To Everlane and Orta, Transparency Means Increasing Collaboration, Slowing Innovation

A scene from Saitex, the factory that makes Everlane’s denim.

Given a magic wand and infinite power to change a single issue in the denim industry, Nikki Player, sustainable materials R&D manager at Everlane and Dr. Sedef Uncu Aki, director of Orta Anadolu, would address the same issue from two different angles: better product for a more informed consumer.

“I think sometimes brands really lean into those easier-to-tell, almost sexy, stories” about sustainability and transparency in order to engage and appeal to consumers, Player said. “But how can we as an industry – and I think brands have a really loud voice for this – figure out how to tell those stories that maybe the consumer doesn’t have the framework at their fingertips for? How do you tell a really interesting story about chemicals in a way that resonates?”

Uncu Aki, who heads Orta’s Sustainability and R&D, says that the challenge and opportunity to storytelling around innovation and product is top of mind at Orta.

When they’re developing their new collections, brands approach mills looking for the latest, but not necessarily greatest innovations, Uncu Aki said. “And it’s so sad to see that most of the [sustainable innovations] that you are doing as a company are getting lost in the middle – and most of them are not even in the stores. You don’t see them – and I see this also as a waste. So instead of [brands] asking ‘what’s new?’ every season, I really would like to see [innovation] in a bigger context. What big targets does this company have? And, instead of jumping from one material to another, one process to another, really trying to focus what to do to be really better in that sense.”

One example Uncu Aki gave is brands developing a capsule collection made of 100% recycled cotton “just as a marketing tool” when a more impactful, long-term – though less “sexy” – option would be for a brand to use 20% recycled cotton in its overall mix. A brand selling a million pairs of jeans made with 20% recycled cotton could save 120 million gallons of water, she said. “That’s a huge number… So that’s why we need to have a look at the bigger picture and slow down every season. And we need to instead follow an innovative path that really creates value to the customers.”

Player and Uncu Aki agree that the open and honest exchange of data along the entire supply chain is the way to not only enable transparency for the consumer but to bake true sustainability into products.

“Transparency is the first step in building an honest supply chain,” Player said. “It’s the foundation that you can then build the partnerships and layer on the protocol on throughout the production. It gives you that ability to build in, whether it’s social or environmental, sustainability throughout.”

Uncu Aki advocates for lifecycle assessment data being the new normal for the entire supply chain, for every product. “That way we now can see how the total supply chain is behaving. And you can specifically see the product data related to the all the steps that the product is going through in in the process.” For brands that means being able to use data to compare the performance data from one supplier to another, or one product to another. “Transparency needs to be a science-based collaboration with data going forward,” she said.

Brands having access to detailed, data-based information about fabrics would be a boon for brands trying to develop responsibly and transparently, Player said. We love the idea of each fabric coming with its own spec sheet of what it does for the environment and what it does for social implications from the farm through to leaving the mill,” she said.

Everlane looks “for really high levels of social compliance, innovation and a commitment to environmental sustainability” in its tier one and tier two suppliers, Player said. “We definitely have more formalized protocol around auditing, specifically within social compliance and, at our factories right now than with our mills. But that’s something that I’m personally really excited to change.”

Because brands tend to work with fewer factories than mills, it’s easier to establish more robust protocols and develop long-term partnerships with tier one suppliers, Player said. Additionally, mills and fabrics have been historically viewed as the “easiest trigger to pull” when brands need better costing.

“So historically it’s a lot easier to make commitments to your garment manufacturers and not make commitments to your mills. And I think that’s where we see so much opportunity in really shifting how the industry works,” Player said. When brands make long-term commitments to mills and other members of the supply chain, including farms and raw material suppliers, that stability encourages collaboration and investment in innovation and positive change within the supply chain.

To get to that place of commitment and collaboration with its mills, Everlane has been on an extended fact-finding spree.

“We are really trying to make sure that we understand who we’re buying from and what they place importance on to set a baseline. And then we can work together to kind of set growth plans both for us as a brand and then with the mills that we work with,” Player said.

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