ASOS is one of the largest online fashion retailers in the UK. It sells over 850 different brands alongside its own ranges, to over 24 million people annually.
It’s also a fast-fashion brand, due to both the volume of items it produces and the speed of production. So how much damage does ASOS do, or are they sustainable?
It’s estimated that fashion accounts for approximately 10% of emissions due to long supply chains and energy intensive production. Good on You currently rates ASOS’s environmental stance as ‘not good enough’. They have made public sustainability commitments, including pledging to reduce their environmental impact at Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017 and aiming to be net zero emissions by 2030. The brand has stated that 91% of emissions are produced during transportation and delivery of goods, leading them to explore efficient methods of transportation, build new local fulfilment centres to reduce delivery distances, and use electric vehicles in London’s low-emission zone. Emissions from buildings also create 4% of their emissions, leading them to use 25% renewable energy and LED lights in their UK operation sites. The company’s own reporting states that carbon emissions associated with products sold in the UK were reduced by 20% from 2013 to 2019. However it’s unclear how this was achieved, and there’s currently no robust information on the carbon impact of fabric production.
While this all seems promising, Good on You notes that there isn’t currently evidence of absolute targets when it comes to emissions reductions. I also personally have questions about ASOS’s carbon reporting and how emissions from the manufacturing process are factored in. Considering that a 2021 report from the Changing Markets Foundation found that 89% of ASOS’ green claims were greenwashed, I am hesitant about self-reported numbers and the way they are presented. For example, between 2015 and 2020 ASOS reduced their carbon footprint by 30% per customer order, reducing emissions intensity. However, in 2018/19, total emissions grew by 14% compared to the previous year due to growth in overall sales. Additionally, while SBTi verification was said to be underway for emissions targets, reporting currently isn’t independently verified.
ASOS does use some more sustainable materials in its clothing, at around 36%. It has also signed up to the Sustainable Sourcing Challenge, pledging to source 100% of cotton from sustainable sources by 2025, and tackled waste by reducing the thickness of mailing bags, recycling returns, and making new bags with recycled content to decrease virgin plastic use. It also said it would improve product circularity, including more sustainable or recycled materials, designing items that can easily be recycled, and making it easier for customers to recycle clothes. However, there is no evidence ASOS minimises textile waste in manufacturing, and a 2021 study by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce found nearly half the products added to ASOS over a fortnight were made entirely of virgin plastics including polyester, acrylic and nylon. Plus, ASOS’s greenwashed claims include the circularity of materials.
ASOS has…been caught lying to its customers. A pair of ASOS trousers claim to be ‘mono-material’ and therefore ‘designed to be remade’ or recycled. Yet, the product is actually a blend of 54 per cent nylon and 46 per cent polyester – a mixture impossible to recycle with current technology
There’s also no evidence that ASOS implements water reduction initiatives across most of the supply chain, and their supply chain transparency is pretty basic. They don’t disclose how much water is used in manufacturing, and don’t have a plan to reduce water use, eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, manage wastewater, or protect their raw-material suppliers. They are a listed member on the ZDHC website, which focuses on hazardous chemicals, but there doesn’t seem to be a robust plan or targets available to the public. There is also no acknowledgement of the effects of waste and hazardous chemical discharge on local communities near manufacturing sites.
In 2017 a report titled ‘Dirty Fashion’ uncovered the environmental damage caused by irresponsible production practices at Aditya Birla Group’s viscose plants in India and Indonesia. ASOS was one of the clothing brands named in the report as a customer of Aditya Burla. The investigation found that the air and water emissions of some chemicals exceeded regulatory limits, indicating a serious potential threat to the local environment and the health and well-being of its workers and the communities living nearby.
ASOS is also rated it’s a start for animal welfare on Good on You. It does have a formal animal welfare policy, doesn’t use angora, fur, down, exotic animal skin or hair, sources wool from non-mulesed sheep, and doesn’t sell cosmetics that have been tested on animals. However, it does still use leather without specifying sources (traditional leather manufacturing is extremely toxic and involves harsh chemicals). It also sells plastic-derived leather ‘alternatives’ which aren’t sustainable.
It’s also worth mentioning that, in 2010, ASOS introduced an Eco Edit, which was renamed as their “Responsible Edit” in 2019. This is said to be a collection of items that have a lower environmental impact, however many of the items in this edit are from ASOS’s own collections, rather than independent sustainable brands on the site. For example, items can be ASOS’s own brand, and said to be made from organic cotton, but there’s no specification of who has certified this cotton, where it was spun or dyed, or where the garment was made. This is barely sustainable. Additionally, this edit is a tiny percentage of the total items sold on ASOS. “Eco collections” by major brands are often signs of greenwashing, and also inherently imply that everything else on the site isn’t eco at all.
ASOS’ labour rating is also not good enough according to Good on You, and it received a score of 41-50% in the Fashion Transparency Index (a drop from previous years). It does publish a detailed supplier list for factories and has some policies to protect people in its supply chain from the impacts of COVID-19, but this is a U-turn on its initial decision to stop paying garment factories in 2020. ASOS only promised to pay their garment factories after receiving external pressure.
Almost none of its supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, or other labour rights… The brand likely publishes information about its supplier policies, audits, and remediation processes, and may be publishing some information about forced labour, gender equality, or freedom of association. The most problematic issue, however, is that we found no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage in its supply chain when it can certainly afford it.
In 2011 ASOS received the Ethical Consumer’s worst rating in 2011 for supply chain management, prompting it to make improvements. It brought its Code of Conduct in line with the Ethical Trading Initiative’s base code, and was the first online retailer to sign the Global Framework Agreement with IndustriALL Global Union, including launching a hotline in January 2019 in Turkish and Arabic, giving workers information about their rights and access to remedy. It actively participates in the ACT initiative and has signed the Memorandum of Understanding that commits ASOS with others in the sector to improve wages. ASOS also regularly conduct unannounced audits, focusing on compliance with their Supplier Ethical Code, Child Labour Remediation and Young Worker Policy, and Migrant and Contract Worker Policy.
However, there are limitations to this. Firstly, there’s no confirmation that workers throughout the entire supply chain have access to an anonymous whistleblowing hotline. Secondly, having codes of conduct and those codes actually being implemented are two separate things. While they list factories, they don’t seem to share any information about actual conditions, worker conditions and wellbeing (audit results don’t appear available to the public), or the supply chain before final production. It’s not clear where materials come from or how they’re made, and there’s no information on subcontracting. Subcontracting is rife in the fashion industry, as factories hired in turn hire people outside of the factory to complete work. Subcontractors can work from home, or in deeply unsafe conditions, and are usually paid next to nothing. Brands have no way to ensure safe and fair worker treatment or lack of bonded or child labour.
ASOS also don’t share information on human rights violations that their employees may face, living wages or employee wellbeing. Labour Behind the Label released the 2019 Tailored Wages UK report, focusing on whether garment workers were paid a living wage, ASOS scored the worst grade of E in the report. It also noted that participation in the ACT initiative has not achieved any wage increases.
In 2020 ASOS also removed Boohoo from its site after allegations of human rights abuses (with workers earning as little as £3.5o an hour), stating that third-party fashion brands would be required to comply with new ethical manufacturing and supply chain sustainability standards to be listed on the site. They also stated a plan to map supply chains from finished item down to raw material level by 2030. It is worth noting that the allegations against Boohoo weren’t new, and had first been covered in 2018. Did ASOS really miss this coverage of their industry at the time, or did they only choose to remove Boohoo when public pressure became too great, rather than because it was the right thing to do? To me, this suggests their supplier requirements are unlikely to be robust, and the idea that it will take several years for the brand to map its own supply chains suggests they don’t have a grasp on what goes on during manufacturing at all.
Finally, within its own UK offices, women earn 55p for every £1 that men earn, and the brand has set diversity targets to level up major disparities.
On diversity targets, Asos said it would ensure 50% of managers at every level were women, and 15% from ethnic minorities by 2030 – up from 42% and 7%. That would broadly match the UK population, in which 50.6% were women in 2019, and 14% from ethnic minorities in 2018, according to the thinktank Diversity UK.
In December 2021, Ethical Consumer also found that two of ASOS’s executive directors received over £1 million in total compensation for the year ending August 2021. The highest-paid director of ASOS, Nick Beighton, received £1.9m, which was deemed anti-social finance.
Exploitation of warehouse workers
Much closer to home, ASOS was accused of exploiting temporary warehouse workers in the UK in 2016. In Barnsley ASOS was said to manipulate employment law, allowing them to pay new employees lower wages for longer than regulations allow, saving ASOS thousands of pounds.
Earlier in 2016, BuzzFeed, other media outlets and the trade union GMB released a string of accusations that ASOS were forcing Barnsley warehouse workers to endure exploitative conditions. This included setting targets that were too high, not allowing enough time for water or bathroom breaks, extreme surveillance, fear of taking days off due to the threat of immediate termination, and unpaid overtime. ASOS refuted these accusations.
In 2019 the ASOS Barnsley site was then accused of running like “satanic mills”, with freedom of information requests revealing that ambulances were called to the site 45 times in 2018 and 148 times over three years.
Neil Derrick, GMB regional secretary, said Asos bosses “appear to be in denial about the inhumane conditions people have to work under” at the Barnsley.
He said: “They are making millions while workers are literally being taken away in ambulances.”
In 2020 staff also said they were scared to work at the same site, as they didn’t feel safe.
More than 98% of more than 460 workers who took part in a survey carried out by the GMB union said they felt unsafe at the group’s warehouse in Grimethorpe, Barnsley, even after new safety measures were introduced last week. About 4,000 people are employed at the warehouse with an average 500 working each shift.
…Tim Roache, the GMB general secretary, said: “Conditions at Asos are scarcely believable – workers we’ve spoken to describe it as a ‘cradle of disease’. It’s absolutely horrifying, a real catalogue of shame.”
…Another worker spoken to by the Guardian said he and his partner had both continued to work even though they had health conditions which made them vulnerable to the virus.
“They told us last week that they don’t have enough money to pay holiday for us so if we don’t feel safe we can go home unpaid,” he said. “My partner asked about sanitiser and gloves and she was told ‘why not bring your own?’”
ASOS claimed these allegations were false.
ASOS has taken some small steps to reduce impact, but ultimately is rated not good enough by Good on You and would need to significantly improve in all areas to achieve a higher score.
At the end of the day, ASOS is a fast-fashion brand. It constantly releases new styles at ridiculous volumes, continually encouraging consumption and threatening the planet. Despite minor commitments, most of these items are made of highly damaging materials, worn a few times, then sent to landfill. ASOS doesn’t encourage less consumption or a slower mindset, and the speed and volume at which they work ultimately leads to planetary destruction and exploitation of workers both in the UK and around the globe. There is simply no way to be ethical and sustainable when using such complex, sprawling supply chains, selling for low prices and churning out so much stuff. Unless their business model changes, this is how things will remain.
If you’re looking for an ethical marketplace I recommend Know The Origin or Brothers We Stand, buy directly from ethical and sustainable brands that you might find on ASOS, such as People Tree, or shop from secondhand options that are accessible to you.