Sports & Outdoor Shops

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 13 sports & outdoor retailers.

We also look at zero contract hours, brands using animal down, shine a light on the shady ethics of Sports Direct and give our recommended buys. 

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 buying sports and outdoor clothing:

  • Is it recycled? The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the UK. Most clothing is worn only a handful of times and then sent to landfill. Help the environment by shopping second hand.

  • People before profits? Policies on workers’ rights in the outdoor market lag behind other clothing sectors and even the shoe industry. Look for companies that commit to fair conditions for the person who made your clothing.

  • Does the company pay tax? The sports and outdoors industry has a poor track record in terms of workers, environmental and animal rights. If struggling to make a choice, go for a company that at least pays its tax!

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying sports and outdoor clothing:

  • Is it down? Down stuffing is often produced from the live-plucking of ducks and geese, so is a major issue in terms of animal welfare. Avoid clothing that contains animal down.

  • Does it contain PFCs? Lots of companies use PFCs to make outdoor gear waterproof. Unfortunately, these chemicals are very damaging for the environment, and are therefore best avoided.

  • Is it leather? Lots of outdoor retailers sell leather products, which have a high cost in terms of the environment as well as animal rights. To reduce the carbon footprint of your purchase, look for non-leather alternatives. 

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

Ethical policies in this sector are generally not impressive. In this guide we look at companies’ ratings, their use of zero hour contracts, their connection (or lack of it) with the outdoors, and supply chain issues. 

Sports Direct is by far the biggest player in the UK sports and outdoor shops market, being responsible for about half the sports retailing in the UK. JD Sports (in which Sports Direct has a minority stake) is the next biggest, accounting for 31% of the market in 2015. All of the other shops are tiny players by comparison, having only a few percent each.[1] 

Image: outdoor shops

Companies with a passion for the outdoors?

Some outdoor gear manufacturers were born of their creator’s own passion for the outdoors, and are still controlled by their founders. Climber Yvon Chouinard, for example, still owns Patagonia. 

However, there are no major outdoor retailers in the UK that are similarly controlled by outdoor enthusiasts. Most were just offshoots of other retail businesses from the start – Decathlon, for example, was founded by the Mulliez family who already owned the French Auchan supermarket chain. While Go Outdoors was started by an obsessive climber, he stepped down in 2013, and the company’s current CEO was previously a director at Dixons.

Low scorers

All but Decathlon received our worst rating for Toxics and Environmental Reporting, and Decathlon only scraped a middle in both categories. 

All companies sell animal down in jackets and sleeping bags, and none of them have a policy to prevent live plucking of ducks and geese. Our feature on animal down explains the animal cruelty prevalent in the outdoor industry. 

There is only one key area in which these companies do well, and that is tax avoidance. Only Sports Direct and PAI Partners– the private equity owners of Cotswold Outdoor and Snow and Rock- have two or more high risk subsidiaries in jurisdictions we consider to be tax havens. 

Zero hours contracts

Sports Direct has recently been the subject of a huge amount of publicity over the treatment of its UK staff, who are largely on zero hours contracts. It has been widely reported as paying them less than the minimum wage, and intimidating them to the extent that they dare not even go to the toilet. 

Given this, some may be wondering whether other sports shops fare much better. And while it is only one factor, the extent to which a company uses zero hours contracts gives a flavour of its attitudes towards its staff. 

The winner in this area is Decathlon, which says on its website “we operate a “no zero hours contract” policy.” None of the other companies have publicly available policies. 

Although it can be hard to find out the extent to which a company uses zero hour contracts, we found a Go Outdoors job advert that mentions that zero hour contracts “are available”, and we found a JD Sports job advert that described working hours as “flexible”. 

No information could be found regarding zero hours contracts at Intersport, Cotswold Outdoor, Blacks & Millets, Mountain Warehouse, Snow & Rock or Trespass.

Supply Chain Management

Every single company received our worst rating for Supply Chain Management, as they either had no explicit supply chain policies, or had very poor ones. 

However it is possible that companies in this sector may tend to have slightly better supply chains than other clothing companies just by default, due to the nature of their business. 

In 2014 the FairWear Foundation put out a report on the outdoor industry, claiming that the makers of outdoor gear tend to have more stable relationships with their suppliers than is common in the wider clothing sector. If this is true, it is probably because making outdoor gear requires more specialised labour, and also because it is not sold so much on the basis of fleeting fashions so designs change less regularly, and thus it makes more sense to keep going with suppliers who know what they are doing. 

The FairWear Foundation looked at a sample of six outdoor companies, and found that they sourced 90% of their clothing from factories with which they had had a relationship for five or more years, which is very different from the bulk of the clothing industry. The outdoor companies also had fewer suppliers– in many cases just one or two- and used longer lead times.

The Foundation did not suggest that this meant that everything was hunky dory. It still found issues, particularly excessive overtime, in factories making outdoor clothing. But it argued that the more stable supplier relationships found in the industry put it in a good position to lead the clothing industry on workers rights in its supply chain.

Sports Direct

Sports Direct has just been viciously denounced in a report from the Parliamentary Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, who were prompted to investigate after a string of media exposés. As has been widely reported in the media, MP Iain Wright described the working conditions as "akin to that of a Victorian workhouse".

The majority of workers at Sports Direct are on casual zero hours contracts, employed through agencies. The company has a system under which employees are summarily dismissed after they get six “strikes”. “Strikes” can be given for such appalling misdemeanours as being off sick, drinking water or going to the toilet when not on a break. Many ex-workers have spoken in the press about the “culture of fear” that permeates through the whole company as a result.

The report describes workers being paid below the minimum wage, being humiliated over the warehouse tannoy, women being promised permanent contracts in return for sexual favours, and health and safety failings that led to ambulances being repeatedly called. In one case a worker gave birth in a toilet as she feared losing her job if she didn’t go into work.

Owner Mike Ashley was personally accused by the committee of turning a blind eye to the abuses in order to maximise profits. They claim that he visited the warehouse at least once a week and that it would be “incredible” for him not to have known what was going on.

At the time of writing it is unclear whether Sports Direct or other parties may face any legal action. HMRC may fine the company over its failure to pay the minimum wage. And the select committee determined that Transline- one of the employment agencies used by Sports Direct- had deliberately misled them in its evidence, which may constitute “contempt of parliament”. However, the depressing truth is that much of what Sports Direct has been doing is not illegal.

Excessive pay

Sports Direct was formed in 1982 as Mike Ashley Sports, and the company continues to be controlled by Mike Ashley, who is the deputy chairman.

One thing that has received less coverage is the money that senior staff are making at the company. In 2015 the chief executive Dave Forsey was paid £6.8 million and 2,000 managers and other permanent staff were given share bonuses worth almost £155m, averaging £77,000 each, while the mass of the workforce- those on zero hours contracts, received nothing additional. Mike Ashley himself is on the Sunday Times rich list, with a net worth of £2.43 billion.

The wider picture

Besides its appalling record on workers rights', Sports Direct also scores badly across Ethical Consumer’s other policy ratings. It received our worst rating for Environmental Reporting, Cotton Sourcing, Pollution and Toxics, Likely Use of Tax Avoidance Strategies, and Supply Chain Management.

Sports Direct has many faces, owning many outdoor and fashion brands, including Karrimor, Gelert, Muddyfox.

Company behind the brand

Decathlon only represents about 3% of the sports retail market in the UK but is a much bigger player internationally, being one of the world’s largest sports retailers.[2] 

Decathlon is owned by the Mulliez family, one of the richest families in France. The family also owns the French Auchan supermarket chain, and several other French retailers in the DIY, clothes, and electronics fields. It has many different own-brand names, although the main ones are Quechua for Outdoor Gear and BTWIN for Cycling equipment. 

Decathlon has a moderately lack-lustre set of ethical policies, that are still better than most companies in the sector. As stated earlier, it does not use zero hours contracts and it gets our middle rating on environmental reporting and toxics, which puts it at the top of the league. But it got our worst rating for Supply Chain management and it has no policies on cotton sourcing at all. It uses animal down and we could find no reference to any policies to prevent live-plucking. 

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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References

  1. Mintel 2016, Sports Goods Retailing
  2.  FairWear Foundation, 2014, Living Wage Engineering