Where to Find Sustainably and Ethically Made Apparel? Ask Project JUST

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Last month, I came across an article on Medium about Ivanka Trump’s fashion line and a group of six researchers’ attempt to unravel the supply chain behind the apparel. Sure, the fact that she is the daughter of President Donald Trump may have given the matter its newsworthiness — after all, plenty of celebrities lend their names to clothing lines — but I was curious whether Ivanka’s “women who work” platform extended to employees farther down the supply chain. Do women’s rights to, say, maternity leave, apply to the female factory worker sewing dresses in China or Indonesia — or just to the women buying those dresses?

After more than 60 hours of research and 21 points of contact, the six researchers spread across five countries found nothing in terms of labor, workplace or environmental policies, other than that the apparel line is manufactured in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. The researchers are all from the nonprofit Project JUST, an independent and nonpartisan research team composed of co-founders Natalie Grillon and Shahd AlShehail; two part-time employees; and more than a dozen volunteers.

Information Overload

Project JUST’s website contains a hodgepodge of information, from detailed reports on the supply chain practices of 115 brands to the Seal of Approval (awarded to brands that meet Project JUST’s ethics and sustainability standards) to an “online dictionary” of sustainability-related accreditations, certifications and laws.

The bulk of the research is in the reports on individual brands. To start, I checked out the report on Everlane, a self-described ethical online retailer that I have been buying from for years. Project JUST pointed to Everlane’s product cost breakdowns and photographs of their first-tier and second-tier suppliers as pros, but the cons included not sharing information on specific environmental policies. It is unclear whether Everlane can trace its entire supply chain, but I have yet to find a brand investigated by Project JUST that can — including People Tree, which has the aforementioned Seal of Approval. (Everlane does not.)

After browsing through a number of reports (unlimited access costs $10 a month), I was frankly overwhelmed by all of the miscellaneous information. People Tree does not measure its greenhouse gas emissions, but it was the first clothing company to develop an integrated supply chain for organic cotton “from farm to final product.” Warby Parker has donated 1 million pairs of glasses but does not disclose its suppliers or their locations. Inditex, the parent company of Zara, is implementing a strategic plan for a more sustainable supply chain and ensuring supplier compliance to its Code of Conduct — but as recently as last October, Zara was sourcing from Turkish factories employing Syrian refugees for below minimum wage.

The reports also made me wonder just how ethical purportedly ethical retailers really are. I pride myself on buying from Everlane, but I admit I’ve never bothered to do more than take their sustainability claims at face value. So when I interviewed Grillon to find out more about Project JUST, I was relieved to find that she also buys Everlane. Read on to find out more about Project JUST, which retailers are making progress on supply chain sustainability practices and which ones are not.

A Chat with Natalie Grillon

Spend Matters: The Rana Plaza factory collapse was a big impetus in your and Shahd AlShehail’s decision to found Project JUST. To quote the “Our Story” on your website, not knowing “if the shirts they had put on that morning had been produced in that factory, they realized that they were wearing injustice on their backs.” Did you shop at fast fashion stores before?

Natalie Grillon: Totally. I remember I had a dress from Forever 21 back in college. It fell apart after three wears.

SM: What’s in your closet now?

NG: Reformation, Veja [and] a few Everlane pieces.

SM: Which brands are under investigation now?

NG: We’re updating Warby Parker and Everlane at the moment.

SM: When you investigated the supply chain practices of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, there was pretty much no transparency. Is this typical of the brands you research?

NG: Not really. Usually we at least find some basic policies, [indicating] intention. That said, there are some that are equally opaque — Forever 21 comes to mind.

SM: Intention is better than nothing. Are there large retailers like H&M or Zara that are more ethical than their reputation might suggest? Have you come across “ethical” retailers that turned out not to be quite what they claim?

NG: This is a big question. I suggest checking out our piece coming out later this month on Everlane and how we tried to understand what radical transparency really meant. There are so many factors that go into being "ethical" or "sustainable." It's hard to judge who is more or less when there are so many different things you can work on in your supply chain. That said, I think H&M and Zara are doing a lot compared to other fast fashion brands like Topshop, Forever 21 [or] Aritzia, and I think a lot of "ethical" retailers hide behind good marketing. It's important to ask them questions and hold them accountable just as you would a fast fashion brand. There are a lot of companies that leave a lot to the imagination and use a lot of language around fair ethical practices without giving any evidence of how they actually do it.  I would be cautious of that. Everlane actually came back to us with a ton of data — unexpected and great!

SM: Let’s go back to Rana Plaza for a second. Companies that sourced from that factory all paid lip service to the need for better auditing and more supply chain visibility. Four years later, have any companies’ actions matched their promises?

NG: I'm not an expert in the Bangladesh Accord [on Fire and Building Safety] or the Alliance [for Bangladesh Worker Safety] and who's held up what, but what I can say is that I've heard they're behind on the factory retrofits. And one of the reasons is that brands haven't provided funds to help factory owners fund these upgrades in conditions for workers. Margins are already really tight for factories without these huge capital investments.

SM: How have brands you’ve investigated reacted?

NG: [There hasn’t been any] anger from brands. If anything, it's an impetus for collaboration and increased transparency.

SM: What I find to be one of the coolest features on the website is the Seal of Approval. Project JUST does the research, and busy consumers who care about sustainability and ethical supply chains can know where to shop. Not to mention, you guys sell a $35 basic white tee that boasts a 100% transparent supply chain. Can we expect Project JUST to come out with a clothing line eventually?

NG: Maybe! First things first — get our users more brands and get our research into the hands of more users.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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