LONDON, United Kingdom — What does it take to shift the entire supply chain for three quarters of your raw materials in the space of three years? Everlane is about to find out.
By 2023, the company is committing to ensure all of its cotton comes from certified organic sources. Later this month, the company will relaunch a selection of its core T-shirt styles — the first products to transition over to Global Organic Textile Standard, or GOTS, certified organic cotton, a widely-respected and stringent standard that requires all products contain a minimum of 95 percent certified organic fibres.
The move is part of an ongoing evolution in the brand’s high-profile commitment to radical transparency. When Everlane first launched in 2011, its focus was on communicating quality and value through price transparency — at the time a radical break from fashion’s traditional model of extreme secrecy. But as political and cultural narratives have shifted over the last decade, the brand has found itself under pressure to keep evolving too.
In 2018, the company said it would eliminate virgin plastic in its supply chain by 2021, but it’s been slow to come out with more public targets or provide updates on progress on its website. Behind the scenes, the company said it has replaced 75 percent of the virgin plastic in its product line with recycled materials and is transitioning from recycled plastic poly bags to paper ones, among other things.
The cotton commitment “is definitely a long time coming,” said Everlane CEO Michael Preysman. But over the coming year, the company is planning to continue rolling out more information about its efforts to tackle its environmental impact. It’s working on setting science-based emissions targets and has invested in analysis to get a more accurate gauge on the footprint of its items. With polyester and cotton the two most widely-used textile fibres globally, Preysman said the company was starting by “trying to target the two biggest issues.”
The shift to organic cotton comes as a growing number of brands are zeroing in on the materials they use in an effort to reduce their negative environmental and social impact. Cotton, one of fashion’s most-used materials, is also among its most problematic. Conventional cotton is generally grown using high volumes of pesticides and insecticides; it's a water-intensive crop that’s coming under mounting scrutiny as climate concerns become more mainstream.
“The brands are getting there’s a sense of urgency around the delivery; we have a decade to deliver,” said La Rhea Pepper, managing director at nonprofit Textile Exchange. “Everyone’s talking about more sustainable practises, more efficient use of water, integrated pest management.”
But shifting to organic isn’t easy. Less than 1 percent of global cotton supply is grown organically, according to Textile Exchange. The fibre’s complex and murky supply chain adds additional challenges for brands who want certainty that they really are getting organic products. Robust certifications like GOTS come with additional expense and stringent requirements across the supply chain.
Most large brands’ commitments to shift to more sustainable cotton currently rely heavily on the Better Cotton Initiative, a programme that has been highly effective in swiftly ramping up volumes and providing access to cotton produced using more sustainable farming practises. However, under the standard, farmers can still use pesticides and genetically-modified seeds.
That falls short of the holy grail of organic and regenerative cotton farming.
“GOTS certified organic is the gold standard,” said Preysman. “Step one is go organic, step two is go regenerative.”
But even to simply shift some of Everlane’s T-shirt production hasn’t been simple. It took around a year for the company to get its sourcing process verified in line with GOTS’ environmental and social standards.
“We had to completely change the entire supply chain,” said Kimberly Smith, Everlane’s chief supply chain officer. That meant rethinking sourcing from the farm level right up to Everlane’s distribution centre. To meet GOTS standards, organic products need to be kept in quarantine to avoid contamination.
It’s a financial commitment too. The premium to shift from conventional cotton to GOTS certified can range from 2 percent to 20 percent, depending on the quality of the cotton desired, Smith said. On the flipside, as Everlane grows, it’s hoping greater scale should allow it to offset higher potential sourcing costs. The company will launch its first GOTS-certified T-shirts on March 24 with no change in the $18 price tag.
This is just the beginning. Everlane will source 1,420 metric tons of cotton this year. It works with 130 different cotton qualities across its clothing line, and is still trying to figure out if it will be possible to replicate all of them using organic fibres.
“This is one program and one fabric so far. We have 100 more to go,” Smith said. “It’s a long journey.”