-free bags.

Wide range of bodycare and cleaning products. Good approach to toxics, though not publicly explained, ‘no animal testing’ policy.

Sells jewellery from recycled materials.

Range of gift baskets, stationery and items for children.

 

What do retailers mean by ethical?

All of the brands in this guide (other than eBay) refer on their websites to their ethics, values or purpose. Many label their products with ethical criteria and allow shoppers to use these criteria as a filter. Some of the criteria have clear definitions and external verification, such as organic or fairtrade, while others are less clear, for example “eco-conscious” or “economic empowerment”.

Most of the retailers do explain what their categories mean, and we understand that what’s ethical is partly subjective. Having said that, many of the retailers require their products to comply with only one criterion.

Some make the point that they do this because their customers have different values, and they want to give them choice. But we’re not sure this is good enough and would prefer to see a baseline standard for all products that covers a range of environmental issues as well as workers’ rights. If you agree, select products that meet all these standards and let your favourite retailers know why you’re doing this.

Planet Organic - What's in a name?

In the past, we’ve recommended Planet Organic, but we’re not sure how accurate the company name is any more. Previously the whole company was certified by the Soil Association but now only the kitchens are.

We also noticed this statement on the website: “Over the years, we’ve incorporated non-organic products
into our range to keep up with demand from our customers”.

The company’s GMO policy also seems to have become more equivocal, from “We also never have, and never will, sell GMO foods, or sell meat from animals fed GMO food” to the website now saying: “We believe that natural is better for us and for the environment, so we have never sold food which contains artificial sweeteners, flavours, colours, preservatives, or any genetically modified food and products” with no mention of animal feed.

Cartoon showing Jeff Bezoz in front of row of closed shops
Cartoon by Mike Bryson

Finding alternatives to Amazon

This guide is part of our ‘alternatives to Amazon’ series, to help you find more ethical online retailers than Amazon. With the popularity of online shopping remaining high post-lockdown, it’s more important than ever that we resist the temptations of Amazon.

For almost a decade Ethical Consumer has being calling for a boycott of the company over its tax avoidance which costs the UK millions in public funds every year, but it is also widely criticised for workers’ rights issues and its monopoly over many markets.

We have seen resistance to Amazon grow over time. Not only have we been joined by Fair Tax Mark, Tax Justice Network and others in condemning the company’s tax record; we’ve seen workers, unions, anti-racism organisations, anti-gentrification movements and others raise voices against Amazon globally.

By boycotting the company, we are taking part in this global movement and building the pressure for Amazon – or the legislation that allows its abuses – to change.

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.

In this guide, we rate some of your favourite ethical online retailers and hopefully introduce you to some new ones. We’ve tried to make sure that, between them, they cover most shopping needs and we’ve provided a guide as to who sells what further below.

eBay versus Amazon

eBay’s Ethiscore is 5.5, which is 5.5 more than Amazon. It received a worst rating in some major categories, including supply chain management and likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

However, it received a best for environmental reporting and a middle rating for carbon management and reporting, with clear targets for use of renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions. Also in its favour, eBay facilitates the sale of second hand items much more than Amazon.

Admittedly, all that might lead you to conclude that eBay is a pretty feeble ethical alternative to Amazon. However, in our opinion, the sheer scale of Amazon’s likely tax avoidance strategies, its mistreatment of workers, its rapacious acquisitions of competitors, and its abuse of market power in relation to sellers, consumers and other smaller retailers, makes it a much more malign influence on the world than eBay.

So, whilst we recommend that you favour the other online retailers in this guide plus your local shops, using eBay occasionally, when it’s the only alternative to Amazon, and when you buy second hand, is still a decent ethical choice.

Cartoon of Amazon delivery vans all stuck in traffic
Cartoon by Mike Bryson

Ethical issues highlighted in the score table

Environmental reporting

We tweaked our environmental reporting criteria for this guide and as a result some companies have lost marks when previously they did well, for example Social Supermarket and Big Green Smile.

Small companies can generally get a best rating if they specialise in products which are of environmental benefit. But here we also demanded that they place requirements on their suppliers to reduce their own environmental impacts. We thought this was justified because most of the retailers in this guide market themselves as ethical – three of them have ‘green’ in their names – and supply chains are where the vast majority of environmental impacts take place for consumer companies, typically 90%.

Using the new criteria, five of the small retailers received a best rating for environmental reporting: Veo, Wearth, Green Stationery, Shared Earth and Ethical Shop.

Many of those who received a worst rating were also taking actions to reduce their environmental impacts by cutting packaging or stocking plastic-free and vegan products. Big Green Smile moved its warehouse to reduce its mileage and Green Tulip has stopped sending out paperwork in its orders. These are positive steps, but as they are taking place in the companies’ own operations rather than in their supply chains they are relatively less effective.

Carbon management and reporting

There are seven large companies in this guide and none of them achieved a best rating for carbon management as they didn’t sufficiently show that they were taking meaningful steps to cut their climate emissions; they didn't report on their emissions including in their supply chains or have a decent reduction target.

Five of them: John Lewis, eBay, Amnesty Shop, Oxfam and Electrofarm, received a middle rating as they were taking some steps. Spark Etail and Planet Organic received a worst rating.

We put lower requirements on small companies – they just have to be taking some meaningful actions. Shared Earth, Traidcraft, Green Stationery, and Big Green Smile all were.

Several of the other small companies discussed measures they took to offset their carbon emissions, for example, one of our best buys, Wearth offset the emissions of its deliveries through support for forestry projects in Brazil and the UK. Whilst this is better than doing nothing, best practice is to avoid emissions in the first place.

Most of the small companies did achieve a middle rating, however, as they were providing a lower carbon alternative. This applied to the four companies that were 100% vegan and to Ethical Shop and Green Tulip, who stocked a large range of products that were recycled, made in the UK, and vegan.

Supply chain management

Of the large companies, only John Lewis and Oxfam achieved a best rating for Supply Chain Management, showing that they were taking steps to ensure workers’ rights in their supply chain.

Of the small retailers, Shared Earth, Traidcraft, Ethical Shop and Veo met the threshold: Shared Earth and Traidcraft because they are fair trade retailers with long-term relationships with suppliers; Ethical Shop because it required suppliers to commit to freedom of association and living wages and published its list of suppliers; and Veo because it required standards to be met throughout its supply chains, not just by its immediate suppliers.

Ethical issues of shopping online

Greenhouse gas emissions

Recent research comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of different ways of shopping in the UK found that the best way to shop is by ‘bricks and clicks’, namely, ordering online for home delivery from retailers which have physical shops.

Shopping in person from physical shops had higher emissions. Online shopping from retailers with no physical shops had higher still because of the free shipping given by many online retailers which encourages people to buy things one at a time, increasing deliveries.

Physical shops usually only give free shipping for online shopping if you spend a lot of money. So ‘bricks and clicks’ shopping encourages people to do all their shopping at once, cutting delivery journeys.

You can help to reduce emissions by bulk-buying and buying as much as you can from one seller so that it can all be sent together. But beware of marketplaces like eBay, Wearth and Social Supermarket where everything goes into the same online basket but gets sent separately. Also, make sure you’re at home for your deliveries. Failed deliveries mean more emissions.

Range of ethical products online vs high street

Shopping online can give you access to products that meet your values in ways that local shops don’t – not everyone is lucky enough to have a fair trade, organic, plastic-free or vegan shop nearby. Plus, a lot of the retailers in this guide work with very small producers, worker cooperatives or social enterprises that may not have any other outlets. On the other hand, we all know that if we want to have a high street, we have to use it. So, if you can’t find the products you want locally, try asking your local shop if they’ll order stuff in for you.

Other issues around unionisation rates of the online and offline shopping worlds are covered in our new guide to delivery companies.

Take Action

John Lewis staff have launched a campaign for payment of the real living wage.

According to a petition on the Organise platform, 1 in 5 staff receive below the real living wage (currently £9.50 across the UK and £10.85 in London). The petition states that without a living wage, staff who are paid by the hour struggle financially while high-level staff are paid salaries of £100,000 or more.

You can sign the John Lewis (and Waitrose) petition on the Organise site.

Company behind the brands

Spark Etail owns four of the brands in this guide: Ethical Superstore; Frank & Faith (clothing); Natural Collection; and Spirit of Nature.

Spark Etail is owned by Whistl Group, the logistics and delivery company, which is owned by NNY 91 Limited, which is part-owned by BGF Group.

According to BGF Group’s 2020 annual report, it has a portfolio of investments of over £2 billion. NNY 91’s 2020 annual report stated: "BGF has significant influence over the composition of the board of directors, the decision making in the Company and the operational and financial levers of Whistl." The BGF Group is a billion-pound investment company which is jointly owned by Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, RBS and Standard Chartered banks.

Spark Etail has also recently taken over running the Amnesty Shop. This new partnership places the Amnesty Shop at the bottom of a long chain of ownership including the BGF Group.This is quite a change for the Amnesty Shop which was previously managed by New Internationalist, the co-operative publisher and owner of Ethical Shop (also rated in this guide). We understand that Amnesty is still responsible for buying its own-branded and Amnesty-endorsed products, but that Spark Etail takes care of everything else. This means that Amnesty has a much-expanded range, and that you’re likely to find many of the same products in Amnesty’s shop and on Spark’s other websites.

Whilst Spark Etail does not own Amnesty, it has a bearing on Amnesty’s Ethiscore which has dropped slightly since last year. For example, Spark Etail received a worst rating for supply chain management and as a result so did Amnesty, despite the fact that Amnesty’s supply chain policies for its own branded products received a middle rating. On the other hand, Spark had positive policies on animal testing and use of animal-derived materials and these contributed to Amnesty’s score.

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. 

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