05 Mar

How Ethical Is Topshop?

With over 500 stores across the globe, UK fast-fashion giant Topshop doesn’t look like it has any intention of slowing down anytime soon. But how does the brand treat people, the planet and animals?

Over the past decade, Topshop has enjoyed global success and collaborations with a number of artists and celebrities. But its owner the Arcadia Group has been no stranger to controversy, having made headlines over the past decade due to allegations of labour abuses, including unfair wages paid to garment workers and poor working conditions. Topshop itself has also faced allegations, including when it was claimed Topshop x Beyonce’s  Ivy Park collection’s mostly female garment workers were toiling under unfair conditions – despite the range supposedly promoting female empowerment.

So after running a gauntlet of bad headlines and controversy, has Topshop since picked up its ethical game? Read on to find out.

Environmental Impact: It’s A Start

Topshop has made some effort to improve its impact on the planet, but it still has a long way to go before it can become truly sustainable.

The brand has put a number of commendable measures in place, including recycling 95% of waste in its UK stores and reducing its water and energy usage in warehouses, offices and stores. It also sources 100% of its energy in the UK from renewables.  Topshop is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, which aims to help farmers produce cotton in a more sustainable way. However, it is unclear how much of the cotton Topshop uses is Better Cotton.

Another eco-conscious initiative is the release of some limited edition ‘Reclaim to Wear’ clothing lines over the past few years – made from its own upcycled fabric offcuts. Unfortunately, Topshop doesn’t have a permanent collection dedicated to using eco-friendly and recycled materials. What’s more, the program’s effectiveness in reducing the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill has been questioned, as it still relies on the production of brand new clothing.

Though the 2017 Arcadia Group Fashion Footprint report mentions a number of sustainability initiatives that have been implemented there is no mention of what is perhaps Topshop’s biggest carbon footprint of all: it’s clothes! None of its targets relate to the use of eco-friendly materials in its clothing, or reducing carbon emissions down its supply chain.

From the information available, it’s clear Topshop needs to make major changes if it wants to reduce its environmental impact, and in particular should start using more eco-friendly materials.

Having said all that, even if Topshop does incorporate more sustainable materials, as one of the world’s biggest fast fashion chains, Topshop’s business model is inherently unsustainable. By emphasising fleeting trends over timeless designs and producing huge amounts of poorly-made clothes, it’s hard to see how Topshop can become a truly ethical brand without ditching a fast fashion model.

Labor Rating: Mixed

We gave Topshop a labour rating of ‘mixed’ based on our own research and the 2017 Australian Ethical Fashion Report, which looks at criteria including payment of a living wage, transparency and worker empowerment initiatives. Topshop is owned by the Arcadia Group, which received an overall score of ‘C+’ in the report.

Although Topshop received the top score in the report for its policies and Code of Conduct, this only applies to sections of the supply chain. Topshop’s parent company the Arcadia Group also signed the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, but it only did so after months of pressure from advocacy groups. Topshop should be applauded for taking the step of banning denim sandblasting.

Topshop can trace and monitor all of their suppliers at the final manufacturing stage, but they can only trace between 1-25% of suppliers at the raw materials and inputs stages. However, the brand has put measures in place to trace its suppliers and countries of origin at all levels of the supply chain, which is a promising move.  Topshop publicly lists some of their suppliers at the final production stage, and only audits some of its supply chain at the final manufacturing stage.

Concerningly, issues relating to slave labour and child labour are yet to be adequately addressed by Topshop. The brand also has few worker empowerment initiatives in place and does not pay its workers a living wage at any stages of manufacturing.

Topshop needs to improve its transparency surrounding its labour practices. The brand could start by releasing information about how it monitors the factories its products are sourced from, tracing its suppliers at all stages, making a public list of those suppliers and the countries of origin of its products, and finally, paying all its workers a living wage.

Animal Welfare: It’s a Start

Although Topshop has banned the use of angora and fur in its products, it still uses leather and wool in its products without providing any information about where they were sourced from. The welfare of both animals and workers cannot be guaranteed when the source of these materials is unknown. Topshop could improve their score in this area by being more transparent about where they get their leather and wool from, or even better, by not using animal products in their clothes at all!

Overall Rating: It's A Start

Rated: It's A Start

We’ve given Topshop a rating of ‘It’s a Start’ based on information from Shop Ethical! and our own research.

Topshop needs to do much more to improve its practices in all areas. While Topshop appears to be putting some measures in place to shrink its carbon footprint, none of them apply to the resource-intensive garment manufacturing process - which is the most important thing that the brand needs to address if it hopes to become more sustainable.

And in facing a number of allegations of labor abuse over the years, Topshop has shown time and time again that it’s willing to put profit over people. The brand needs to improve its transparency and trace its suppliers across all levels of the supply chain in order to ensure that workers are being treated fairly. Implementing a living wage wouldn’t be a bad idea too!

So next time you need to fill up a gap in your wardrobe, why not give Topshop a miss and choose one of these ethical brands rated ‘Good’ or ‘Great’ on the Good On You app?

Editor's note: Ratings correct at the time of publication. Feature image via Topshop. Additional images via Topshop and brands mentioned.

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