Ethical Fashion

Just How Sustainable Is American ‘Ethical’ Fashion Label Everlane Anyway?

Written by Jennifer Nini

When we surveyed 15 ethical fashion bloggers back in 2015, the American cult brand Everlane was revealed to be a favourite of the group. One look at Everlane’s fashion offerings and it’s easy to work out why.

Aside from Everlane’s commitment to “radical transparency” and “transparent pricing” (somewhat revolutionary considering the company’s size and scale), its affordable collections featuring timeless basics, beautifully tailored garments, and its minimalistic design aesthetic has fashionistas – ethical or otherwise – swooning.

The brand even features diverse fashion models scoring brownie points with hard-lined feminists.

Ethical Brand - Everlane Relaxed Poplin Shirt

Images: Everlane

But just how sustainable is Everlane?

We’ll explore this question in a moment, but first, let’s revisit how the company began…

Everlane was founded in 2010 by Michael Preysman a 25-year-old entrepreneur. From the outset, Preysman wanted to create designer-quality basics at low prices. To do this, he aimed to sell direct to consumer through an e-commerce site in order to bypass the middleman and avoid traditional retail costs, inflated margins and markups.

“We believe our customers have a right to know how much their clothes cost to make. We reveal the true costs behind all of our products—from materials to labor to transportation—then offer ?them to you, minus the traditional retail markup.” – Everlane website

To help achieve his vision he needed capital investment. The concept proved too attractive for venture capitalists and in 2011 Everlane raised $1.1 million in seed funding from a number of high-profile investors including Kleiner Perkins, SV Angel and Lerer Ventures.

Everlane Transparent Pricing and Radical Transparency commitment

Ethical Brand - Everlane High Waist Blue Denim Jeans

Good quality low-cost basics can be found almost everywhere in the world (Uniqlo and Zara springs to mind) so how did Everlane distinguish itself from competitors and attract so much venture capital investment? The answers can be found on its website.

There is the brand’s striking use of minimalism in its fashion and product photography appealing to the mass market. But it’s core value proposition can be found in its “ethical approach”. The brand devotes an entire section to their “Radical Transparency” mission where it discloses a line-by-line breakdown of costs for producing their products and then compares their “true costs” to those of traditional retailers. Everlane also publishes a list of its factories around the globe along with the manufacturer’s stories and photographs.

Ethical Brand - Everlane Clean Cotton Cross-Back Dress

“We go to incredibly ethical, high quality factories around the world to produce beautiful, clean minimalist clothes and then with every product we tell the story of how it was made, where it came from and what it cost us to make so the consumers have complete transparency into the supply chain,” Everlane founder Michael Preysman tells Hubspot.

Ethical is not the same as sustainable

Everlane’s commitment to transparency is to be applauded, but let’s not confuse a ‘transparent’ and ‘ethical’ supply chain with sustainability practices.

Firstly, the brand does not use GOTS certified organic cotton or even fair-trade cotton and for a brand its size – that can afford to be audited independently by various certifying bodies – it doesn’t hold any independent ethical certifications, not from Fairtrade, B-Corp or Goodwell.

Ethical Brand - Everlane High-Rise Skinny Jean

It also doesn’t make clear where it sources all its materials from. One has to click on a specific factory (from its factory locations map) to read through each summary before realising that Everlane doesn’t sustainably-source or sustainably-grow any of its fabrics or materials. So although they are performing well in pricing transparency and even supplier transparency, Everlane is still falling short in environmental transparency. For all we know, its conventionally-grown cotton fabrics could be grown in India’s ‘Suicide Belt’ region or perhaps picked by child labourers in Uzbekistan. Independent fashion organisation Project Just conducts rigorous research into many leading brands and confirms that “as at March 2017, [Everlane] had not conducted any audits on its raw material or textile processing facilities” and nor can it “trace its entire supply chain.”

Since the brand is turning seven years old – seven years is plenty of time to consider using eco-friendly fabrics and incorporate sustainable practices into their supply chain as far as I’m concerned – we thought it was high time we at EWP nudge them along.

Ethical Brand - Everlane Poplin Square Shirt Dress

Last Friday September 22 I sent an email to Everlane’s customer support team (support@everlane.com) asking when the brand will begin using certified organic cotton.

That same day, I received this response from Customer Experience officer, Lily:

Everlane response to certified organic cotton question - Eco Warrior Princess

 

I was impressed by their quick response. Since it was only to notify me that my question had been passed onto someone else, I continued to wait patiently.

Two days later, on Sunday September 24, I received a more detailed and seemingly ‘final’ response from Customer Experience officer Anne:

Everlane's response to my certified organic cotton question - Eco Warrior Princess

The brand’s response is welcome and makes sense. Its customer experience officer’s friendly but somewhat elusive communication style is also expected. It’s difficult for a fashion brand to tackle all industry issues at once and choosing just a few things to concentrate on – in Everlane’s case ethical fashion production, human rights and fair treatment of animals – is a wise decision.

But we also know how much more difficult it becomes for a brand to incorporate sustainability practices when it gets larger and the supply chain becomes more complex (ahem H&M) which is why we’ll continue to apply gentle pressure on the seven-year-old brand before it bows down to worship at the alter of the Greenback – not exactly the kind of green we want them to be worshipping! 

So yes, while I adore the brand’s designs, and appreciate its commitment to transparency, ethical manufacturing and exceptional customer service, there is room for Everlane to do so much more with respect to its environmental impact.

And since sustainability is high on my list of considerations when shopping for new garments, (I co-own an organic farm and prioritise human and planetary health), I won’t be giving any of my money to Everlane just yet. Not until the brand is as sustainable as it is ethical.

Keen for Everlane to become more sustainable? Why not reach out to the brand yourself by emailing them at support@everlane.com or directly messaging them on Instagram and letting them know.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she launched Eco Warrior Princess to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

16 Comments

  • I have never bought anything from Everlane myself, but it strikes me radical transparency is like waste recycling. A good place to start, but a bad place to stop. Would be great to see them take a next logical step and use at least certified fairtrade textiles.

    • Great point. We think they’re on the right track but they have so much more to do. They’ve been around long enough now and are heading to a point in their business where incorporating sustainability practices is crucial in helping them reduce their ever-growing environmental impact. This is what we’d like to see. Offering customers better fabrics is essential – conventional cotton and polyester products is just not in our society’s or planet’s best interests and we want to see independent auditing too – not that we don’t believe them, but because it makes sense that this ‘transparency’ is verified by an independent third party and we know they have the money to get this done. They are better than a fast fashion brand yes, but have a long way to go yet to be considered a ‘sustainable leader in apparel’ as Wikipedia has wrongly given them credit for.

      • Hi Jennifer

        Good on you for raising this issue!

        I think saying Everlane is on the right track is being overly generous. They make a lot out of their ‘radical transparency’ but there are so many ethical and sustainability areas they are not (yet) delivering on at all compared to other brands. On the Good On You app we rate them 2/5 “Not Good Enough” after considering around 80 key criteria related to the environment, labour rights and animal welfare.

        They have made recent announcements of beginning to address environmental issues with their new denim line.

        Best
        Gordon

        • Thanks Gordon! Yes you’re probably right, I am being too generous. Compliments should really be given to the marketing team who know how to create hype and spin haha! And thank you for clarifying Good On You’s position. I am aware that the denim range is at least a little better, but then compared to their entire product offering is not enough to encourage me to purchase from the brand given there are so many brands doing amazing things that are deserving of my dollars 🙂

      • See, Jennifer, I never thought of shopping at Everlane before, and now my mind is mulling over dozens of things like ‘why weren’t they using organic cotton from a get go if sustainability was on their minds?’, ‘how much of the labour cost actually goes to workers?’, ‘[again] why not sustainable fabrics?’, ‘is it all as much of a gimmick as H&Ms Conscious collection?’, as well as occasional ‘ooooooh, I’d love this dress, but now I feel like I shouldn’t really part with my hard earned euros until they make a switch to organic!’. You are great at starting conversations, even if they are all in my head 🙂

        Now that I think about it, I will also write to them asking these questions. The more we ask, the more chance of there being a change!

        • What great questions! The type of questions we’ve been asking too! I think it’s so important we reach out and ask – keeping the lines of communication open and letting them know this is what we care about is essential. And also because they are growing quickly, which means if we don’t help direct them, and they don’t implement the changes now, it’ll be so much harder for them later as they increasingly chase profits and try to keep their investors happy.

  • Yes, I actually found this out a month after I bought a pair of their shoes and pants. I was so shocked and disappointed in myself for not vetting them better than I had, but it’s such a well known ethical brand & I thought I could trust them.

    • No mistake is ever a problem if you’ve learned something from the experience. You know now and it makes you a better, wiser shopper and the knowledge you will share with others I’m sure. Everlane is still a slightly better choice than a straight out fast fashion brand but has a long journey ahead in many areas as Gordon from the Good On You app pointed out in his comment above. And let’s not forget, if the products are ‘high quality’ as they market themselves to be and you get way more than #30wears that’s still a huge plus 🙂

    • Hi Shelbi,

      My and I had made the same mistake over the years as we’d spent thousands on their brand. However, after visiting other sites recently to purchase some ethical clothing, I realized that they were much more transparent than Everlane even though everlane out of the few is the only one that boasted “radical transparency.” Other than laying out their pricing model and claiming factory transparency, they have yet to list where 1 factory is whereas these other businesses I’ve been buying from listed all that and more. Then I dug a bit further and stumbled on glassdoor.com and found out one person interviewed at everlane and was shamelessly asked to divulge trade information from her current job which disgusted her.

      Anyhow, great marketing on their behalf but the owner himself doesn’t seem to care much about environmental impacts, human rights, or even animal welfare. It all feels to much like a sham which I shoulda seen coming when they had sought and received capital investments from 3 big venture capitalists. People with passion typically take the slow route to thoughtfully put all the pieces together.

  • I usually shop secondhand, but when I need something new, supply chain transparency is really important to me. I like that this company is trying to move in the right direction, but it still seems as though they have some work to do.

    I also like that you brought up fair labor practices, which I don’t think is discussed enough in the environmental community. Yes, a shirt could be made of organic cotton, but if a person isn’t making fair wages and/or is forced to work long hours without breaks (or if it’s a child!), is that product really ‘sustainable?’

    Great post!

    • Yes I’m the same. I do prefer thrifted and second hand but I will purchase new if time doesn’t allow or if I’m purchasing underwear lol! And you’re right – exploitation of people (and planet) is not really ‘sustainable’. You’ve just reminded me of a point I often make about vegan fashion. I’m vegan but I am also highly eco-conscious and abhor pleather and other petroleum-based materials you often find in vegan fashion. Having compassion for animals is wonderful, but I say, Let’s have compassion for the planet too and not purchase vegan fashion made from toxic synthetic materials that pollute the earth! 🙂

  • Great article and insight. I’ve bought from them but soon afterwards discovered they weren’t as ethical as they implied – agree transparent is not the same. I emailed them and Ha ha a very similar response was sent, very quickly. There’s slick marketing involved. I really wish they would be more specific about sources, and go organic and get accredited. Their style is AWESOME!! And the clothes I got are incredible quality which is important, but yeah I’m holding back too. You should screen grab this and send it to them, Jen. I’m certainly going to voice my disappointment. Good work Ewp! X

    • Great to know you realised too and that you reached out to the team also. I agree, their style is awesome and they get an A for design, branding and marketing. Bonus points for high quality products that people actually want to wear yay! Unfortunately though we are in the business of sustainability and we want to see them do more for this planet we love so much. It’s not enough to care about people and profit, they need to go all in and care about our planet too 🙂 Triple bottom line Everlane, triple bottom line!

  • Completely agree with you Jen. Its a no brainer, they should be using certified organic cotton at the very least. The introduction of their denim line was the perfect opportunity so we were disappointed although not surprised that Everlane didn’t take this step towards improving their environmental impact. The denim factory they use to manufacture their jeans certainly has some good environmental practices, but there is a whole lot more that goes into making denim than just the manufacturing of the jeans. I would be great to see Everlane be transparent about where its fabrics are cultivated, manufactured and dyed, as these stages often have the biggest impact on the environment in water & energy use, effluent discharge and emissions. Also important to keep in mind that transparency does not equate with being ethical, and is not the end goal, but a stage on the road to being a more responsible company.

    • Thanks Jacinta and deep gratitude for the work you and the Project Just team do with gathering information and data on brands as it helps greatly when researching. You are absolutely right that transparency doesn’t equate to being ethical and that it’s really just a step in the road. Thanks also for pointing out the wider impact of producing a pair of denim jeans – there is so much involved and if only people knew that the buck doesn’t stop with the factory. In fact, after publishing this piece, we had many people reach out privately on social media wanting to know why we have taken the position we have and I could tell that they hadn’t even read the article. I think that is part of the problem – people get romantic about a few bits of well-communicated tidbits of ‘ethical’ information and are too quick to jump to conclusions (brand is good, brand is bad) without doing the homework to understand what’s really going on or getting the info and data needed to have a more complete picture and make a better shopping decision. That people are calling us on our position without taking the time to read the article is a sign in itself that people are time poor and/or just defensive 🙂

  • I’m really enjoying this conversation so hope you don’t mind delving back in. I asked a couple of sustainable bloggers why they actively support Everlane to try to understand what it is, especially in the US, that gets them so much love, even from well-known bloggers.
    I even got in touch with Good on You to ask them about reviewing their rating because of the strength of defense/support.
    They didn’t, and then I read Project Just’s review, and now this article cements it. And I saw Gordon’s response too. For me the debate is over. But I understand that for some people it’s asking them to give up on something they love and thought was good. And as we know buying only sustainable & ethical isn’t always the easiest choice.
    For some it’s a case of it’s better than xxxx. Hey, if you don’t want to change, get them to change, right!?

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