Sustainability feels like it’s been a buzzword in the fashion industry forever. In reality, though, the sector’s wasteful overproduction and the dubious ethics of its supply chains have only come into sharper focus in relatively recent times.
Many of the brands at the forefront of the eco-conscious evolution are little more than a decade old—if that. But labels like Reformation and Everlane, once newcomers on the scene boasting a seductive mix of product and mindful messaging, have helped spur a reckoning within the industry—even if their own paths have been far from perfectly paved.
Earlier this fall, ethical fashion non-profit Remake released its 2020 Transparency Report, ranking and categorizing the industry’s self-professed sustainably-minded brands by their efforts to create an ethical supply chain. Reformation, which was founded in 2009 in Los Angeles by Yael Aflalo, earned 53 points in the report’s rather nebulous ranking of transparency, earning it the title of “Wannabe.” Bay Area startup Everlane, founded in 2010, was ranked even lower, scoring just 22 points and the distinction of “Offender.”
Reformation, which is known for its mix of slinky, wedding-ready, minimalist gowns and millennial-chic staples made from mostly natural and recycled fibers, was fingered for adding Chinese factories to its supplier list after years of chanting a Made-in-L.A. mantra. The report’s charges were short and minimal, noting that “as Reformation continues to expand their supply chain, it’s imperative that it be managed just as sustainably as its founding ethos.”
Kathleen Talbot, the company’s chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations, described reports like Remake’s as “helpful tools.”
“They raise consumer consciousness to increase education, and ultimately drive brands to do better by shining a spotlight on them,” she told Sourcing Journal.
Reformation has had roots in L.A. since its inception, opening its first sustainable sewing factory in the city in 2013. “We do design and manufacture the majority of our collections there,” Talbot said, but to keep up with demand, the has company expanded to other manufacturing partners—first in the U.S., and then abroad—in recent years. Reformation currently works with eight suppliers across 12 factories in China, Turkey, and India.
The expansion of sourcing has presented Reformation with the challenge of scaling sustainably and extending its standards and values to supply-chain partners overseas, Talbot said. Reformation, which publishes its own quarterly sustainability reports, has worked to ensure that its factory partners adhere to the same guidelines when it comes to material standards as well as social and environmental responsibility, she added, regardless of geography.
In some cases, Talbot said, China’s apparel production facilities have actually outperformed the company’s verticalized factories in L.A. when it comes to sophisticated management systems that help ensure compliance with social and environmental regulations, she said.
But as rumors of human rights abuses in China have grown louder in recent years, the decision to source in the country has become more fraught than ever. Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities have been persecuted, detained and forced to work in factories across the region, and these abuses have united politicians and human rights groups in shared disdain.
In October, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who sponsored the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, said that there is “compelling evidence” that Uyghur Muslims have been sent to regions throughout the country to work in factories of all kinds. Months earlier in July, Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies found that virtually the entire Chinese apparel industry is tainted by slave labor, with 80 percent of the country’s cotton produced in Xinjiang factories.
When asked how Reformation accounts for its whole supply chain ecosystem—which includes upstream materials makers as well as the company’s production partners—Talbot said that “the question has been top of mind for us in 2020,” as travel restrictions have limited the brand’s on-the-ground visibility into overseas operations.
“That is actually a legitimate concern—the ability to have direct oversight and visit,” she said. “That’s something that Remake brought up, and we do validate that that’s a real challenge—not just for Reformation, but for everyone.” The brand works with an auditing firm that monitors operations and offers on-the-ground updates, she added.
The brand has also signed onto a call to action by the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labor, she said, “and has fully extricated our supply chains from the Uyghur region.” Reformation is actively investigating its tier one, two, and three suppliers in China, Talbot said, and actively “disengaging from business relationships with any supplier that may be considered a risk to the best practices and guidance” of the coalition, which is made up of civil society organizations and trade unions.
“We can’t have full assurance that we have all the answers and visibility,” she said. “We will need to continue to monitor the situation and engage the experts.” The results of those expert opinions will “no doubt continue to influence our sourcing decisions for 2021 and beyond,” she added.
As the brand moves forward, it has also announced an ambitious new campaign to become climate positive by 2025. According to Reformation’s website, “the fashion industry is responsible for up to 10 percent of global carbon emissions” and needs to halve that number by 2030, or incur severe climate change impacts.
Reformation—which already touts itself as carbon neutral, in large part due to its purchasing of carbon offsets—is “in the process of developing a more detailed kind of process roadmap,” which will be shared in 2021. It’s in the process of finalizing and verifying its science-based targets and goals when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
While Reformation will share more of its “sub-commitments” in the new year, Talbot said, much of its effort to become climate positive will center on “insetting,” or the process of embedding renewable energy, along with energy and water-saving projects, into its supply chain—like an on-site solar panel at a partner factory. Unlike “offsetting,” the process puts the onus on the brand, not an external third party, to actually reduce emissions within the supply chain, rather than making up for them elsewhere.
The trend-led label is also looking to significantly build out its network for sourcing regenerative fibers, Talbot said, and will launch an introductory collection for the program in 2021. Regenerative cotton—which is farmed using climate-positive land management practices that restore the soil, rather than depleting it of nutrients—is at the top of the list.
“We’re starting in our cotton supply chain, but I think there’s a lot we can do within leather and wool, and hopefully some of our forest-based fibers as well,” she added, noting its commitment to pulling 10 percent of materials from regenerative sources by 2025.
“There is a big recognition that brands all the way down to suppliers do have a significant role to play in climate solutions,” Talbot said, “But we’re just finding that we’re not moving fast enough—we’re not seeing a lot of bold action.”
Everlane the ‘Offender’
Sustainability-focused contemporary Everlane was levied with just such a charge in Remake’s report, which labeled it as an “Offender” for “not doing nearly enough”—especially around providing details on workers and how they’re treated—despite priding itself on “exceptional quality, ethical factories and radical transparency.”
Everlane’s chief supply chain officer Kimberley Smith says the maker of ethical essentials appreciates “organizations that hold us accountable to our mission of transparency,” acknowledging that groups like Remake are “dependent on information that is publicly available.”
“We have always been transparent about our factories and pricing,” she said, “and we are working to ensure all of the progress in our supply chain is accessible and easy to find.”
Currently, Everlane sources from 46 factory locations across the globe, Smith said, insisting that all have been vetted to meet its Vendor Code of Conduct. The guidelines stipulate that suppliers will not use child or forced labor, will not require employees to work more than 60 hours per week, must meet or exceed minimum wage and offer benefits in accordance with industry standards or collective bargaining agreements, and that they will not subcontract any portion of their work, among other measures.
“We work with third-party auditors to evaluate all of our partners for factors like fair wages, labor conditions, and a safe work environment,” Smith said, though Everlane currently declines to publicly name upstream partners.
Everlane is “in the process of conducting social and environmental audits of our Tier Two suppliers,” she said, specifically naming alpaca and wool providers. That lack of openness in the interim could be where some of Remake’s skepticism originates, as many issues—including abuses of workers and animals—lurk upstream in the apparel supply chain. Brands have long shirked responsibility for misdeeds by claiming a lack of visibility beyond their immediate factory partners.
Like Reformation, Everlane also sources multiple products from different regions of China. And though the factory page on its website provides a profile of each manufacturer, these relationships represent only the first tier of Everlane’s supplier associations in the country.
“Our goal is to lead the industry by mapping our entire supply chain to the farm level,” over the course of the coming seasons, Smith said, and Everlane has already achieved that goal for some products. ReNew line, for example, is made from post-consumer plastic bottles and has earned the Global Recycled Standard certification, while organic cotton lines are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified.
“Everlane’s mission has always been rooted in creating ethical basics that last, but our main focus in the early days was bringing more transparency into the supply chain through pricing and factories,” Smith admitted. “In the past few years, it’s become clear the environment is in crisis and we have become focused on creating a more sustainable supply chain.”
In service of that effort, the company has rolled out a handful of programs, like producing denim at a LEED-certified factory, and committing this spring to using only certified organic cotton by 2023. “This is our No. 1 raw material,” Smith said, and “transitioning to organic has involved a complete overhaul of our supply chain.” It also rolled out a line of post-consumer recycled cashmere staples dubbed ReCashmere.
Next year, Everlane will be focused on two major areas of growth, Smith said: continuing on its mission to remove all virgin plastics from its operations before 2022, and reducing its overall carbon footprint. “We have transitioned 90 percent of virgin plastic to renewed materials” already, she said.
While Remake’s report dinged the brand for so heavily publicizing its plastic commitment—perhaps to the detriment of other equally important efforts—Smith said Everlane “will have updates to share as we set clear targets that will allow us to be transparent with our customers about our carbon footprint” sometime in early 2021.
“There’s always more work to be done, but we’re driven to continue to reduce our impact on the planet and be transparent with our community on the progress we make,” she said.