Everlane is one of the first major companies in the sustainable fashion sphere, having been founded in 2010 (back when it was still common to shop at fast fashion brands and buy clothing “for fun” with no qualms). Often touted by fashion influencers, the company is probably the most popular and mainstream “ethical” clothing brand.
When it comes to marketing, Everlane does everything right: they feature diverse models (in age, size, and ethnicity), show photos and locations of their factories, and break down the production cost and markup of each item. The clothing itself is also drool-worthy, featuring timeless and minimalistic silhouettes that somehow also feel trendy (I’m about to share some not-so-great things about Everlane, but I’m still tempted to buy their clothes because they’re so aesthetic).
Everlane claims to be “radically transparent,” ethical, and high-quality—which are some pretty big claims. In the era of greenwashing though, is Everlane actually as ethical and sustainable as they say? Here’s what you should know.
An example of Everlane’s website messaging—they claim to be “radically transparent,” but are they really?
What is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion?
Let’s first define what “ethical” and “sustainable” means when it comes to fashion.
Ethical: In the fashion world, this means paying your workers fairly and treating them well throughout the supply chain (from materials suppliers to factory to retail). Companies should also avoid mistreatment of animals (and generally avoid animal products) in their production process.
Sustainable: This means minimizing environmental impact, through production and sourcing of materials. Sustainable fashion companies should:
- Use resources efficiently (like water and textiles) and avoid hazardous chemicals
- Source high-quality, environmentally-friendly materials that can break down naturally (like organic cotton or hemp)
- Encourage consumers to only buy what they need
When it comes to fashion, “ethical” and “sustainable” are generally umbrella terms to mean that the company treats their workers well and minimizes environmental impact throughout the production process. These two terms are used pretty interchangeably, though they do mean different things.
Keep in mind that sustainable fashion is a two-way street—it’s a common misconception that if you buy from a sustainable clothing company, your actions are automatically sustainable. This is certainly not the case; for clothing to be truly sustainable, you should also limit your consumption to what you truly need, and make your clothes last for as long as possible. It’s not sustainable if you buy an excessive amount of clothing that you never wear, even if you donate it (most donated clothing ends up being thrown away). This is why “sustainable” clothing hauls make me upset, because that’s totally contradictory! (Here are some other sustainable fashion mistakes to avoid).
To be clear: I’m not judging anyone who wasn’t aware of these misconceptions, and I’m certainly not perfect myself. I’m unhappy mostly because I feel that a lot of “sustainable fashion” promotion is motivated by profit (the companies themselves and the influencers sharing the brands). As a result, the clothing is not sustainable because it leads to overconsumption, even if it was made sustainably. Sustainable fashion has just as much to do with your mindset and consumption as it does how the clothing was made.
Companies also need to be held accountable for their messaging (Patagonia does this well, and literally tells consumers not to buy unless they need to). And that’s what we’ll be examining in this post: whether Everlane’s actions hold up to its message of “radical transparency.”
An example of the kinds of clothes sold at Everlane.
Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?
The answer to this question isn’t black or white—while Everlane does have some cool sustainability measures, it also has some pretty serious issues. To be completely fair, I’ll go over both the good and bad things about Everlane.
Good Things About Everlane
Everlane is often credited as pioneering the sustainable fashion movement, being one of the first mainstream ethical fashion brands, likely because its prices are relatively affordable compared to those of other ethical brands (you can get a t-shirt for $18, which isn’t terrible, and their sale prices are also pretty decent). This is cool because it makes ethical fashion more accessible. Their pieces are also timeless styles that are generally said to be good quality, which helps consumers view their purchases as long-term wardrobe staples.
The company pledges to eliminate new plastic in their supply chain by 2021, by replacing synthetic materials with renewed alternatives, substituting virgin plastic poly bags with renewed versions, and eliminating single-use plastic from offices and stores (like food packaging and utensils). It already has a few items made from recycled plastic bottles (though you do have to be careful with products like these, as microplastics can easily leech into our water supply).
100% of Everlane’s Black Friday profits are donated to environmental initiatives. In 2019, the chosen organization was Oceana, which is dedicated to protecting the ocean from environmental threats, like plastic pollution. Oceana is currently working to end single-use plastic through lobbying lawmakers and educating voters.
Everlane’s denim factory recycles 98% of its water, uses alternative energy, and repurposes its byproducts. Jeans are air-dried, the washing system reuses its water, and the factory is powered by solar panels. The toxic byproduct “sludge” is shipped to a nearby brick factory and mixed with concrete to be made into bricks, where the “sludge” can no longer damage the environment. The bricks then used to build affordable homes. Their denim is manufactured through Saitex, a factory that is a certified B corp, and is Bluesign and Fair Trade certified. Other companies such as J.Crew, Madewell, Target, and Ralph Lauren also have denim lines manufactured at Saitex.
The company has carbon-neutral sneakers made with recycled plastics and leather made in a tannery audited by the Leather Working Group. This organization evaluates businesses based on their “environmental compliance and performance capabilities,” and aims to promote sustainable practices. One may argue that truly ethical and sustainable companies wouldn’t use animal products at all, which is fair. So, this could be seen as a good and bad thing—good that the leather is third-party certified, bad that they’re using leather in the first place. The website also says that they verified with two third-party firms to calculate the carbon footprint of the sneakers and offset their emissions, but doesn’t name the firms, so this is a little ambiguous.
A price breakdown found on the Everlane website.
Bad Things About Everlane
According to Good On You, a site that rates retailers based on their environmental impact, Everlane’s measures are “not good enough.” Here’s why:
- No evidence that Everlane minimizes textile and water waste in the production process (my note: this is other than in its denim factory, and even then, major retailers that don’t claim to be totally sustainable brands also have denim lines manufactured at Saitex).
- No evidence it pays a living wage in its supply chain; it also sources labor from countries at high risk of labor abuse.
- Uses leather, wool, exotic animal hair in their products.
That said, Good On You also rates fast fashion retailer H&M better than Everlane, which doesn’t make a lot of sense—we have to take a closer look than one rating.
According to a video by Levi Hildebrand, a sustainability YouTuber, here are some other not-so-great things about Everlane (the video is embedded below, and I encourage you to watch it!).
- No third-party verification as a company. Everlane is not a B Corp, not 1% for the Planet, not Fair Trade, and doesn’t have any textile certification like Bluesign. This is extremely important, as without third-party verification, you can make whatever claims you want, and no one will know any better. My note: only two specific products (their denim and carbon-neutral sneakers) have some sort of certification.
- Doesn’t use innovative, sustainable materials extensively, such as organic cotton (they do have some tees, but that’s it), tencel, and hemp.
- Basically none of Everlane’s factories are verified. They do list many on their website, but it’s unclear if there are more; the ones listed also often have very vague names, like “The Loafer Factory.”
A list of Everlane’s factories on their website; while some are named, others have very generic names like “The Leather Bag Factory.”
Everlane has also been the subject of labor and union controversies in the US. For several years, the company capped the hours of the customer service team so they didn’t need to provide health insurance and benefits. The team was hoping to unionize in December 2019 to better negotiate pay (they earn $16/hour) and schedules. Management discouraged the team from doing so, claiming that joining a union could “forfeit your right to deal directly with us to resolve issues. 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.” These claims were misleading, as union contracts allow employees to decide how much they want the union involved, and bargaining committees are made up of both union reps and employees.
Recently, the large majority of the same customer service team was laid off during the coronavirus pandemic (the remaining employees were made full-time). According to an anonymous union committee member, they had reached out asking management to recognize their union, as 60% of the team was in favor of it. Then, four days later, most of them were laid off. It looked so suspiciously like union-busting that even Bernie Sanders got involved on Twitter, calling on Everlane to bring the workers back and recognize the union. The Everlane founder responded, saying that the decision was brought due to loss in profits, and not union-busting. Many Everlane employees object to this reasoning, as they’d received internal emails about how online sales were up 32%. They also say that the company had constantly reassured them there wouldn’t be layoffs (outside of the furloughed retail team). On top of that, there was no advance notice—members of the team tried logging into their accounts, and found that they could no longer get in.
Everlane founder Michael Preysman later issued a statement, saying that the company had suffered loss in profits, and needed to make cuts. He eliminated his own salary, and executives also took 25% pay cuts, but they still needed to reduce expenses. It’s normal for companies to have to make tough decisions during the pandemic. That said, the lack of empathy and transparency towards the laid off employees is really upsetting, especially for a company that prides itself on being “ethical” and “transparent.” If Everlane treats its American employees in a shady manner (capping hours to avoid providing insurance, providing misinformation on unions, laying off despite reassurances there wouldn’t be layoffs), then how do they treat their overseas workers?
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 28, 2020
The Bottom Line
All of the not-so-good things make me incredibly uneasy about Everlane. They claim radical transparency, but have no evidence to back up their claims. Having no third-party verification is especially concerning, as a lot of the info on their website is hand-wavy, such as the list of factories that often aren’t explicitly named.
They also are quick to flaunt specific products that sound incredibly sustainable, such as their denim and carbon-neutral sneakers. But beyond these items, there isn’t a lot of info about how eco-friendly their pieces are. It seems like they’re using the denim and sneakers as “token” ethical products and trying to pawn off that image for the rest of their items (kind of like getting the only person of color in a company image and claiming that your workspace is “diverse”).
Everlane’s labor union controversy also illustrates that they aren’t honest with their employees, and willing to implement policies to help their margins at the expense of their workers’ livelihoods.
For these reasons, I dislike Everlane a lot. They’re basically guilty of greenwashing, which is marketing yourself as ethical and eco-friendly when you actually aren’t. Of course, they probably are still better environmentally than fast fashion, but it’s misleading and unethical to makes such extravagant claims of “radical transparency” only to fall incredibly short of them.
What Now? + Everlane Alternatives
If you love Everlane and feel disappointed now, that’s totally understandable. If you still think that Everlane is doing the best they can, I respectfully disagree. Yes—sustainable fashion is incredibly complex from both a business and consumer perspective (like I said, I readily admit I’m not perfect), but I believe Everlane can do much, much better, and they should be open about that and stop misleading customers with hand-wavy claims. They should also treat their employees with the radical transparency they plaster all over their marketing materials.
If you’re wondering where to get eco-friendly clothing now that Everlane isn’t as ethical as you thought, here are my tips:
- Always ask yourself first if you really need what you’re looking at (I actually have only bought one item of clothing since December 2019, and I’m super proud of this!). If you do need an item of clothing though, ask yourself if can buy what you’re looking for secondhand.
- If you can’t get it used, look for companies on Good On You, and make sure it’s third-party certified. Everlane is a prime example of why it’s super important to do extra research to verify sustainability claims, beyond a company’s website. For example, Kotn is a brand with a similar aesthetic to Everlane, but it’s a certified B Corp.
- Regardless of what you buy, do your best to make that clothing last. Sustainable fashion does often have a barrier to entry, and if you can’t afford it, treating your clothing well and only buying what you need are ways to still live sustainably.
I hope this post was helpful in explaining why Everlane is not as ethical and sustainable as most people believe. To be clear, I’m not judging people who buy Everlane; I’m judging Everlane for being misleading. If you want to continue buying Everlane, that’s your call. I understand that the world is a complicated place, and it’s hard to be 100% ethical (and sometimes you just really, really want that jumpsuit). I really hope you won’t continue to support Everlane though, and I know they certainly will not be getting any of my money. The point of this post is just to provide the resources to help you make as informed a decision as possible.
If you want to help the Everlane employees that were laid off without warning during the pandemic, there’s a Gofundme to support their living expenses, as some of them are having trouble making ends meet. I personally have donated $50 to this fundraiser and hope you’ll consider contributing if you have the means.
If you want to learn more about sustainable fashion, see my post on 7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion.