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Ethical Sportswear

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 29 brands of sportswear

We also look at toxic chemicals, Uzbek cotton, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Brooks 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.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when you are buying sportswear:

  • Is it organic? There are many problems associated with cotton production, from the use of child labour to the widespread use of toxic pesticides. Look for 100% organic cotton.

  • People before profits? Many clothing brands rely on overworked and underpaid garment workers to churn out cheap fashion. Buy from companies that commit to fair conditions for the person who made your running gear.

  • Is it recycled or second hand? 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.

Best Buys

Recommended buys

Howies organic lines are also recommended.

What not to buy

Sadly there are some fairly unhealthy processes involved in the manufacture of sports clothing

  • Does it use toxic chemicals? Clothes manufacturing often uses numerous chemicals that are then released, seriously damaging the environment. Avoid companies using toxic chemicals.

  • Does it use nanotechonology? Worryingly little is known about the nanoscale particles that are released from fabrics made with this technology. Some fear they will have serious implications for animals, the environment and human health, so take the precautionary principle and avoid nanotech clothing.

Companies to avoid

The following brands score worst for poor workers' rights and the use of toxics:

  • Brooks
  • Nike
  • Jordan
  • Hurley

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Gossypium yoga clothing

Company Profile: Gossypium Ltd

Páramo sportswear

Company Profile: Paramo Ltd

Yew sportswear (recycled polyester) [S]

Company Profile: Yew Clothing Ltd

Yew sportswear [O]

Company Profile: Yew Clothing Ltd

Howies organic clothing [O]

Company Profile: Howies Ltd

Umbro Sportswear

Company Profile: Umbro

Howies clothing

Company Profile: Howies Ltd

Inov-8 sports wear

Company Profile: Inoveight Limited

Asics sportswear

Company Profile: ASICS Corporation

Fila Sportswear

Company Profile: Cravatex Limited

Mizuno Sportswear

Company Profile: Mizuno Corporation

New Balance sportswear

Company Profile: New Balance Holding Inc

Warrior sportswear

Company Profile: New Balance Holding Inc

Ellesse sportswear

Company Profile: Ellesse Ltd

PraNa sportswear

Company Profile: PrAna Living LLC

Salomon sports wear

Company Profile: Amer Sports UK Limited

Wilson sportswear

Company Profile: Wilson Sporting Goods Company

Adidas sportswear

Company Profile: Adidas AG

Reebok Sportswear

Company Profile: Reebok International Ltd

Puma sportswear

Company Profile: Puma SE

Hurley Sportswear

Company Profile: Nike Inc

Jordan Sportswear

Company Profile: Nike Inc

Nike sportswear

Company Profile: Nike Inc

Under Armour sports wear

Company Profile: Under Armour, Inc

Saucony sportswear

Company Profile: Wolverine World Wide Inc

Slazenger sportswear

Company Profile: Frasers Group (was Sports Direct International)

USA Pro Sportswear

Company Profile: Frasers Group (was Sports Direct International)

muddyfox sportswear

Company Profile: Universal Cycles Limited

Brooks Sportswear

Company Profile: Brooks Sports Inc

What is most important to you?

Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Growth in the sports good market grew by 7.0% in 2015. Growth in the sector often peaks every two years in line with major sporting events such as the Olympics or UEFA European Championship.[1] 

Our research concentrates on sportswear designed for playing sports, rather than the growing trend for hybrid ‘athleisure’ clothing. 

Image: sportswear

Enviromental reporting

Despite promoting a healthier lifestyle, it would seem the brands included in this report don’t value the environment’s health, with over half of the companies rated receiving a worst Ethical Consumer rating for environmental reporting. 

In order to achieve a best rating in our Environmental Reporting category, a company must clearly demonstrate that it understands its main environmental impacts. In this market, this includes understanding the impacts of materials used in production – especially the pollution and toxics issues associated with the leather, glue and dye industries. A company must also have two quantified and dated environmental targets and have its report independently verified.

Smaller companies providing an environmental alternative are exempt from this category.

Worst rating:

The following brands scored a worst rating for Environmental Reporting but did at least demonstrate a reasonable understanding of their environmental impacts: Mizuno, Brooks, Puma and Pentland (Ellesse, Speedo).

Ronhill, Wolverine, Amer Sports, Umbro, Fila, Diadora, Mizuno and Sports Direct (Muddyfox, Slazenger, USA Pro) either failed to produce an environmental report or hadn’t demonstrated a reasonable understanding of their key environmental impacts.

Middle rating:

New Balance, adidas and Nike all received a middle rating for Environmental Reporting, as they had demonstrated a reasonable understanding of their environmental impacts and had environmental targets. However, their reports were not independently verified.

ASICS also received a middle rating for having its report independently verified and having dated targets, but it failed to get a best rating as it did not demonstrate a reasonable understanding of its key environmental impacts.

Best rating:

The following brands scored best for Environmental Reporting, all had a turnover of less than £8 million and provided either a social or environmental alternative: Yew, Gossypium, Earth Couture, Paramo and Howies.

The use of nanotechnology

For the environmentally conscious athlete, the issue of nanotechnology is particularly troublesome.

Nanotechnology is a subject of concern for environmental and health campaigners due to the release of nanoscale particles without full knowledge of the effects of many chemicals at nanoscale on the human body, animals and the environment.

The following companies were therefore marked down under Pollution and Toxics as they were found to be selling clothing that used nanotechnology: Nike, Sports Direct and Hi-Tec.

Cotton Sourcing

Issues with cotton sourced from Uzbekistan

Cotton sourcing is a hot topic in the clothing sector, due to the workers’ rights issues associated with its production, particularly in Uzbekistan, as well as the prevalence of GM cotton and the wide-spread use of toxic pesticides.

According to the Anti-Slavery international (ASI) website, Uzbekistan is the fourth largest exporter of cotton in the world, and every year the government forcibly mobilises over one million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. ASI also say that Europe is the biggest single destination for Uzbek cotton. Companies that do not have a system in place to ensure that their cotton is not sourced from Uzbekistan lose half a mark under the Workers’ Rights category.

Cotton is said to cover 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land and yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other major crop. As a result, companies that do not source 100% organic cotton lose half a mark under the Pollution and Toxics category.

You can read more about Uzbek cotton in feature on cotton production. 

Issues with cotton sourced from Xinjiang, China. 

The End Uyghur Forced Labour (EUFL) says that there is evidence of the Chinese government using “forced labour as a means of social control” for Uyghur Muslims throughout the cotton-producing Uyghur region of Xinjiang.

Brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China as a result. Find out more in our feature on Uyghur Muslims.


We’ve rated all the companies on their toxic chemicals policies, using our own rating system, because of the number of hazardous chemicals, such as PFCs, PVC, dyes and adhesives, used in the clothing and footwear industries.

A strong policy on toxics would include:

  • a priority list of hazardous chemicals (HC's)
  • a set of clear targets to remove discharge of all HC's (with dates)
  • a requirement that suppliers disclose data on release of HC's
  • publicly disclosed data on the HC's used and progress towards removing them
  • a discussion of alternatives to current HC's used (ie. not reducing their use, but replacing them)

Only six of the companies on the table above received a best rating in this category (sign in and click the "more detail" button on the table to see how each company scored)

Greenpeace Detox Campaign

Three companies featured in our guides – adidas, Puma and Nike – were also ranked by Greenpeace but none of these companies were considered to be ‘Detox leaders’ and didn't score top marks.

Image: Greenpeace Detox Campaign

Greenpeace have been at the forefront of the campaign to get companies to stop using toxic chemicals. In 2016, Greenpeace assessed 19 Detox-committed companies from the fashion and sportswear sectors.

Greenpeace grouped the companies according to their commitments and actions under three criteria:

  • Detox 2020 plan – a system for eliminating hazardous chemicals that is proactive and precautionary.
  • PFC elimination – substituting hazardous PFCs with safer waterproofing alternatives.
  • Transparency – disclosing information on suppliers and the hazardous chemicals they discharge.

Company behind the brand:

Berkshire Hathaway, owner of the Brooks sports brand, was included in a list of large American companies that were said to benefit disproportionately from American tax policy on large multinational corporations.

According to the 2015 report by Citizens for Tax Justice, US based multi-national corporations used accounting tricks to pretend that a substantial portion of their profits were generated in offshore tax havens, where a company’s presence could be as little as a mailbox. Berkshire Hathaway was found to hold approximately $10 billion offshore, and maintained nine subsidiaries in the following tax havens: The Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. 

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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  1. Mintel, Sports Goods Retailing – UK – July 2016