- BY LAURA NEILSON &
- Farm-to-table has begotten factory-to-closet. Companies are laying bare everything you could ever want to know about the making of your T-shirts and tote bags.
A FEW WEEKS AGO, Michael Preysman, the founder of fashion label Everlane, and his head of creative, Alexandra Spunt, went on a seven-day road trip through China to visit the factories where their silk blouses and cashmere sweaters are made. The purpose of the sojourn: to check in with their factories, and share their findings with customers via videos and photos to be posted on the Everlane website.
An earlier video series showing their T-shirt factory in Los Angeles had been quite popular with online visitors, said Mr. Preysman. “So we said, ‘Hey why don’t we tackle China?’ “
A crop of new fashion e-tailers aims to merge transparent production with great style, often served with brand history, philosophy and designer biographies. Off Duty’s Meenal Mistry and Zady co-founder Maxine Bédat join Lunch Break. Photo: Everlane.
The reason for the journey was partly to address skepticism surrounding Chinese facilities. “We wanted to clear up this misconception around China,” said Mr. Preysman. “You can actually work with really great factories over there. And for silk, China is the best in the world.” Videos and detailed images of the trip are now on the company’s Tumblr page and will soon appear on its website, alongside products made there.
Everlane isn’t the only fashion brand to make transparent production central to its philosophy. Just as the Slow Food movement prizes practices that are gentle on the land and the body, a wave of labels and retailers are focusing on socially responsible methods. These companies appeal to the growing number of consumers who want to know what kind of impact their purchases will have—both on the environment and, now more than ever, on other human beings.
Sweatshop labor—and the ethical issues surrounding it— is nearly as old as the Industrial Revolution. In more recent history, Nike was widely criticized for its factory practices in the ’90s and early ’00s; but the company has made efforts to improve its methods. Since 2005, Nike discloses the name and address of every factory it uses.
However, the issue has exploded in the past year after two major factory disasters in Bangladesh together killed more than 1,200 garment workers who were making clothes for Western companies. In response, many large companies—including H&M; Inditex, which owns Zara; and PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger—recently signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented agreement between companies and labor unions. “It’s binding and enforceable; it isn’t a voluntary program,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which helped develop the Accord. “There’s an actual commitment from the brands and retailers to pay for the cost of making factories safe, which is a commitment they’ve never made before.”
“’It’s the smaller companies who are able to provide true transparency to consumers.’”
Still, wary consumers tend to flock to businesses that are small and independent. “The fashion industry is so globalized and uses such convoluted supply chains,” said Elizabeth L. Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” “It’s really the smaller fashion companies who are going to be able to provide true transparency to consumers.”
Bringing many of those companies’ products together in a single stylish, information-crammed location is the goal of Zady, an e-commerce site set to launch Aug. 27. Zady (pronounced zay-dee, which is both Yiddish for “grandfather” and an Arabic girl’s name meaning “prosperity”), is the brainchild of Maxine Bédat, a former law clerk for the United Nations, and Soraya Darabi, a former digital media strategist and co-founder of the app Foodspotting. The site will carry some 40 labels, both American and international, including Steven Alan, Imogene + Willie denim and the English heritage brand Gloverall—a roster the owners plan to keep expanding. “We’re not trying to be the neighborhood shop,” said Ms. Darabi. “We want to be a global destination for people who care about the origins of products.”
Ms. Bédat has some experience in ethical retailing. In 2010, she co-founded the Bootstrap Project, a nonprofit site, while working in Tanzania at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was prosecuting perpetrators of the genocide. In her free time, she would explore markets where she noticed that many so-called “local crafts” were made in China, while real artisans had trouble finding customers. “In globalization, those jobs and traditions were getting lost,” said Ms. Bédat. “The idea behind Bootstrap was to revive them and bring jobs back to the community.” On its website, you can buy a printed clutch bag from Zambia or provide a microloan to its maker—or both.
Ms. Darabi, who worked for the New York Times, was an adviser for Bootstrap. But in the pair’s conversations, said Ms. Darabi, “we realized there was a for-profit venture we needed to talk about.”
Enter Zady. The site uses icons to let shoppers know at a glance if something is locally sourced (to qualify if an items’ raw materials come from within 100 miles of where it’s made), handmade, made in the U.S., made from high-quality raw materials, environmentally conscious (e.g. made with vegetable dyes) and whether it’s affiliated with the Bootstrap Project.
The site’s vetting process is a work in progress. Ms. Bédat and Ms. Darabi, who are based in New York, research the practices of every brand they carry in different ways. They’ve visited some factories, but in many cases rely on the brands to disclose the information, requiring owners to sign contracts verifying the authenticity of their claims about sourcing and production.
“We’re a small team,” said Ms. Bédat. “We don’t have people who are able to fly out and report back.” As a result, they’ve turned down brands that work in countries with a known record of human-rights abuses. Instead, said Ms. Bédat, they’ve focused on American and European products, often from vertically integrated designers who don’t outsource, making traceability a simpler prospect. As they branch out to developing countries, their plan is to work with labor organizations and human rights groups to verify that workers are safe and well-compensated.
One part of this quest for transparency is storytelling, which plays a major role in marketing strategy. Shoppers browsing Zady for Imogene + Willie’s slim-cut indigo denim jeans ($225) or winter coats by Gloverall ($625) will be able to read a short brand history that the site’s creators hope will provide a greater incentive to click “Buy.”
The power of the story is something clearly understood by Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo, the duo behind Of a Kind, a New York-based e-commerce site that sells limited-edition apparel and accessories by independent designers. Each label gets an introduction, often followed by related featurettes, like one on bag designer Clare Vivier’s favorite Los Angeles haunts and another on a vintage shopping trip she took in her hometown of St. Paul, Minn.
For Ms. Mazur, a former arts consultant, and Ms. Cerulo, who was an editor at Details and Lucky magazines, the stories have been essential. “How do you convince someone to spend $300 dollars on a designer they might not have heard of, on a product they’ve never touched?” said Ms. Mazur. “If you can tell them that story and give them that emotional attachment, we think that’s going to work.” Last year, Ms. Mazur said, the company’s revenues were up 300% from the previous year, and the site has been turning a profit for the past nine months.
Another factor in the decision to buy is trust in fair pricing. Certainly this new conscious consumer doesn’t want to save money by exploiting third-world labor, but she also doesn’t want to be fleeced. That’s an area where Belgian designer Bruno Pieters’s venture, called Honest By, which was founded early last year, might be unmatched.
Mr. Pieters’s company provides painstakingly detailed information for each item it sells: the source of every material, trimming and thread; the address and owner of its production facility; its cost breakdown and markup, as well as its carbon footprint. “I never thought about transparency or things like sustainability. You just assume it will be fine,” said Mr. Pieters, who used to design for his own luxury label, as well as Hugo Boss, before taking a sabbatical in 2009.
Everlane, too, publishes the cost breakdown of each piece on its blog. The San Francisco-based company said it is able to offer high-quality basics like Supima cotton T-shirts and silk button-down blouses at prices lower than those of luxury competitors by selling only online, which keeps overhead to a minimum. Everlane products are sold at a markup of about 220% versus the industry norm of 500% to 800% times the cost-to-manufacture price.
Unlike Mr. Pieters, however, Everlane’s Mr. Preysman doesn’t disclose the names and addresses of factories, explaining that he doesn’t want competitors moving in on his turf. However, the company uses third-party auditors to ensure its living-wage and safety standards.
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,” said Mr. Nova 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.”
A WORLD OF GOOD GOODS // A Few Well-Intended Brands
F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas (3)
From far left: Weekender in Olive, $95; High-Low Belt in Rhum, $40; Women’s Silk Blouse, $80, all at everlane.com
Ex-private equity investor Michael Preysman set up the online-only label in 2011, with the intention of making beautiful essentials for men and women that are ethically produced and affordable. The look is casually elegant, like a little sister to the label the Row.
F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas (3)
Clockwise from top: OTAAT for Of a Kind Wallet, $93; Frieda&Nellie for Of a Kind Bracelet, $150; Jennie Kwon Designs for Of a Kind Ring, $195, all at ofakind.com
Former arts consultant Claire Mazur and ex-magazine editor Erica Cerulo founded this multi-brand site in late 2010. The duo works with indie designers on limited-edition merch (the cast of “Girls” would love it) and publishes features introducing the designers to their clientele.
Honest by (necklace)
From left: Honest by. Heaven Tanudiredja Necklace, $1,368; Honest by. Bruno Pieters Caban Coat, $401; Honest by. Bruno Pieters Printed Silk Skirt, $259, all at honestby.com
Belgian designer Bruno Pieters’s online-only label, Honest By, founded in early 2012, is honest and then some. There’s a detailed accounting for every component in its supply chain. Mr. Pieters also invites other young European designers to do small collections with the same transparency. The overall aesthetic is sophisticated: avant-garde for the ethical set.