As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card.
Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.
We’re always getting questions about H&M, Zara and others. Are they “greenwashing”? (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices like child labor, or the consumption-driven fast fashion model. Ew.)
But recently, savvy readers, like yourselves, have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.
Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.
So over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few exciting and popular “ethical” brands, who outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.
We looked at:
Everlane, the “radically transparent” basics brand
Kowtow, a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
Krochet Kids, a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru
We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.
We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.
Below we’ve shared some highlights, AND, as we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)
So check out what we found and TRY these questions on for size:
1. First, check out what kind of fabrics / materials they are using.
Fabrics are an easy way to really change the impact of a supply chain for the better. PLUS it’s a super easy way for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials are a big portion of the product, and consequently, its environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?
Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.
Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.
Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium, and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook page that Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.
2. Second, do they have any certifications?
When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards, and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, brands use them as a roadmap to build out a more sustainable supply chain. You have to be cautious though — some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground. You can read more about certifications in our New Slang dictionary.
Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.
Warby Parker is a BCorp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).
Krochet Kids is launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.
Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.
Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know what standard a brand is holding themselves to, what are their intentions and to look into what’s actually happening to meet it.
3. Third, how transparent are they… really?
This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?
Let’s stack ’em up.
Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with their tagline, radical transparency, we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information they shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of their factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guaranteed fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies they had in place, and their intentions for future improvement.
So we reached out to their team with a list of questions, and low and behold, got to sit down with the Founder & CEO, Michael Preysman —getting serious now.
He shared quite a bit of info with us including:
Their code of conduct
The average score of their factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
The number of times a year their team visits their factories: 3
Their current lack of environmental policies, but their intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring their supply chain
And lots more! (available for you to see behind a tiny little paywall, but trust us it’s worth the 5 bucks)
So why isn’t all this info available on their website?
Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.
You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.
Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Not one! Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, who then redirected us back to the PR company (head spinning emailing 😕).
This brand that claims positive social impact, and even has a BCorp certification (!), never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last two days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great – but we’ve still got questions.
Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.
4. Do they express intention for improvement?
No brand is perfect. But given the major impact of fashion supply chains on people and planet, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?
Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker — no answer and nothing available on their site. And finally Kowtow, who by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted their growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.
5. Fifth, and finally, will they get back to you / us / anyone?
When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?
After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope they continue to strive to be as responsive to consumers as possible to attain this same standard of radical transparency.
Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a phone call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.
Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about their brand and practices available on their website for anyone (not just supply chain dorks like us) to see. Warby Parker? Not so much.
So what did we learn?
In this day and age, with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — the consumer should have a right to know how the product they’re paying for is made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.
And with brands like these, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat workers in their supply chain, and how they treat our planet. If you’re paying, you deserve to know.
So don’t get taken for a ride— keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. From our experience, you might even get to sit down with the CEO.
Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.
Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.
We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)
“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.
“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”
Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.
The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.
“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.
Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.
Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.
“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.
Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.
Apparel chains such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 conquered the retail world by promising fast fashion: cheap, trendy and disposable.
Yet there’s a growing number of consumers this holiday season who want just the opposite. Data shows that shoppers — especially millennials, the target market for fast-fashion companies — are increasingly looking for clothes made of higher-quality materials or they’re keeping their existing clothes longer. Some are even seeking apparel that’s been reused or recycled.
More than 14 percent of U.S. consumers looked for apparel and accessories made from natural materials in 2016, up from 12.9 percent last year, according to a Euromonitor International survey. Shoppers looking for clothes that were reused or recycled rose 2 percent this year. And more millennials looked for “sustainably produced” apparel and accessories than any other age group.
This shift to so-called sustainable clothing is threatening the underpinnings of a fashion industry that wants consumers to rapidly change styles and move on to the next hot trends.
“Certainly fast-fashion companies are doing a booming business, but there’s also an increased interest in vintage, learning how to sew and weave, and in repair and mending,” said Susan Brown, a fashion expert who serves as associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “There’s the Brooklynization of the world — interest in higher-quality, handmade things that have a narrative story.”
The challenge may come earlier than big retail chains expect. Consumers are more willing to shop at niche, smaller companies this season, according to Deloitte LLP. Some of these retailers tout sustainable premiums for longer-lasting, higher-quality products — think, Zady or Everlane.
“People want to buy trends less and less,” said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear: What your Clothes Reveal About You.” “It seems they’d rather buy items that are classic and will last a long time. The movement is happening, and it’s been gaining ground in the public eye.”
She said it’s going to be difficult for the fast-fashion concept to use high-quality, eco-friendly fabric and not create “mass waste.”
But fast-fashion companies are trying to respond. In 2013, H&M launched a worldwide garment-collecting initiative encouraging consumers to reuse and recycle their clothes. The chain also sells a “conscious collection,” a clothing line created entirely from sustainable materials. Zara launched its first sustainable line, Join Life, in September. The collection consists of simpler designs and clothing made from recycled wool, organic cotton and Tencel — a fabric that includes regenerated wood.
But these pieces make up just 1.5 percent of Zara’s assortment and 3.5 percent of H&M’s, said Emily Bezzant, head analyst at the fashion-tracking firm Edited. And the very nature of high-turnover fast-fashion companies strikes many as unsustainable, she said.
“Generally, fast fashion and sustainability are not a match made in heaven,” Bezzant said. She said the biggest challenge for retailers will be to make sustainable products affordable and accessible to millennials.
There’s been some progress toward that end. H&M’s Conscious Collection has an affordable median price of $17.99. At Zara’s Join Life line, a basic strappy top cost $9.90 — the same as their main line, Bezzant said. Lowering prices for sustainable collections would help these businesses stay relevant, as most consumers shop at H&M and Zara because of the cheap price tags.
Still, some in the industry are pushing the notion that millennials will save money by spending a bit more on longer-lasting items. Consumers are starting to realize when they are “too poor to buy cheap ,” said Maxine Bedat, chief executive officer of Zady, a clothing site known as the “Whole Foods of Fashion.”
“The issue that we’re facing as a society is that 150 billion new articles of clothing are produced globally every single year,” Bedat said. “The challenge is to produce clothing at the design side of things that people want to wear more than seven times.”
Christina Kim, a designer who displayed her work at a Cooper Hewitt exhibit on sustainable fashion, said it’s actually been more economical for her to use recycled scraps to make her clothing. Kim founded Los Angeles-based Dosa after moving from Seoul. Her idea started in West Bengal, where she began collecting old saris to incorporate into new designs.
Kim tracked her expenses in both regular and recycled production. She found that when using recycled fabric, she was able to spend less on materials — but had to shell out significantly more for labor. With traditional clothing production, 40 percent of her expenses went to materials, 53 percent to labor, and 7 percent to shipping and other duties. With a recycled production, Kim spent 14 percent on materials, 81 percent on labor, and 5 percent on shipping and duties.
The big companies are taking steps in a similar direction. H&M, for instance, has started minimizing waste during textile production.
“Any leftover material or post-manufacturing waste is recycled into new materials such as recycled wool or recycled cotton,” said H&M spokeswoman Anna Eriksson.
“The customer interest in sustainability is growing,” she said. “We believe sustainability is the only way forward if we want to continue to exist as a fashion company.”
As consumers, we have come to expect fast, cheap, trendy fashion. We have been trained to shop often and to consistently succumb to new trends, the latter of which, at the retail level, are nothing more than a marketing ploy to keep us in the sped-up shopping cycle. The prices of garments and accessories offered for sale by fast fashion retailers (think: $24 pants and $19 blouses) largely facilitate this pattern of consumption, and their ad campaigns actually make it look pretty appealing.
But fast fashion – the model of retail that typically prices garments and accessories much lower than the competition, operating in a manner that emphasizes low quality and high volume and which is pioneered by brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Topshop and Zara – is cheap for a reason, and because retailers are not paying the price it costs to manufacture clothing in a reasonably responsible manner, that means, logically, that someone else is. Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Zara’s owner Amancio Ortega is the 3rd-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $57 billion; Forever 21’s owners have a net worth of $4 billion; and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso has reportedly amassed upwards of $250 million. Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers. That is the general divide upon which fast fashion thrives.
Accordingly, it is the laborers, many of whom are women and children, who pay the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Note: that the previously cited $73/month figure remains below the average wages of textile workers in other Asian nations). Laborers also pay in terms of safety. Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor. And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That’s not fashion.
In our defense, it is easy to forget the human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt business practices and the violations of workers’ rights, or to shield ourselves from these things in the first place. Bangladesh is far away and those $24 printed wide legpants look great on the billboard, especially when your clothing budget is limited. Moreover, fast fashion is packaged so very neatly for us. It is very easy to ignore the very ugly reality that comes hand in hand with it. But that cannot continually be our excuse.
Many years ago, I wouldn’t have given fast fashion a second thought. I may have traipsed into Zara and stockpiled an array of season-specific clothing, which I would have worn for literally one season, grown tired of, moved on from, and discarded or pushed to the back of my closet. Then, I would have repeated the same consumption habit for the next season and the next. [As such, this is NOT an article for the purpose of shaming fast fashion shoppers. This is is me saying, I get it!]
However, somewhere along the line, I realized that the cost of fast fashion is just too high for me. Fashion is supposed to impart some sense of confidence or beauty or happiness, and I simply don’t feel any of those things knowing that I am wearing a garment that was made in conditions that I wouldn’t want for my mother or sister or myself. I also found that repeatedly purchasing a bunch of cheap clothing and constantly stripping and revamping my wardrobe (out of necessity because the clothes literally fall apart) simply isn’t fulfilling. I get a lot more joy from building a wardrobe of garments and accessories that I actually love, that I want to keep and that I can wear for years – because they haven’t fallen apart and because they aren’t so specifically tied to Spring/Summer 2013, for instance, that they are simply unappealing after Spring/Summer 2013.
I began paying attention and became aware of how fashion and fast fashion actually worked. I saw how much time and effort designers spend in their New York Garment District studios, for example, to create collections. I witnessed their creative process, how they create a collection of garments from nothing (both figuratively in terms of starting from scratch and pin-pointing their inspiration, building a mood board, choosing colors, etc.; and literally, money is often very tight for emerging designers and what they earn each season goes right back into their business so they can actually afford to manufacture the garments). I saw the garments go down the runway.
I also saw (and continue to see) how frequently fast fashion retailers blatantly copied those designs, delivered the copies to the market months before the original garments, and sold them for a tiny fraction of the wholesale price of the originals. While the designers I know and love, like Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, and Pamela Love (just to name a few), spend countless hours working to create innovative new designs, sourcing beautiful, high quality materials, and employing garment workers in well-runfactories in New York City – ones that I have personally visited – fast fashion retailers simply cannot say the same. Not even close.
While our clothes are only ancillary to our other traits (the late great, Oscar de la Renta did say, after all: “To be welldressed you must be well naked”), they do speak for us to a certain extent. In fact, whether we like it or not, our clothing says a lot about us. It is one of the first things people notice about us, and so, in a way, it defines us. I decided I don’t want to be defined by fast fashion. I don’t want the clothing I wear to be connected to the pain and suffering of others. I don’t want it to fall apart after a few wears. I don’t want to look exactly like every other girl my age. And if nothing else, I think life is simply too short to wear fast fashion.
This is usually about the point when someone interrupts what sounds like the idealistic preaching of a fortunate fashion girl and says: “Well, not all of us can afford to wear Prada all the time.” And, guess what? That is a valid response. I am happy to tell you, THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES, aside from buying one Prada sweater instead of 20 fast fashion ones. There are probably more alternatives than ever before – and they come in at just about every price point. Second-hand shopping is a great one. There are also ethically manufactured, reasonably priced alternatives to fast fashion — and they are not weird or ugly or any less “fashiony” than fast fashion. Helpsy, Shop Ethica, Zady, and Accompany are sites dedicated to offering such alternatives. Mobile shopping site, Spring, provides an array of garments and accessories from emerging designers, including access to sample sale prices. Everlane, Reformation, Ryan Roche, M.PATMOS, and Libertine champion ethically made clothing. Orley, Wes Gordon, Jenni Kayne, Costello Tagliapietra, and Brandon Sun manufacture locally – some in New York, others in Los Angeles – and ethically. These are just a few of the many, many brands making clothing responsibly. Right now we have a lot of options – no matter your price range.
You can’t buy style. We all know this. And while retailers are continually making it easier for us to shop in a more responsible and ethical manner, you also cannot buy a willingness to try to shop smarter and remove yourself from the cycle of fast fashion, but it is something to strive for, to work towards. Starting small, simply thinking about where your clothes came from and then taking some active steps to build a wardrobe that places value on quality over quantity, is an excellent place to begin. [Also, major revisions in terms of retailers’ and suppliers’ Codes of Conduct is in order for widespread change to occur. More about that HERE.]
Mass retailers like H&M, Zara, UK-based Marks & Spencer, Belgium-based CNA and Gap Inc., which owns Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta, have begun sharing the names of the factories they work with in an effort to improve working and environmental conditions, streamline cluttered supply chains, and get on the right side of the mindful consumer. This is a departure from traditionally standard retail practices, which saw companies keeping their factory names closely held in order to protect themselves from competition.
The timing is right: Corporate brands are looking to become more transparent during a moment of increasing customer consciousness. Transparency is, on some level, a feel-good buzzword for an industry plagued by environmental and ethical issues, as becoming more transparent doesn’t require as much internal overhaul as becoming more sustainable. And it’s not for nothing: When retailers identify what factories they work with, as well as what compliance guidelines they follow, it can help improve worker conditions and bring manufacturer malpractice to light.
“The supply chain is really complicated, but it’s a positive step from a global labor union perspective to be transparent,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, textile and garment director of global union IndustriALL, which has contracted agreements with H&M and Zara. “Customers appreciate it, as well. If you have nothing to hide, you can show it.”
But as big brands take steps to bring their supply chains out of the shadows, they haven’t trumpeted that message as loud-and-proud as one would expect. Gap Inc. announced its factory list in a bland investor relations announcement. H&M and Zara share some updates on the subject on their social media accounts, but they’re sporadic enough to get buried by product posts and lifestyle content.
Compared to brands like direct-to-consumer retailer Everlane, these brands have kept transparency volume to a whisper. Everlane’s entire brand ethos is predicated around transparency: Its motto is “Radically Transparent,” and it hosts “Transparency Tuesdays” Q&As on Snapchat. In addition, it takes customers on video tours of new factories. The pricing structure for every product is laid out online, and interested customers can read about each of the 17 factories Everlane works with on its website.
Customers have clearly embraced this share-everything approach to retail. Everlane grew its revenue by 200 percent year-over-year in 2015, according to Bloomberg, and the brand does little marketing, accruing a customer-base mostly around mission-driven word of mouth.
But Everlane’s “radical transparency” is missing key specifics. Factory names aren’t disclosed, and the company adheres to a list of unspecified “compliance guidelines” when sourcing new factories. Meanwhile, Gap, Zara and H&M all have named factories and detailed compliance guidelines on their investor sites.
Founder and CEO Michael Preysman said in an email that the reason Everlane doesn’t disclose its factory names is that factory partners have asked them not to.
“Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.” He added that when factories allow, the names are shared. Such factories currently include Nobland in Vietnam and Mola in Los Angeles.
Preysman said that Everlane’s requirements for factory transparency include being able to document them, share what products are made there and complete audits on worker health, pay, safety and paperwork. However, in leaving some aspects—like their names—open-ended, Everlane’s practices are subject to interpretation.
“Not releasing factory names makes you less accountable if something happens,” said Natalie Grillon of Project Just, an online resource for customers wanting to find out how and where clothing from different brands is made. “They say it’s for competitive reasons, but in reality, a lot of these factories produce for multiple brands at a time. It’s more about protecting yourself.”
Customers of Everlane and other brands like American Giant and Reformation that built their brand messages on the back of transparency and conscious shopping appreciate the respite they offer from corporate facelessness. So as such corporations as Gap and Zara make transparency efforts, customers are repelled. A message of transparency from a fast fashion brand lacks the magic word: authenticity. When you’re H&M, firing off a tweet about sustainability efforts falls on highly skeptical ears.
“H&M comes under fire a lot for their initiatives because they do publicize it,” said Grillon. “When really, they’ve made a ton of effort in support of better wages. But then they talk about it a lot, and then they come under fire a lot for anything at all that goes wrong.”
Small brands looking to break the unsustainable retail system are the underdog, so customers are more willing to work through the problematic issues with them, said Grillon. For corporations, not so much. Grillon said Gap is hesitant to flaunt its transparency efforts because, unless they’re perfect (which, thanks to the messy state of retail’s supply chains, is impossible), they’ll receive backlash. It’s also hard to trust that bigger brands aren’t falling back on transparency in lieu of sustainability.
“Transparency is a means to an end,” said Bayard Winthrop, founder and CEO of American-made brand American Giant. “We believe it has to be part of our value system because the customer is going to find everything out. But being transparent isn’t the end goal.”
Without a believable value system in place, big retail is hard to pass off a message beyond anything other than profit.
“When you talk about ethical fashion, you’re talking about working toward better conditions, higher wages, fewer chemicals,” said Grillon. “That’s going to require raising prices, and that’s a hard pill to for brands to swallow.”
Everlane’s go-to is transparency. Pricing transparency – in particular – has garnered the San Francisco-based brand a lot attention since its launch in 2011, including a spot on Fast Co.’s 20146 “50 Most Innovative Companies” list. It also earned Everlane “$12 million in revenue in 2013, and double that in 2014,” according to Bloomberg. Buzzy company slogans, like “Radical Transparency” and easy-to-read infographics that chart the production cycle of its popular garments have made the e-commerce startup a go-to for hip millennials with money and a conscience when it comes to their clothes.
In an industry famous for shrouding the connection between what it costs to manufacture garments and accessories, and the price that consumers pay for those items, Everlane seemingly fills a void; hence, its success. Price transparency aside, on the heels an array of garment manufacturing-related tragedies in recent years and amongst a larger call – particularly from millennials – for more ethically sound garments, Everlane founder and CEO, Michael Preysman, a former Investment Associate, saw a business opportunity in ethically made clothing.
In addition to offering appealing basics – such as cashmere turtlenecks, cotton crewneck sweaters, striped t-shirts, and modern oxfords – Everlane has won over consumers with its openness. Appealing to consumers is its “disruption” of the fashion industry, which comes in the form of supply chain transparency. From the design phase to transport, Everlane shines a light on the costs of its business model, thereby highlighting the differences between its model and the “traditional retail” model, which includes middlemen and retail, which drive up the price. Additionally, the company boasts its utilization of world-class factories, “the very same ones that produce your favorite designer labels.”
However, despite such seemingly straightforward dealings, Everlane is cloaked in quite a bit of mystery, itself. As retail-focused website Racked noted in an article last year, “For all its talk of transparency, Everlane is extremely tightlipped about internal goings-on. Preysman was the only Everlane employee offered up for this story, and no one from the design or creative teams was made available to be interviewed. Repeated requests to visit the brand’s New York office were declined.”
So, just how transparent is Everlane really?
TRADE SECRETS OR JUST SECRETS?
A closer look at Everlane’s website and marketing materials – complete with enormously vague language in place of definitive facts to support its claims of transparency and ethical production – reveals that there is almost certainly more at play in the Everlane model than meets the eye. In accordance with Everlane’s motto – “Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.” – one of its core missions is enabling consumers to know the factories in which their clothes are being made. With this in mind, there is a major red flag at issue when it comes to Everlane: Its factory list.
Everlane does a nice job of listing the location cities of its factories, how many individuals each factory employs, the year that each factory was established, what garments are produced there, and the weather in each of the given cities where these factories are located. All of this information is contained in a concise summary for each of Everlane’s supplier factories. The factory descriptions also include lovely photos of the factories’ interiors and their smiling laborers.
What Everlane fails to do, though, is list the names of its factories. Instead, it opts to label them according to the products they produce for the brand, such as “The Specialty Knits Factory,” “The Travel Bag Factory,” and “The Casual Wovens Factory.” In this way, H&M is more transparent than Everlane. As you may know, the Swedish fast fashion giant identifies 98.5% of its first tier factories/suppliers by name and address, and even lists some of these factories’ suppliers.
In accordance with Everlane’s motto, we ask: Why would a brand based on transparency not list its factories? Preysman has a seemingly rational answer, of course. He told the Wall Street Journal in 2013 that the company withholds the names of its factories for trade secret purposes. He says that Everlane does not name names in order to prevent competitors from utilizing the factories that he and his team have “spent months finding.” Preysman says he simply “doesn’t want competitors moving in on his turf.”
On its face, Preysman’s reasoning seems rather judicious, particularly because supplier lists – just like customer lists, sales and distribution methods, advertising strategies, and manufacturing processes – are a textbook type of asset for which businesses rely on trade secret law to protect.
However, it is worth acknowledging there is at least one very glaring and extremely critical missing link here: Some of Everlane’s suppliers publicly identify their connection with the retailer, thereby destroying any potential protections afforded to the brand by trade secret law.
For the uninitiated, in order for an individual or company to successfully claim trade secret protection in court, he must show that he has met a number of recognized measures to ensure that such information was, in fact, properly managed and kept secret. For instance, courts have held that in order to prove that a trade secret holder has met his burden, he must establish – among other things – that he made sure that only those necessary were privy to the secret info.
Secondarily, the party claiming trade secret protection must show that all of those who did have access to the secret information were made aware that it was confidential information, and that he utilized confidentiality agreements with employees and with business partners whenever disclosing confidential information to them to prevent the spread of the information. For Everlane, this would mean requiring that its factory partners – among others – not disclose their manufacturing relationships, and it would be Everlane’s duty to monitor that such information is not made public.
Such monitoring should not be terribly difficult for Everlane considering that it lists only seventeen factories as within its supply chain – a very small number compared to H&M’s network, for instance, which consists of 342 first-tier suppliers in China, alone. Moreover, given Everlane’s claims that it maintains close relationships with its factory owners – per the Everlane website, “We visit [our factories] often, and build strong personal relationships with the owners – such monitoring and any necessary modifications should be relatively easy.
Yet, judging by Nobland Vietnam – which is just one example of a supplier that publicly lists Everlane as a client on its website – Everlane is not relying heavily on trade secret protection at all. Given that Nobland Vietnam lists Everlane as a client on its own website, trade secret protection concerns are almost certainly not even an option for Everlane, as it does not appear to be monitoring such “secrets,” which, as previously indicated, is a legal pre-requisite for claiming trade secret protection.
As such, one could argue that there is the very real possibility that Everlane’s supplier factories simply are not as ethical or sustainable as Everlane is portraying them to be, and that is why the brand relies on citing trade secret concerns as a means of avoiding disclosing them.
Consider that Level Style, Inc. – which, according to U.S. import records, provides Everlane with an array of shirt styles, including its Slim Fit Oxford and Slim Fit Denim shirt – has come under fire within the past year or so for labor-related issues. A Hong Kong-based company that owns the Shenzhen Artigas Clothing and Leather factory, among many other sub-suppliers, Lever Style, Inc. was accused by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (“HKCTU”), a pro-democracy labor and political group in the Hong Kong, of retaliating against garment workers who were seeking severance payments and the payment of social insurance in arrears following the abrupt and unannounced closure of at least one Lever Style-owned factory in Hong Kong.
According to HKCTU, Everlane was an existing client of Shenzhen Artigas Clothing and Leather factory at the time of the factory closure and subsequent striking (Around 900 employees began striking in June 2015 at the company’s Shenzhen Artigas Clothing & Leather factory over severance pay and relocation of the factory. This follows a strike by almost 1,000 workers in 2014 over unpaid social insurance and housing contributions at the same factory). Maybe instances like this are why Everlane opts to shield the names of its factories from consumers.
VAGUE CLAIMS, NOT FACTS
Speaking to Racked last year, Preysman said: “Retail isn’t a space where there’s a lot of information. It’s very obfuscated.” It is unclear how, exactly, though, Everlane is any different in this respect. While Everlane makes praising claims about its factory partners and the working conditions upon which they operate – which certainly sound impressive to a consumer quickly skimming its site – the company does not actually provide any substantive information in support of its claims … at all.
For instance, in discussing how it decided to partner with Level Style, Inc., Everlane claims it selected the Chinese company “[a]fter a rigorous vetting process to find the best tailored shirting vendor.” Yet, Everlane neglects to provide information for the consumer about what its “rigorous vetting process” consists of and how Lever Style, Inc. met it.
Making vague and unsubstantiated claims in lieu of providing cold hard facts is a common trend that runs through the Everlane model. When asked about wages paid to laborers within its supply chain , Everlane told Project Just, a New York-based non-profit organization devoted to helping consumers shop in a more informed manner: “The workers at each of our factories are paid, on average, a higher wage than their peers. Having said that, we can’t explicitly state how much each worker is compensated due to confidentiality agreements with our manufacturing partners.”
An Everlane spokesman did, however, tell Project Just that the company maintains a “Vendor Code of Conduct” and that “each factory is subject to a yearly semi-announced audit by a third-party company, with this visit focusing in on our 13 compliancy standards.” Everlane failed to provide any specific information on its “13 compliancy standards” and its auditing system.
In fact, a bit of research reveals that Everlane does not actually publicize any detailed information about its “vetting process,” “Vendor Code of Conduct,” auditing system or the results of such audits at all. In this way, Zara is more transparent than Everlane. Zara’s parent company, Inditex lists its “Code of Conduct for Manufacturers and Suppliers Inditex Group” in full on its website.
Similarly, Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, is also more transparent than Everlane, as it provides information identifying its auditing processes, as well as information regarding steps taken to address any failures to meet the company’s established standards. According to one summary from the company’s 2015 Annual Report, “Poor storage management of dangerous chemicals (China): On discovering this problem at a fabric supplier in China , members of our CSR department immediately offered guidance and training. The fabric supplier concerned also appointed an external manager and introduced on-site safety management training.” Inditex provides similar information.
Finally, in conversing with a Project Just editor, an Everlane spokesman asserted that it “does not use any subcontractors,” which may not be entirely true. Unauthorized subcontracting to an unapproved factory is “very, very common,” according to Gary Peck, founder and managing director of the S Group, a design and sourcing company based in Portland, Oregon. Though almost all retailers prohibit the practice in their contracts, a significant number of suppliers still do it to save money, speed production and meet high-volume orders.
While physical audits can certainly help in determining the actual places of productions, in many cases it is very difficult to determine when a contractor or subcontractor produces products at an approved or non-approved site. With this in mind, such an assertion by Everlane might suggest that it does not know the true extent of its supply chain . Per Project Just, “It is unclear if the brand can trace its entire supply chain.”
With quite a few seemingly loose ends and an array of very elusive and unverified claims, it is best to think twice about Everlane. Experts in the field of ethical sourcing and trade still encourage skepticism, no matter how warm and fuzzy a website makes one feel. “There is a lot of consumer concern, and there is a tendency for smaller companies to want to exploit it,” says Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “That can be a very positive motivation, but the concern is that there are people who, out of cynicism or lack of understanding, are not making verifiable claims.”