• Belinda

How ethical is the British high street?

High street stores in the UK don’t have the best track record when it comes to their ethics. Many companies don’t pay their workers the living wage and there is an overall lack of transparency about how they source materials and who works in their supply chains. In 2018, H&M were notably criticised after a failure to meet a commitment made in 2013 to pay the garment workers in their supply chains a fair living wage. And, in 2017, Primark had to repay store workers after deducting the costs of their uniforms from their salaries and failing to meet the minimum wage. There have also been concerns raised about companies such as M&S and Tesco, with recent media reports suggesting their workers were being forced to work 16 hour days, earning as little as 35p an hour.

As a result, increasing numbers of us are deciding to ditch the high street in favour of more ethical brands and consumption habits. A younger, more eco-conscious generation are thought to be driving these trends with many opting to buy vintage and second hand clothing found on trendy apps like depop rather than shopping on the high street. According to research from Mintel, 44% of younger millennials (aged between 17 and 26) said they would like to see more eco-friendly fabrics used in clothes. This is in comparison to 34% of Generation X and 30% of baby boomers. A report from Nielsen additionally suggested that 66% of consumers globally would be willing to pay more for sustainable fashion. Fashion consumption also fell by about 4% between 2016 and 2018, perhaps signalling a gradual move away from the mindset of fast fashion towards more conscious spending habits.

If this is the case, it couldn't have come at a more pressing moment for our planet. It is estimated that textile production creates 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 every year and 20-35% of all micro plastics, microbeads, fibres, pellets and capsules in the sea. The British are some of the most avid fashion spenders in the world and we spend more on clothes per person than any other country in Europe. On average, consumers in the UK buy 26.7kg of fashion items each year, compared with 16.7kg in Germany, 14.5kg in Italy and 12.6kg in Sweden. In addition, an estimated whopping £140m worth of clothes goes to landfill every year.

How are the high street responding to these environmental issues?

According to the recent parliamentary Interim Report on the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry, some of our high street stores are responding to and engaging with environmental issues and sustainability. Companies such as Marks and Spencer, Primark, Tesco and the Arcadia Group (owners of Topshop), were praised for their engagement with sustainability. However, retailers such as JD Sports, TK Maxx and online retailers such as Boohoo and Missguided were criticised for a lack of engagement. Other companies who are demonstrating a level of engagement with sustainability on the high street include Adidas, Zara and H&M.

Marks and Spencer

Marks and Spencer have been one of the high streets ethical front runners for a few years now. They are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative and are founding members of the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex). They are also working with the International Labour Organisations Better Work Programme to promote responsible business practices. M&S are a Carbon Trust certified brand and they use some environmentally sustainable materials such as recycled nylon, recycled polyester and organic cotton in their collections. They have also set a deadline for the removal of hazardous chemicals by 2020. They use wool that complies with the Responsible Wool Standard. However, they use leather and down without stating sources. Marks and Spencer are becoming more transparent about their supply chains and have listed their factories on a global interactive map. However, M&S have been criticised for poor working conditions and low pay in some of their factories. Most recently, they were linked to a factory where workers earn as little as 35p per hour.


Adidas is another front runner in terms of sustainability, having made a public commitment to reduce its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 15% before 2020. It is also a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative and The Sustainable Apparel Coalition and is partially certified by Bluesign. It traces most of its supply chain and publicly lists some of its suppliers. However, they have made little progress towards paying a living wage to workers across their supply chain and use down feathers without specifying sources.


Zara is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative and uses some sustainable materials such as organic cotton. They have also set some targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations by 15% and to eliminate hazardous chemicals by 2020. However, Zara has made little progress towards ensuring payment of a living wage in their supply chain.


H&M is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative and has set targets to eliminate hazardous chemicals by 2020. They are working towards becoming 100% climate positive by 2040 by using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency. They have also set targets to use 100% recycled and sustainable materials by 2030. H&M made a commitment in 2013 to paying workers in their supply chains a fair living wage, but so far they have not met this target.

The rest of the high street

Most of the shops on our high streets are doing very little to improve their ethical standards. Companies such as New Look, Oasis, Miss Selfridge, Monsoon, Mango, Urban Outfitters, River Island and TK Maxx are doing little or nothing to address issues of sustainability, working conditions, labour rights and animal welfare.

Should we shop on the high street?

Currently, ethical standards on the high street are not good enough. Whilst some companies have adopted more sustainable and environmentally friendly policies, there is still a long way to go. Particularly in terms of labour rights, working conditions and animal welfare standards. As retailers such as H&M have reneged on their promises to pay the living wage in the past, there is no assurance that others won't do the same. Some high street retailers have made some good policy commitments, but how can we be sure that they will meet these targets and this isn't simply "greenwashing"?

At the moment, there are better alternatives to the British high street with a number of more ethical and sustainable brands to choose from. However, millions of people globally depend on the fashion industry for their livelihoods so boycotting brands entirely isn't the best solution. If you are concerned about the ethics on the high street, writing to your favourite brands and asking for more information is a good idea. You can also contact brands via the Fashion Revolution website.

The British high street has a long way to go in its efforts to be more ethical and sustainable, but it is good to see that some of these retailers are making progress.