Today’s clothing industry has largely become a world of fast fashion, with consumers bombarded by inexpensive, largely disposable apparel and accessories designed to be purchased cheaply, worn briefly, and then discarded. Consuming vast amounts of water and power, and generating enormous waste, the fashion industry has been labeled one of the world’s top polluters.
Everlane founder and CEO Michael Preysman has made it a top priority to shift that reality by offering well-crafted, high-quality clothing that’s sustainably sourced and manufactured. The San Francisco–based company waited six years to produce its first pair of jeans — holding out for an ethical manufacturer that recycles 98% of the water used in the production process. Last summer, Everlane introduced a clean-silk line of shirts made in an energy-efficient factory with chemical-free dyes. And in 2018 Preysman committed to removing all virgin (new) plastic from the company’s supply chain, stores, and offices by 2021. He hopes that as Everlane grows, so too will its ability to influence and educate consumers, contribute to cultural change, and pave the way for more brands to operate sustainably.
Raised in Sunnyvale, California, Preysman graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in computer engineering and economics. After a brief stint working in finance, he launched Everlane in 2011, at the age of 25. Today, in addition to his public stance on sustainability, he’s hailed as a pioneer in retail transparency, providing customers with information on product origins and the costs of material, labor, and transportation.
Preysman spoke at the 2019 Conradin von Gugelberg Memorial lecture series, started by the Stanford GSB Class of 1987 in memory of their classmate and geared toward fostering environmental responsibility. Preysman discussed his commitment to “radical transparency,” the tough choices that entails, and why it’s so hard to build a sustainable sneaker.
Preysman began his career in private equity but soon found himself questioning that path.
“I’d had that nagging feeling for more than six months,” he says. “I wrote down all the people I admired in this world, and it turned out I admired the people who sat around the table where I worked as people, but not from a career perspective. I thought, ‘OK, I can make a ton of money here, but is this what I want to be doing with my life?’ That was the decision point that made me realize I didn’t want to be in the financial world anymore and that I wanted to start something.”
Connecting with Customers
Everlane was conceived after Preysman saw a disconnect between fashion retailers and consumers, most of whom have no idea where their clothing is made or why a T-shirt can cost as little as $10 or as much as $100.
At Everlane, “We said, ‘Why don’t we just start with a basic T-shirt, the most classic element of one’s wardrobe, and then do that in the most honest way possible, being transparent with customers about what it cost to make and, therefore, what value they were getting,’” he recalls. “People want truth. There’s a lack of trust, and I think we very much felt that in the world and we wanted to figure out our way of dealing with it.”
The Challenge of Radical Transparency
Within three months of launch, Everlane was providing customers with pricing transparency, followed by factory transparency in 2013 in the wake of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 workers.
“That’s when we realized that transparency was our form of communication with the customer,” Preysman says.
But transparency in theory becomes far more complicated in practice when customer needs run into conflicting issues of cost, sustainability, and geopolitical concerns. The best cashmere, for example, may cost more due to tariffs. A factory with traceable sourcing might be located in a politically volatile region, threatening its reliability — and, in turn, the brand’s reputation.
“Transparency gives value and builds trust with the customer and leads to the right decision in the long term, but it makes it harder in the short term,” says Preysman. “For us, it means getting ahead of the issues and being transparent about them, but also being really thoughtful about which things we want to do.”
Balance Near- and Long-Term Goals
As Preysman works to eradicate all virgin plastic from Everlane’s supply chain by 2021, he continues to search for additional ways the company can help reduce global carbon-emission levels.
“We use a lot of cotton and we use a lot of leather, so those are places we can play,” he says. “A lot of what we’re doing centers around renewing materials. We use renewed plastic, but we’re also doing re-wool, re-cotton, and re-cashmere. These take an existing product and give it a second life, which has a dramatically lower carbon footprint.”
He continues: “Sometimes you have to do the easy things, and then you’ve got to play the long game at the same time.”
Be Prepared for Hard Choices
Walking the line between customer satisfaction and organizational ethics is a delicate balancing act with few sure-fire steps — as evidenced by the challenges Everlane encountered incorporating footwear into its product line. Customers tend to prefer lightweight sneakers, which generally require the use of virgin petroleum-based materials like EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate). But swapping those out for sustainable materials would increase the shoe’s weight, while leather, manufactured with chemicals and other hazardous substances, is environmentally problematic. The market has not offered up attractive, bio-based vegan options. What’s more, sneakers, with their multiple components stitched and glued together, are nearly impossible to recycle successfully and as a result wind up in landfills.
“So the question is, do we play in that field or not,” says Preysman. “We’ve chosen to, but we have this debate all the time: The customer wants something on some level, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. So what’s our role in that? I don’t know the answer.”
For now, Everlane’s response is to stay focused on steady progress.
“People we admire, the folks at Whole Foods, say you draw a line in the sand every year and then you operate above that line. Then you try to get to the next line. So we’re constantly moving that line forward, but it’s a long path to get to zero impact.”
Fight the Greenwashing
Greenwashing, or disseminating false or misleading information to paint a more environmentally friendly public image, is a prevalent practice among clothing manufacturers and other businesses. It’s an approach Preysman rejects out of hand.
“I don’t want to run that kind of business,” he says. “We don’t make stances until we can commit to them. When people go out there and say, ‘All our cotton is going to be sustainable to 2030’ — I’m sorry, but that’s dishonest. That’s not what we’re going to do.”