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Jobs + Skills11.25.14

Shifting To Slow Fashion, Mid-Sized Companies Succeed

Consumers keep saying they want to feel good about their purchases, but these conscious mid-market commerce startups prove it better than large brand names.

Which would you prefer: a closet full of new threads or a few items selected on the basis of how sustainably they were manufactured?

Apparently we are a nation that wants both. As recently as 2012, Americans were adding to their wardrobes at the rate of 64 garments per year, according to Elizabeth Cline, the author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” Yet more than half (59 percent) of these same consumers claim it’s “very important” that the products they purchase are not made in dangerous or unfair conditions, and the overwhelming majority (94 percent) said that the way workers are treated is important to them, a National Consumers League poll found.

It’s now on retailers to decide where to position themselves. For some, serving up trends and turning stock rapidly necessitates sourcing cheap materials and labor. For a growing number of others, an emphasis on ethics and transparency from design table to store shelves is tantamount. Then it’s up to the consumer to decide whether they are going to put their money where there mouth is.

Given the recent struggles of several mid-sized fast fashion chains, it would seem like customers are serious about sustainability.

Teen mall retailer Aeropostale has a Vendor Code of Conduct that requires its manufacturing partners to treat employees fairly and provide safe working conditions. Even so, the cost for most of its apparel and accessories is meant to be affordable to those on a babysitter’s salary. Those two things should have combined to make the chain a runaway success. However, after sailing through the recession, Aeropostale’s balance sheet has taken a plunge and its stock has followed.

American Apparel has long relied on the fact that it operates one factory in Los Angeles to manufacture its clothing and accessories. Despite it’s proud claim to being “Made in America,” the company has been plagued with financial woes for more than four years and the tarnished reputation of its skeezy founder/CEO Dov Charney hasn’t helped the balance sheet one bit. The company continues to flounder, even after the board showed him the door.

On the other hand, retailers such as Zady and Everlane are completely eschewing the chain store model, focusing instead on conscious commerce sold almost exclusively online.

In the case of Everlane, all of the startup e-tailer’s marketing efforts begin with the directive: “Know your factories.” From there, the apparel company strives to make what can be an often murky supply chain at other retailers into one that is simple and clear. This “radical transparency” is set to see growth in the 2.5x range according to a report in the LA Times.

As for Zady, the year-old e-commerce company was founded to facilitate sales of products consumers can feel good about. As I reported last year, the site has an interactive page that takes visitors across a map of the world, dropping a pin in each place an item originates. Every product is marked with an icon to denote why “it’s special,” meaning handmade, made in the U.S. or sourced and manufactured in the same or nearby location.

Now the company has launched a new initiative called The “Sourced In” Movement to further the “Made In…” tag found on clothing, to expose the entire supply chain with video and photos of the processes.  Zady’s also drafted a We The People petition to have the U.S. government mandate that all products sold in the country provide supply chain details with a new “Sourced In” tag.

Would your company be open to offering this kind of supply chain transparency to customers?

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