Behind the Label: Alternative Apparel

How “alternative” is Alternative Apparel?

Alternative Apparel is often marketed as an alternative to mass-market brands – a line of high-quality basics “inspired by and created for free-thinking people everywhere,” with product names like the “V-Gan Organic V-Neck” and the “Eco-Streaky Bellflower Tunic.”

But dig deeper and you’ll find that apart from the earthy branding, there’s not much that’s very “alternative” about Alternative Apparel at all. Between the company’s vague marketing-speak, round-about answers to customer questions, and misleading Social Responsibility page, it’s near impossible to decipher whether the company’s practices are truly better than, well, the alternatives.

Founded in 1995, Alternative Apparel produces casual clothing and accessories with a quality vintage feel. According to its website, each item embodies the company’s “commitment to comfort, craftsmanship, community and authenticity.” Though the company sells online and in stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and Macy’s, only 5 percent of its sales volume goes directly to consumers, while the remaining 95 percent of product is directed to wholesale/ASI/brand accounts, said founder Greg Alterman in a 2010 interview.

The Good

In 1997, Alternative Apparel launched Alternative Earth, promoted as a sustainable line of products set apart by its “earth-friendly production.” Products in the line are made from organic cotton, recycled polyester, and “man-made fibers derived from sustainable raw materials such as rayon,” and they’re finished with low-impact dyes, natural wash methods, biodegradable fabric softeners, and natural enzymes. A portion of Alternative Earth sales is said to benefit environmental organizations and charities, though no information about that philanthropy is available online.

In the initial press release for the line, Alterman said:

Our philosophy for Alternative Earth is simple: Make a difference with what you wear… Alternative is working to make a difference by enabling our consumer to wear their favorite tees, while being mindful of Mother Earth at the same time.

Alternative Apparel publishes its factory vendor guidelines, which the company says are in line with the Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct, on its Social Responsibility page. The company states that many of its factories have Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) certification, and that Alternative Apparel places ethics as a priority in vendor selection:

The first elements we consider when selecting a vendor is their ability to meet our social compliance standards and the quality of their products … Typically, there are only certain geographic areas of the world that can meet our production needs. We head to those areas and search for vendors that exceed our expectations and requirements. If a factory does not meet our social compliance standards from the very beginning, we don’t even consider them. After that, we base or search on the quality of the goods and the efficiency with which they can be produced.

The Bad

While Alternative Apparel’s Social Responsibility page aims to provide information about the company’s sustainability and ethics, the language used is vague at best, and potentially misleading. Take, for example, the information provided about Alternative Earth fabrics. We’re familiar with organic cotton, but what exactly are “Eco-Heather” and “Eco-Fleece”? The product page copy doesn’t reveal much, but when you click on the small Q&A button on some of the product pages, the story starts to unfold.

In the Q&A for the Eco-Heather Slouchy Pullover, for instance, you find that Eco-Heather is a blend of 50% Polyester (6.25% recycled), 38% cotton (6.25% organic), and 12% naturally-occurring rayon. Depending on whether the percentages in parentheses refer to the percentage of each fabric or the percentage of the whole, that’s between 5.475% and 12.5% of the textile that is made from organic or recycled material.

And according to the Q&A for the Color Block Maniac Sweatshirt, Eco-Fleece has a similar make-up: 50% Polyester (6.25% recycled), 46% cotton (6.25% organic), and 4% rayon, for a grand total of 6% to 12.5% organic or recycled material.

So it turns out that these “eco” fabrics are only about 10 percent composed of materials that can be considered environmentally-preferable… and no, we don’t buy the story that rayon is an eco-friendly textile just because it is manufactured from plant fiber.

But at least Alternative Apparel’s cotton products are organic… right?

Q: Is Alternative’s cotton certified organic? A: Yes. Anything in our line stating it is 100% Organic Cotton is certified organic cotton, produced pesticide-free. We keep copies of the organic certificates on file.

A search in Alternative Apparel’s online store, though, reveals that less than ten products are stated as being 100% organic cotton, so really, that answer is misleading. Since only a handful of products state that they are 100% organic cotton, the vast majority of cotton used in Alternative Apparel garments is not organic.

Alternative Apparel’s confusing statements and lack of transparency apply to its production processes as well. In the Q&A for the 3/4-Sleeve Raglan Henley, the simple question, “Where was this manufactured?” received the following round-about response:

Typically, our clothing is made in the United States; however, we cannot guarantee that this shirt will always be made there. Thanks!

Okay. The Social Responsibility page offers slightly more information.

We make our products in locations and factories all over the world, including the United States, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Indonesia and China. All of our Alternative Earth products originate from Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Alternative Apparel assures us, though, that its vendors “pay employees, as a floor, at least the required minimum wage.” But according to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, minimum wages in many of these countries amount to far less than a living wage: about $36-67/month in Vietnam, $60-$123/month in Indonesia, and $136/month in the Dominican Republic.

And although Alternative Apparel assures us that its vendors comply with high ethical standards – “many” are WRAP-certified, after all – the company refuses to share its vendor list or offer information about its sourcing and operations, citing a need for protection.

We have decided not to publish our vendor list to protect ourselves from competitors, not because of any social compliance concerns. We’re proud of the working conditions of our factories, and we are huge advocates for operational transparency. However, we want to protect ourselves from anyone out there who might attempt to go straight to our vendors. We’ve put in enough time with them that we feel strongly that we have the right to protect ourselves in this regard.

It’s an interesting excuse for opaqueness, but we’re not quite sure it’s one we buy.

The Questionable

In its branding and its messaging, Alternative Apparel attempts to position itself as a label for the conscientious consumer. By throwing out grand platitudes like, “We at Alternative take our responsibility to the community seriously,” and, “We can all make a difference with what we wear,” consumers are expected to believe that Alternative Apparel’s actions reflect its words.

However, evidence of Alternative Apparel’s social responsibility is scant, and claims of eco-friendliness amount to little more than greenwashing. A fabric that is composed of 10 percent recycled and organic material can not responsibly be labeled an “eco” fabric. The answer to the question, “Is Alternative’s cotton certified organic?” is “No” if you look at the brand’s entire product line. And tip-toeing around the question of where a particular product is manufactured does not inspire confidence in the ethical nature of the production process.

If Alternative Apparel truly wants to design clothing for “free-thinking people,” it should be prepared when those people ask questions and hold the company accountable for its practices. At the very least, Alternative Apparel should back up its eco-branding with open, honest information about where its products come from.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.