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What makes a company unethical?

Our guide to spotting unethical companies.

Finding out which companies have unethical business practices is our speciality at Ethical Consumer.

There are four key things to look at when assessing if a company is unethical or not:

  • Its commitment to the environment
  • How it treats workers and its human rights record
  • Its policies regarding animals
  • How it acts towards democracy and the state

Here we take you through how we identify unethical companies, brands and products, with reference to a number of well-known brands.

All the information is based on how we rate companies for our ethical shopping guides.

Step 1. Follow the money

grey cat watching money

We research the four broad areas outlined above to determine how ethical a company is, but the process begins by identifying the company behind the brand (so that we can help consumers follow the money).

In many cases a company brand or product may appear to be ‘ethical’, when the company that owns it is not.

Other review sites sometimes research  the top ethical products in a certain market, and base judgements on the product’s specifications and manufacture alone.

We believe you need to dive deeper - even if one product is manufactured with impeccable ethics, if it’s owned by a company involved in unethical activities then its ethical rating should reflect that.

The term 'ultimate holding company' (UHC) is used to refer to the company that has ultimate control over the brand, product or company we are rating. By researching the UHC, you can find out exactly where the money you spend is ultimately going.

The best example is the burgeoning market for vegan products. Here we see a number of vegan products produced by companies that also sell meat and dairy.

Example: Groupe Danone

The popular vegan brands Alpro, Provamel and Soya Soleil are owned by French multinational Groupe Danone. Group Danone has a 24.4% share in the global fresh dairy industry, so when we buy Alpro we’re actually funding one of the world’s largest dairy producers.

Alpro, which is by far the UK's best known vegan brand, is now part of a brand roster that includes Activa yogurt, Cow & Gate baby milk and Actimel.

Danone is also subject to multiple consumer boycotts over their aggressive marketing of baby milk formula.

Other examples include:

  • The brand Pure which is owned by the Kerry Group, that owns other well-known brands include Richmond’s sausages, Wall’s Sausages, Dairygold and Cheesestrings.
  • Linda McCartney, currently owned by Hain Celestial, a company that sells poultry products in the US, as well as owning Ella’s Kitchen baby food, much of which contains meat.

Step 2. Assess their approach to environmental impacts

image: smoke chimney emitting fossil fuels in atmosphere pollution

We research companies against a range of environmental criteria including: environmental reporting, climate change, pollution and toxics, habitats and resources, and palm oil.

Let’s take Environmental Reporting as an example. When Ethical Consumer first began assessing companies’ approaches to the environment, if they discussed the environment at all it was usually through vague statements such as “minimising impacts”.

Today, much more detailed reports and environmental targets are expected from companies - especially those with a large revenue and global operations.

Only those companies with policies and practice that reflect the need to combat climate change and the ecological crisis can really be ethical.

Example: The Walt Disney Company

Disney might be looked upon as a company that warms the hearts of children and adults alike and spreads a little magic in the world. Unfortunately, Disney is failing when it comes to the challenge of global warming and addressing its own environmental impact.

The Walt Disney Company is a member of four corporate lobby groups that were seen to influence policy-makers in favour of market solutions that were potentially detrimental to the environment. These lobby groups include the American Chamber of Commerce, the International Chamber of Commerce, the Coalition of Services Industries and the US Council for International Business.

Disney also received low ratings for its Climate, Cotton and Timber policies. As a company with a turnover of £43 billion, Disney clearly has the necessary resources to develop these practices and up its environmental game and yet no evidence that it was doing this was found. This makes Disney a prime example of an unethical company.

Step 3. Investigate their record on workers' rights and human rights

image: workers in tech factory foxconn rights

When you step into the shop (or click on a website), it probably won’t be immediately obvious if the company is involved in workers' or human rights violations.

However, workers' and human rights violations have the potential to occur at every step of a supply chain. It’s a company’s responsibility to put policies in place to prevent this.

We look at whether a company has a supply chain policy that details exactly how they uphold the rights of workers - a vital tool in combating exploitation.

Without properly addressing workers' and human rights through their entire supply chain a company cannot be considered ethical.

Example: Gap Inc

The clothing sector is particularly well-known for being implicated in workers' and human rights issues. We rate companies on several aspects, such as supply chain management, countries they source materials from, and whether they’ve been criticised for issues like discrimination, union-busting or low pay.

Gap Inc owns several clothing brands, including Gap and Banana Republic. When we last reviewed Gap Inc in January 2024 it received less than half of the available marks for Workers rights.

Gap Inc has been criticised in other reports too. For example, a report by the University of Aberdeen claimed that it was “exploiting Bangladesh garment industry workers, with some of them involved in unfair practices and paying the suppliers below the cost of production”.

Step 4. Research company policy on animal rights

Image: milk cows dairy feed trough

We look at both animal testing and animal welfare.

  1. In sectors where animal testing is common, companies will be marked down in our ratings if they test on animals or have an inadequate policy on animal testing.
  2. If companies use animal ingredients such as meat, dairy, or eggs they will lose points, but we also look at the animal welfare policies in place to see if they are preventing the worst welfare outcomes for the animals involved.

    We also look for animal-derived ingredients or materials in non-food products (such as clothing, footwear, or skincare for example), and again look for animal welfare policies, as well as third-party criticisms.

We don't believe that any company that harms animals can be truly ethical.

Example: Superdrug

Superdrug has somewhat developed a reputation for being against animal testing, perhaps because it has Leaping Bunny approval for all its own-brand cosmetics and personal care products.

However, Superdrug also manufactures and retails medical products. When we last reviewed Superdrug in October 2023 no information was found in relation to the company’s policy around animal testing for medical products, so it was assumed that Superdrug does in fact test some of its products on animals.

Superdrug is owned by A.S. Watson Group, which owns the company PARKnSHOP. PARKnSHOP sold a range of meat and dairy products that were not labelled as free range or organic.

Superdrug is therefore part of a corporate family that retails meat and dairy, and it likely tests on animals.

Step 5. How do they impact our democracy?

The Houses of Parliament

While politics and business are often framed as separate spheres, in reality they are deeply intertwined. Large companies especially have the power to influence major political decisions, and partake in activities that have significant political implications.

We research this area with reference to, Anti-Social Finance, Boycott Calls, Political Activity, and Tax Conduct.

We believe that companies lobbying governments for weaker environmental, tax or labour standards can never be ethical.


One of the subcategories our readers are most interested in is Tax Conduct. Here, we rate companies on their likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is paying very little in corporation tax while raking in revenue. It is the subject of a global boycott call by Ethical Consumer.

When we last reviewed Amazon, it emerged that while the company’s headquarters were in Washington, it was incorporated in Delaware (considered a tax haven by Ethical Consumer). It also had five subsidiaries based in Nevada or Delaware, jurisdictions on Ethical Consumer's list of tax havens at the time of writing.

Ethical Consumer has calculated that, in 2021, up to half a billion pounds (£500,000,000) could have been lost to the UK public purse from the corporation tax avoidance of Amazon alone.

 In 2019, Fair Tax Mark named Amazon as having “the poorest tax conduct” of the six major tech companies – a sector known for its tax avoidance.

 Amazon has shunted much of its UK income to its subsidiary in Luxembourg, “where there is a ‘loss-making’ subsidiary that is not only not paying tax, but is generating enormous tax reliefs that can be used in the future to ensure that little or no tax continues to be paid,” according to Paul Monaghan from the Fair Tax Mark.

Overall, a range of third-party sources criticised Amazon for its tax conduct, the company had no country-by-country financial information or reporting (CBCR), nor a clear public tax statement confirming that it was its policy not to engage in tax avoidance activity or to use tax havens for tax avoidance purposes.

Overall Amazon received the lowest Ethical Consumer rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

The company has also been criticised for its global online market monopoly. During the first lockdown in the UK, 35% of all purchases made online were through the company.

As of 2019, almost 40% of UK shoppers had access to Amazon’s Prime subscription service. The company is the top fashion retailer in the USA.

It also has a very poor track record on workers' rights, with reports of impossible packing targets, worker surveillance, lack of breaks, and refusing union representation.

Find out more about these issues in our detailed Amazon boycott campaign page. PLUS we give you lots of links to recommended alternatives to Amazon!

Step 6: Look deeper - Cross cutting issues

Image: orangutans

Some examples of bespoke categories for certain product sectors include palm oil, conflict minerals, and cotton sourcing.

Let’s use palm oil as a case study. Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation. It is said that the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforests are cleared every hour to meet demand. This not only affects the people living in the rainforest, it is also wiping out the habitat of endangered species such as Orangutan and pygmy elephants.

Example: Pret a Manger

We searched the Pret a Manger website in March 2020, to find out how it sourced its palm oil.

No information was found. It wasn’t a member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), nor did it supply any data about the amount of palm oil in its supply chain.

As a company operating in the food and drink industry Ethical Consumer considered it highly likely that it was selling and purchasing products containing palm oil such as bread, pastries, margarine and cleaning products.

The company therefore recieved a low rating for Palm Oil sourcing.

Step 7: Staying up-to-date with ethical company takeovers

Image: ecover product

Another issue to watch out for is takeovers. On occasion, ethical brands get taken over by unethical companies.

For example in December 2017, ethical brands Ecover and Method were taken over by multinational SC Johnson.

SC Johnson has links to animal testing and so in April 2018 campaign group Naturewatch launched a campaign asking supporters and the general public to contact Ecover and Method, expressing their disappointment at the takeover and pledging to boycott the company and its products until SC Johnson is cruelty-free.

Ecover and Method are themselves cruelty-free and remain Leaping Bunny certified but are no longer endorsed by Naturewatch because of the parent company.

The takeover also led to Ecover and Method both losing additional marks in our ethical rankings, from animal testing to likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

Shining a light on corporate ethics

Here at Ethical Consumer we look into many aspects of a company’s activities so you can find out if it is unethical or not.

In all we have over 100 shopping guides in 9 sectors all containing information on how unethical (or ethical) a company is. 

In each guide we give companies an ethical score based on our unique ethical rating system.

From bread to big banks, we rate companies in a range of sectors in our shopping guides to help revolutionise the way you shop, save and live.

A quick overview of what makes a company ethical