Is Everlane Ethical? I Asked, They Answered

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I've been in conversation with a few representatives at Everlane over the past two weeks to answer your pressing questions about Everlane's ethical standards. 

I was planning on posting this in a couple weeks once I have answers to my follow-up questions, but now it looks like they're launching a big, official question and answer session on Instagram (well played, Everlane), so it only makes sense to try to be "first to market" (not sure that actually applies in this case) and push this post out in tandem with this momentous occasion in Everlane's radical transparency journey, a journey that hasn't always been very transparent at all.

As I noted a couple weeks ago, Everlane is a tough one to categorize when it comes to ethical fashion, both because they took a very corporate, tech-y approach to their business model from the outset - versus other ethics-forward companies that started as small, handmade businesses - and because their ethical claims were not always immediately measurable since they have been working in the global supply chain since the beginning. There are a number of reasons they've given for this - one being that they didn't want other companies to swoop in and "steal" their factories - but at the end of the day, it makes sense that consumers betting on their ethical credentials would have questions.

While my original argument still stands that Everlane occupies an important marketing and accessibility space in the broad category of "ethical fashion," it is helpful to get more clarity around how Everlane rates its own conduct. Below, I've listed what I could find out from their production team.

This doesn't answer everything, I know. I am awaiting a few follow up answers and am hopeful that this new social media initiative will uncover the supply chain in much more detail. But I have been impressed with their willingness to take a lot of time answering my questions, and I respect the team.

The Questions I Asked Everlane:

  1. What standards does Everlane measures itself against when claiming it is ethical?
  2. What audits are in place to ensure worker welfare?
  3. What steps are taken if a factory is found to be operating under or against Everlane's core standards?
  4. What steps are being taken to ensure that factory workers thrive?
  5. On average, how many hours do factory employees work per week or month, and what type of benefits/wages do they receive?
  6. How does Everlane plans to remain ethical as it continues to scale, and what difficulties has it had doing so over its first few years?

Everlane's Response

Everlane's Standards

Everlane has a publicly available Vendor Code of Conduct overview available at this link. According to their rep:
Our goal is to always work with the best factories who share our values, have incredibly high standards and are focused on working with factories who leave the lowest impact on the environment. As we grow, we are able to focus on the last piece much more. 

Auditing 

Additionally, Everlane audits their factories 4 times a year, conducting both announced and unannounced audits (unannounced in order to double check that factories aren't simply hiding issues during announced ones), where they check to make sure their Vendor Code of Conduct is being enforced. Key factors include:
...health and safety standards, labor and working conditions, wages and observational audits

Discipline and Reform

According to the rep...
If a factory does not meet our requirement of an audit score of 90 or above, we work with them very closely to help fix any of the issues that might have come up. If they do not make these improvement within a few months, we simply stop working with them. 

Worker Rights and Safety

The Everlane rep reemphasized the Code of Conduct and auditing process on this point, while also listing out some of the holistic initiatives they've introduced through their Black Friday, give-back initiative...
The first year, we installed solar panels on our factory in China, we developed a health and wellness program at our LA factory, provided new helmets for our 8,000 workers at our factory in Vietnam and most recently, installed hydroponic farms at our denim factory so workers would always have fresh greens. 

Labor Hours and Wages

Everlane was not willing (or able?) to answer this question directly, citing that since worker wages vary widely across countries, it is difficult to standardize these numbers or clarify them with relative simplicity to customers. The team anticipates doing more work around this in the coming years, according to their spokesperson.

Scale

I'll leave this one to the rep...
As we grow, we actually have more resources and people dedicated to making sure all of our products we make and the factories we work with are held to the highest standard. We are working hard to offer even great transparency into the materials we use, which really centers around producing sustainably.

Staying true to our values, we commit to working with factories who use recycled water, renewable energy and use no toxic dyes or harmful chemicals.

In 2017, we released their first denim collection made at Saitex, the world’s cleanest factory. Saitex recycles 98% of their water, runs on alternative energy and repurposes byproducts to make bricks for affordable housing. Most recently, we partnered with a new silk factory to launch our Clean Silk Collection and revamp our entire silk supply chain—from soil to shirt. Today, the silk is produced at a leading LEED-certified and Bluesign certified factory in China. By 2021, our silk will be grown using regenerative farming and will be dyed and washed with 100% recycled water and 100% renewable energy by 2022.

I asked three follow up questions that are still awaiting a response:
  1. Pertaining to question three, have you had to stop working with any factories?
  2. How would you respond to readers/customers who suggest that your business model more closely aligns with companies like GAP or H&M than a typical "fair trade" company? Does Everlane see itself as doing something over and above the corporate social responsibility standards of big box and department store brands? 
  3. Pertaining to question five, does Everlane plan to create more guidelines around what constitutes a fair or living wage in their factories in the next few years?
I hope to update this post after I receive answers, but in the meantime, I'll keep a close eye on Everlane's Instagram account for answers.

So, is Everlane ethical?

Getting a few more pieces of information from the team will help me form a better opinion. The code of conduct is fairly standard as far as Corporate Social Responsibility standards go, so much of this determination has to do with enforcement. Without wage information and an ability to interpret that information in a reasonable way, it is hard to determine labor standards. 

That being said, it is apparent to me that Everlane employees know more about their supply chain than the average GAP or H&M employee, and that means that they are at least aware of the need to provide an education around these issues. For me, Everlane is a choice I'm willing to make, but it is clear from the answers above that they are operating somewhere in the gray area. 

I was accused of making excuses for Everlane on my last post, so I'd like to offer some clarity. Truth be told, I am jaded by a lot of the brands in this industry. So many of them "give back" while sourcing from industries known to employ child labor; many enforce only the lowest required standard of "fair trade," which leaves factory workers dependent on sex work to make ends meet; and some even blatantly lie about where their items are produced. How do I know this? Because my ethical blogger friends hear things. And my brand owner friends do their research. Accountability is badly needed in this industry and there is no perfect solution. 

So, in some ways I prefer a company that can tell me, "we're working on this," rather than one that acts as if everything is great. And I know, of course, that there are a handful of brands really doing great, but they are not the norm, even in the "ethical" fashion niche.

So I will celebrate the brands doing the best possible job while leaving room for imperfection. Everlane doesn't need my support, but the little guys who are afraid to admit they don't use totally renewable packaging, or that their thread is made with polyester, or that they have more work to do when it comes to raw materials' sourcing could use my support. I'd rather they not hide these things from us, but our militant attitudes - yes, mine included - have pushed people against the wall. In effect, that means some of the companies who look the best are telling us the least. 

It's complicated, and the only way to move forward is to live in that messy space.

Read my initial post on Everlane's ethics here

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