Is Everlane ethical?
I’ve received lots of questions about Everlane’s rating on Good on You over the past few months. This is my response.
What is Good On You?
Good on You is a popular app that rates companies along a scale of 1-5 according to a fixed rubric, measuring environmental impact, labor rights, and animal welfare.
As a general rule, Good on You is a good resource, not just because it makes an effort to provide consistent measurements across the industry, but because of its scope: it covers both brands marketed as ethical and conventional brands with the same rating system.
But there are a few gaps in the rating system that make it more subjective than it looks, and nowhere is this more obvious than with Everlane.
Everlane’s Rating on Good on You
Everlane receives 2/5 stars or a “Not Good Enough” rating on Good on You.
Before you mistake this piece as an impassioned defense of Everlane, let me say this: Good on You isn’t wrong that there are gaps in Everlane’s ethics. And they’re also not wrong in ranking them lower than a fair trade darling like People Tree. After all, until recently, they had made few public strides toward offering garments made with eco-friendly processes or sustainable fibers (though, it should be noted, now they have both Clean Denim – recently fair trade certified – and Silk lines). And, in spite of the “radically transparent” branding, they haven’t released detailed, comprehensive data on factory conditions. Consumers, in many cases, have to take their word for it.
But a potential flaw in Good on You’s ranking system is that it can only measure what it can see. In the case of Everlane, a lack of specific public data skews their ranking downward, which means a cursory glance at the rating would lead you to believe they’re as bad as Nike, despite never having been in the news for horrific sweatshop conditions. As in all brand claims, I could be biting my tongue in a few years if a story breaks that Everlane is up to no good, but it would still be problematic to claim that Everlane is “as bad” as a company like Nike without any substantive evidence to back it up.
A Scale-First Model
I have watched Everlane‘s every move with caution over these past few years. I know bloggers who, in their growing interest in sustainability, have stopped supporting them. But I also know that hundreds, even thousands, of newbies to the concept of sustainable, ethical fashion got here because of Everlane.
And that’s because Everlane decided to scale first.
What do I mean by this? While Everlane has had clear “ethics-y” language since the beginning, they didn’t have all of their sustainability ducks in a row by any means. And, though they won’t admit it, I think during the middle part of their growth, they used factories in Asia that probably weren’t that great (I gleaned this by the lack of information about them on their website during that time).
Instead of engaging directly with questions about textiles sourcing, they plugged away at it until they could build the scale – and subsequently, the impact – to make bigger changes. When you’re working in the global fashion industry, and operating at a sustainable scale, creating a good that ticks all the boxes of ethics, sustainability, and quality is difficult. And that quality part matters, because you can’t sustain a business without it, even if you’re sending lots of poor kids to school through your programming, or training trafficking survivors to sew (this is a tangent, but I tend to stay away from companies who do this, because they don’t put enough resources into training, and the clothes are often wonky).
True sustainability must always, always include good business practices and an ability to scale in a measured way. So Everlane took the extraordinarily pragmatic approach of building out their business model before writing a detailed “Our Ethical Standards” page. Unlike most of us in this space, they didn’t lead with their idealism.
Idealism vs. Pragmatism
And I think this is what trips people up.
We are a crowd of idealists and dreamers who insist on hard lines when it comes to ethics.
And this is important! We can’t demand more without knowing when lines are crossed.
But there’s also something to be said for pragmatism. Take the unfortunate circumstances UK-based fair trade company, Traidcraft, finds themselves in. Due to marketplace anxiety caused primarily by the Brexit decision, Traidcraft is no longer able to sustain fair trade wages for their artisans at the scale they’re used to. So, instead of restructuring, they’re opting to close the retail side of operations.
We have a system of beliefs that we do not compromise and we take the consequences of that.
On its face, this is great. But what is the practical consequence of refusing to change in the face of closure? Will these artisans lose so much business that they would have been better off settling for a lower wage until the market recovers? Sometimes, refusing to change your structuring because of ideological purity means destroying infrastructure your people have come to rely on. And this is not, in any scenario, ethical. Why couldn’t Traidcraft make a smaller purchase order or temporarily reduce wages in conversation with their artisan partners?
Those of us on the consumer advocacy side of ethical fashion often think in simplistic dichotomies: choose this over this. This is ethical, that is not.
But the marketplace is full of moral ambiguity, and this means that often we are not choosing between a good choice and a bad choice.
We’re choosing between business structures that, because of their differentiated priorities, are more equipped to achieve certain goods and ignore others.
I recently attended a dinner party with an architect who builds low-resource schools for rural communities, primarily in southern Africa. In a conversation with famed ethicist Peter Singer, he asked this question:
“How do we choose the right way forward?”
Singer replied that, more often than not, when choosing between two systems or organizations, we are choosing between two evils, i.e. two structures that were not built with ethics in mind and do not require ethics to sustain themselves. In a sense, we’re asking the wrong question.
But we must make our choice anyway, pragmatically, thoughtfully, and with an eye toward the long term.
So, on its surface, choosing a small artisan brand may feel more right, but we have to consider its potential for impact and its long term financial viability. Maybe I’m just burnt out, but I have partnered with so many brands who had all the right credentials but went out of business in two years because they didn’t have any business acumen, and they were unwilling to make the sacrifices they needed to make to endure. In the long run, this may have caused MORE harm to the communities they sought to impact, because they made them reliant and then pulled out the rug.
Maybe we’re looking at “pure” morality versus moral relativism the wrong way.
If I make a choice that doesn’t rank well on Good on You, it doesn’t mean I did it because I’m weak-willed. It means that my sense of the long view ruled out my commitment to short term change. It means that I knew that any choice I made wasn’t going to be “right,” but I needed to make the best choice anyway.
This is decidedly less sexy, and we are not at all trained to think in this way (if you question this, just turn on the news).
Everlane is just an example. Take them or leave them. The point is that we can’t tick off some boxes and be done with it, because ethics are complicated and no system was built to address them equally. Because people and the political empires they build are full of moral nuance and differentiated priorities, but we must make choices anyway.
I hold in me a paradox of wanting every day to feel like the “I Have a Dream” speech and knowing that the dream is just the beginning. That measured progress means compromise, and that sometimes the business that survives is not going to win Miss Congeniality in the ethical beauty pageant.
What do we do with this? We make our choice anyway, pragmatically, thoughtfully, and with an eye toward the long term.
So is Everlane ethical? In many ways, yes. But, as with all things, we’ll keep our eyes open.
To read my follow-up post with answers from Everlane, click here.