Ethical Alternatives To Sports Direct

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Sports Direct has been exposed, but what is the ethical alternative?

Sports Direct has been hitting the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. This includes a damning government investigation likening the range of shocking practices at their Derbyshire warehouse to that of a ‘Victorian workhouse’.

But it’s not an isolated case. Georgina Rawes from Ethical Consumer has this interesting post for Moral Fibres readers on their latest findings when investigating outdoor and sports retailers.  

Healthy living and appreciation of the great outdoors.  Do outdoor and sports retailers practice what they preach?

It’s the ultimate irony that whilst outdoor gear companies depend on a pristine environment for their profitability, the vast majority show a total disregard for the environmental impact of their businesses.

Workers are paid below the minimum wage. Staff are penalised for taking toilet breaks. And repeated ambulance calls from workers. These are just some of the findings of a Guardian investigation at Sports Direct, which prompted a government enquiry.  It paints a disturbing picture for a company basing its business on the pursuit of healthy living and exercise. However, they are not the only outdoor and sports retailer with questionable ethics.

At Ethical Consumer, we help consumers make smart and well-informed decisions based on sound ethical buying behaviour.  When we learned of the Sports Direct scandal, we decided it was time to investigate this sector.  We assessed the other major outdoor and sports retailers in the UK and our findings don’t make for happy reading.  As far as poor ethics go, sadly Sports Direct is not alone…

ethical outdoor retailers

The shocking results show that all sports and outdoor retailers score badly. There is particularly poor performance in supply chain management, toxic chemical use, animal rights, and environmental reporting.  We always choose a few highly scoring companies to feature as a ‘best buy’ in each category that we evaluate, but for obvious reasons, we are unable to do so for these retailers.

Supply chain shame

A clear supply chain policy sets out how workers in factories, farms, and warehouses must be treated. It also sets corporate responsibility for ensuring that workers are treated fairly.  Without a policy, retailers are unable to provide guidance on pay, hours, and health and safety.  In short, they are unable to hold the supply chain to account.  No policy, no control.

All of the retailers scored the lowest possible score in this area. Not a single outdoor retailer was able to offer a supply chain management policy that set out to protect the interests of their workers.

In fact, here in the UK, we discovered that Go Outdoors advertises zero-hour contracts. This is something that Sports Direct was harshly criticised for during their enquiry.  Only Decathlon states that it operates a no zero-hours contract policy.

Toxic fashion

The production of fabric often relies on the use of toxic, persistent substances such as PVC, dyes, and adhesives that can cause harm to workers and the environment.  

Most recently, Greenpeace has launched a campaign ‘Detox Outdoors’ to hold outdoor clothing manufacturers to account and to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in clothing production, including the use of Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs).  PFCs are persistent hormone and reproductive disruptors that can accumulate in the food chain. However, they are widely used to make outdoor gear waterproof.  Although there are alternative substances on the market that do the same job, PFC use is widespread.

In our assessment, all of the retailers were penalised for the use of toxic chemicals, all receiving the worst score.  They either had no policy at all or did not have a clear time-driven plan to remove these chemicals from their products.

Animal rights issues

You might not immediately think that animal rights would be something that outdoor retailers would need to concern themselves with. However, the use of animal products is widespread within the industry.  Think down jackets, merino wool sweaters and socks, and of course leather use in bags and shoes.

Despite clear animal rights issues associated with live plucking of birds for down collection and the use of ‘mulesing’ (anaesthetised removal of skin in sheep to prevent flystrike) in the production of merino wool, most retailers did not have a policy on how they ensure responsible sourcing of these materials.  Include the pollution risk of not controlling the production of leather in tanneries, and there are clear ethical concerns here.  All retailers, but Intersport, received the lowest possible marks in this category.

Lack of environmental control

In an era when climate change is making the headlines on a daily basis, you would think that retailers would have environmental impact firmly on their agenda.  You would expect large retailers to have a clear policy setting out how they plan to reduce their impact.

Not so.  With the exception of Decathlon, none of the other retailers were able to provide us with a policy and had no evidence of setting targets to become more sustainable.

A depressing outlook, but there are other ethical alternatives to Sports Direct…

The picture looks pretty bleak for the outdoor retailers.  However, there are ethical outdoor brands out there, if you’re willing to search off the high street.  We’ve run reports on sportswear brands and can recommend several ‘best buy’ brands:

  • Gossypium offers a range of natural and organic yoga and dance clothes made in Great Britain and they ranked at the top of our sportswear report.
  • Yew is a sports and outdoor clothing company that makes ethically sourced clothes from environmentally friendly and sustainable materials.
  • Páramo ranked in our top 4.  They stock a large range of outdoor clothing and have a clear plan for the removal of PFC from their clothing range.

Until these high street retailers can demonstrate that they care let’s vote with our feet and shop elsewhere.  There are plenty of alternatives to Sports Direct available.  You just have to know where to look. For example, check out the Moral Fibres guide to the best ethical outdoor gear.

At Ethical Consumer, we’ve produced reports on over 40,000 companies, brands, and products, using calculations to assess and rank companies in all aspects of ethical behaviour.  See ethicalconsumer.org for these ethical reports.

Featured image by Philip Halling; table reproduced by permission from Ethical Consumer.

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  1. Unfortunately this has only gotten worse with at least 3 of the companies listed now owned by the same parent group of Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group, those companies are Field & Trek, Sports Direct & Evans Cycles and another 4 of the companies in the same scenario, JD Sports, Millets, Go Outdoors & Blacks owned by the JD Sports Group.

  2. Not really alternatives… all MUCH more expensive… Isnt there any casual brand for men that you can buy from without feeling guilty AND without having to save up for?

  3. Great article Wendy. My go to brand for outdoor wear is Finisterre; great designs, long-lasting and a real focus on supply chain transparency.

  4. I personally like to buy and wear from either Fjällraven or Patagonia. Patagonia’s repairing philosophy simply feels good and I love the versatility you get out of a well manufactured Fjällraven piece of clothing. Prana is also great and making use of the online communities to buy used or sometimes even new but unwanted equipment.