With a trademark promise of radical transparency, diverse-ish marketing campaigns and a sizeable collection of utilitarian staples, Everlane certainly prides itself on being an ethical company. But a series of scandals, low brand rankings and allegations of union busting have started to dismantle this image, which begs the question: is Everlane really that ethical?
What actually is ethical fashion?
Ethical fashion is an umbrella term to describe the protection of human rights, animal welfare and the environment throughout the entire fashion supply chain. This encompasses a wide range of issues, including non-exploitative working conditions, fair hours and pay, gender equality, freedom of association, fair trade and sustainable production.
Everlane, however, is fairly unregulated, depending entirely on a fashion brand’s ability to trace the production of its garments, carry out factory audits, and identify any problems across its supply chain. The most ethical brands usually have nothing to hide, offering freely available data and reports to back up their claims.
Though they are often treated as separate spheres, a brand’s sustainability credentials very much hinges on its ethical record. In other words, a fashion brand can never be sustainable if it is unethical. And vice versa. Both share a commitment to the planet, people and animals. Everlane recognises this by championing both its relationship with factory suppliers and a growing list of sustainable ventures.
But socially and environmentally speaking, is Everlane ethical as it claims?
If you fancied treating yourself to Everlane’s now sold-out Day Market Tote, it would set you back a modest £167. On their website, you can locate the Italian makers that handcraft the leather, with a series of photographs documenting the inner workings of the factory. Another diagram breaks down the production costs, with material, labour and transport expenses totalling £92.05. While Everlane’s price represents a 2-3x markup, it estimates that “traditional” brands would sell the tote for £329.
These glimpses into Everlane’s supply chain are an industry rarity, but they are just glimpses. While every item is listed with a price breakdown and links the factory supplier, little is known about who is producing these garments. Most factories are given a generic nickname – the Day Market Tote is manufactured in ‘The Handbag Factory’ – which makes it harder to trace and identify suppliers. While they also list the number of workers employed by each factory, Everlane fail to disclose the garment workers’ wages, how many hours they work weekly and whether they are afforded trade union representation. When it comes to radical transparency, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
All of Everlane’s factory partners must pass an independent, third-party Compliance audit and follow a company-wide Vendor Code of Conduct. This guideline covers all of the ILO Four Fundamental Freedoms principles and is comparable to FLA standards. Though, it is questionable that the Code of Conduct lacks some form of certification or third-party endorsement. Even if the supplier does meet Everlane’s standards, the factory remains unverified on the website. The Vendor Code of Conduct only mandates minimum wage, instead of working towards a living wage. Where ethics is concerned, the latter is preferable.
Where more is known about who is manufacturing their clothes, relatively little is known about Everlane’s tier 4 suppliers who produce the raw materials for these garments. Radical transparency seemingly stops at tier 1 in the supply chain, at the factories who have a direct relationship with Everlane. Though, a lack of transparency has seeped through to the top, with retail staff and customer experience assistants reporting a hostile and demanding working environment.
Everlane Union was formed to amplify the concerns of the mostly remote Customer Experience team. In October 2018, these colleagues were demoted from contractors to part-time employees. Now on $16 dollars an hour and less than 40 hours a week, they were not eligible for health insurance or other benefits. Instead, they were introduced to a new “strike system” which punished late employees. This experience contrasted sharply to the full-time staff employed in the San Francisco officer who enjoy “in-office massages, catered lunches, and an opportunity to drop by and try on newly-released clothing styles”. For a company who received a $250 million valuation in 2016 and reportedly reached $100 million in revenue the same year, there is no excuse not to pay and treat your employees fairly.
In late December 2019, Everlane employees – the majority of which were from the Customer Experience Department – kickstarted the unionisation process. After working with the Communications Workers of America and amassing the majority of signatures needed, Everlane Union asked to be officially recognised by the company in March the following year. Everlane had thus far discouraged its employees from joining, by falsely claiming that “this will reduce transparency and we won’t be able to work with each of you individually as we do now to improve your experience”. In reality, unionised workplaces have bargaining commitments which contain both employees and their union reps. 4 days after requesting formal recognition, more than 70% of the remote customer experience team were laid off, including all of the vocal union supporters.
Everlane blamed the pandemic, posting that “the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we could have predicted, and it has left no person or business untouched”. But the layoffs were surprising to employees who had been reassured that business was booming. It is alleged that an email circulated internally praised online sales for being up by 32%.
The result was public backlash, which included Senator Bernie Sanders tweeting in support of the union. Meanwhile, nonprofit organisation, Remake, created a petition demanding the company to share their working conditions. Instigating a legal challenge, Everlane Union brought forward union busting charges.
Sadly, they were unsuccessful. In their own words, “Everlane concocted a narrative that they had been planning to reduce our workforce for months. The Labor Board bought their story and ignored the fact that Everlane knew since December that we were unionizing”. While laid off staff were encouraged to reapply for their jobs last autumn, most were rejected as the company instead hired from the Philippines. Fired union members maintain that they were exploited in the name of ethical fashion: “we demanded union recognition and presented management with a strong majority. Three days later Everlane retaliated and fired us”.
The second blow came just weeks later when the same company was accused of fostering an anti-black working environment. On their Instagram, Everlane posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement twice, each time using the wokewashed quote-on-black-background template so many other brands indulged in. One post declared that it was donating $75k to the Equal Justice Initiative and $75k to ACLU. This seemed hypocritical to former employees who detailed the Everlane’s racist work culture in a 7-page manifesto. Authored by the Ex-Wives Club, the Google doc listed instances of underpaying over-qualified Black employees, discrimination against darker-skinned Black models, microaggressions, such as touching their hair without consent, stealing employees’ ideas and the intimidation of employees who have attempted to address these issues.
An internal investigation confirmed this. In a statement to The Times, Mr. Preysman said that the company had “urgent work to do to rewrite Everlane’s code of ethics”. He added that Everlane would be hiring a Black board member and senior leadership team member, and rolling out anti-racism training.
Against this backdrop, some employees slated the company’s fatphobic policies, after Everlane actively resisted calls to cater for plus-size customers. Two employees recited an incident in which the founder and CEO, Michael Preysman, suggested telling a man asking the brand to expand their size range to XXL that he should lose weight. Preysman also alleged that there was no money in larger sizes, a disproven claim. Customer service representatives said they received daily questions about more inclusive sizing, but were instructed to reply that they were working on it and had forwarded their concern to the appropriate department – a department that didn’t exist.
Only time will tell if Everlane can repair its unethical image.
Ethics, though, are not limited to people; we must be kind to the planet too. This is something Everlane can get behind: “we all leave an impact on the planet, so we should all play a part in cleaning up our footprint. Businesses especially must help lead the way”. On the surface, Everlane lives up to its promise with an ever-increasing range of environmentally friendly products and long-term goals.
In 2018, Everlaned launched a “no new plastic” campaign which pledged to eliminate virgin plastic in its supply chain entirely by 2021, from product to packaging. As of October 2020, it has transitioned 90% of its apparel materials that contained synthetic plastic. In its place are ReNew and ReKnit, two materials derived from “plastic water bottles, fishing nets, and other items destined for the waste stream”. 45% of Everlane’s footwear components are now made from recycled materials, and they have switched out virgin plastic shipping bags to recyclable, renewed versions. While commendable, recycled plastic isn’t without its problems. As I have previously explored, recycled polymers shed toxic microfibres and risk increasing demand for virgin plastic.
Everlane’s use of certified organic cotton – a pesticide-free fibre – also has potential. Looking forward, Everlane promise to source 100% GOTS certified organic cotton by 2023. Like virtually every fibre, organic cotton isn’t perfect and is a very thirsty crop. Trusted brand rating app, Good On You, marked Everlane down due to a lack of evidence it implements many water reduction initiatives in its supply chain.
There is one worth mentioning, however. Everlane’s denim factory recycles 98% of wastewater, which it boasts is “clean enough to drink”. 85% of its jeans are air-dried, while the solar-powered factory saves 5.3 million Kilowatt hours of energy a year. Equally of note is Everlane’s carbon-neutral sneakers which are derived from recycled plastic, recycled rubber and Leather Working Group audited leather. While some would dismay at the use of animal products, others would question the effectiveness of carbon offsetting. Perhaps more promising is the Forever Sneaker, a fully recyclable trainer which retails at £60. Once worn out, you simply send your shoes back to Everlane who take care of the recycling process.
While the above list seems impressive, it is teetering on the tokenistic edge. Everlane are very quick to flaunt specific products and collections in their flashy marketing campaigns, but it’s not representative of their entire product line. Everlane don’t use innovative sustainable materials extensively. Organic cotton is currently a novelty, not a given, though I’ll be glad to see them phase out virgin plastic completely.
Materials aside, Everlane do attempt to adopt the principles of slow fashion by encouraging mindful consumption and an investment in high-quality, long-lasting pieces. Everlane are “not big on trends” and design pieces to be worn “for years, even decades, to come”. And, sure, at first glance, they sell neutral, minimalistic looking clothes. Clothes that are easy to mix and match, or dress up and down. But there are currently over 1,800 products listed on its website, which is higher than I’d expect for an ethical brand.
When researching one of their t-shirts, Everlane’s product page kindly informed me that “13 people are looking at this item right now”. This pressurising tactic mirrors that of fashion e-tailers like Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing. It makes items seem more in demand, at risk of selling out and guaranteed to make you fit in. I’m always weary of brands who try to convince me to buy stuff I don’t really need.
So… is Everlane ethical?
The short answer: no.
Beyond the buzzwords and the earth-toned colour palette, the recyclable sneakers and price breakdowns, there’s not much left to substantiate Everlane’s ethical claim. Everlane have a long way to go if they want to certify their promise of radical transparency. For everything they do tell us, there’s 10 more things they are yet to disclose. They need to publish their wages, cut back on the greenwashing and focus on implementing their sustainability innovations supply-chain wide. They need to remedy the wrongs that only came to light after fired union members and The Ex Wives Club worked tirelessly to unravel Everlane’s ethical façade.
When “ethical” is an unregulated claim, we need more than vague sustainability commitments, staged photos of happy employees or tokenistic advertising campaigns.
It’s time for Everlane to put their money where their mouth is.