Everlane Eliminates Fashion Waste (While Still Serving Up Luxury)

A new e-commerce site redefining what sustainable fashion means.

Sustainable fashion isn’t just about rigorous sourcing and handmade craftsmanship. As much as we might admire a sweater by Edun or a skirt by Organic by John Patrick, most of us who appreciate responsibly made, high-quality clothing make do with scouring resale racks, and the occasional guilty purchase at Target.

But there is a middle ground, where sustainability and affordability collide, and it’s bigger than we think it is. Everlane, a company that was founded in November of 2011, might not market itself as earth-conscious, but their system of manufacturing so radically eliminates the bloat and waste endemic to the fashion industry that it can’t be overlooked.

Before you can understand how drastically Everlane has upended the traditional model of industrial clothing production, you have to understand how the original model works. A traditional clothing designer plans and produces a line around six months in advance, in lots of perhaps 20,000 units apiece. That’s 20,000 skirts, 20,000 shirts and 20,000 pants that have to be designed, sewn, stored and shipped to retailers all over the world. After this herculean feat takes place, the company crosses their fingers and hopes that it all sells – usually at an incredibly inflated price.

This model applies to all the items in a manufacturer’s line, from shoes, to jewelry, to accessories and starts over a year in advance, with occasionally colossal expenditures and no room for error if say, the demand for polka dots or the color chartreuse isn’t as high as originally anticipated. If all those items aren’t sold, it becomes overstock that is sold at a loss to the manufacturer as well as the retailer – or worse, destroyed.

Polyester is made from petroleum; cotton is extremely pesticide-dependent. Dying the fabric creates hundreds of gallons of wastewater and toxic runoff – all for clothes that may just find their way into a dumpster. Many people were horrified to discover that in a world where so many people are cold and unclothed, companies like Wal-Mart and H&M were shredding overstock but isn’t the overstock’s very existence a problem in itself?

That’s where Everlane’s minimalist solution comes in. The company doesn’t build and staff its own factories. They don’t even build or staff their own physical stores. Instead, they contract with already-existing factories that manufacture many other high-end brands and keep their marketplace entirely online. Their clothes are manufactured in runs of five hundred or less and sold exclusively to their subscriber base, which currently stands around 200,000.

Everlane’s line of cool, classic garments with a twist has included everything from bags, to sweatshirts, to accessories like iPhone cases, for both men and women. They keep everything priced under $100 while maintaining exceptionally high quality. If a micro-run of backpacks sells out incredibly fast, then they manufacture more. If not, then the company moves in another direction. “It’s about understanding the consumer, instead of predicting what they’ll like,” says Michael Preysman, Everlane’s co-founder.

The company also tries to unveil a new style every week. Some runs may sell in a month or two; others, like a run of backpacks, sell in less than a day. Less overstock means less storage, fewer associated transportation costs, and perhaps most importantly, fewer processed materials.

By eliminating a lot of the costs associated with starting a clothing line, they’re able to pass on those savings to their customers. A long-sleeved tee shirt that might sell for $75 only costs $20.

“We try to be conscious about everything we do, from office waste to minimal packaging. Avoiding excess is part of our design philosophy, and as an added bonus it’s also usually more cost efficient,” says Preysman.

Avoiding excess is such an obviously sustainable practice that few of us devote any thought to it. We compost our leftovers and wash our reusable bags, but then we shop H&M’s organic collection without thinking about the fact that it probably produces just as much waste – in terms of labor, time and processed materials – as their non-organic counterparts.

Sometimes, the most innovative solutions are hiding in plain sight. Sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive it can, as Preysman points out, simply be a good business plan.

“I think efficiency and sustainability go hand in hand,” Preysman says. “And high quality doesn’t have to be high priced.”