Reforming Our Sense of Sensibility
These days in Los Angeles, you’d be hard-pressed to find an influencer or celebrity without an article of clothing from Reformation in her wardrobe. From Hailey Beiber to Kendall Jenner, Reformation has inspired a near cult-following as celebrities and their followers have become obsessed with the sustainable, ethical, and fashionable brand. Reformation distinguishes itself as a company committed to proving that fashion need not wreak havoc on the environment, often positing the slogan “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.”
Unlike fast-fashion brands that waste countless gallons of water, exploit factory workers, and generally exacerbate environmental degradation, Reformation is committed to maintaining standards of sustainability and ethics. The brand frequently publishes environmental impact statements which describe where its raw materials are sourced from and the extent of its environmental footprint (for the most recent statement, click here). Cognizant of the depletion of land caused by growing unsustainable fabrics and the overabundance of water used in most dyeing processes, Reformation uses fabrics, raw materials, and dyes with the least possible environmental impact. For example, Ref uses TENCEL fabric rather than cotton, which requires just ⅕ of the land needed to grow conventional cotton. Also, products used to dye clothes produced by Ref are Bluesign certified, which means that the chemicals have met standards for safety and release minimal polluting emissions. The company minimizes waste by upcycling factory scraps, in contrast to fast fashion which wastes over $100 billion each year by throwing such scraps aways (Ref Sustainability Report July-September 2019). Ref also encourages recycling by endorsing companies like thredUp, which resell clothes no longer wanted by their previous owner. However, Reformation is also ethical; recent statistics published by the brand for 2019 state that 95% of Reformation’s factory and DC workers are paid at least the minimum living wage (see Ref Sustainability Report July-September 2019), compared to the scanty 0.49 cents H&M payed factory workers in Bangladesh in 2018 (see 2018 Census Report).
However, where Reformation really distinguishes itself from other sustainable clothing companies like Everlane or Patagonia is in the aesthetic appeal of its clothing. Reformation is known, especially throughout Los Angeles, as having the most coveted clothes, and it is not uncommon to see pieces sell out after being introduced onto the website merely one day prior. The brand’s popularity can also be attributed in part to its promotion of good values like body positivity and entrepreneurship. Reformation offers clothing in sizes ranging from XS-3XL, reflecting its acceptance of all body types. The company also has a column highlighting successful female entrepreneurs who work to resolve issues like resource inequality and environmental degradation. The combination of cute clothes and positive values has led to a base of fervently supportive, dedicated Reformation customers. By showing that a resolute commitment to ethical values can coexist with a passionate customer base, this company is reforming how they think about the business.
But there is one caveat -- Reformation products, like those of most other sustainable clothing brands -- are expensive. This expense is the additional cost of paying factory workers at least the minimum wage rather than exploiting children in sweatshops, and of extracting raw materials like wool from Alpacas as opposed to cashmere from goats (which have rendered many fields unsuitable for cultivation due to overgrazing). Comparing Reformation to H&M magnifies the stark price difference between sustainable and fast-fashion brands: while a biker jacket from H&M costs $49.99, one from Ref costs an exorbitant $498 . Ref’s high prices limits access to Reformation clothing to a very small group of affluent individuals. While it may appear as if individuals who purchase Reformation clothing are more sustainable than those who do not, the reality is that those who purchase less sustainable fast-fashion often do so for economic reasons. Not everyone can pay over $200 for a sustainable dress.
This imbalance is reflective of the greater paradox prevalent when discussing environmental degradation: those who suffer the consequences of environmental destruction and are expected to mitigate it are not those who created the problem in the first place. Affluent countries like the United States which have historically caused the greatest pollution are quick to tell countries like China and India to limit their use of resources and halt development. However, we are in this situation in the first place because United States’ citizens enjoyed too-high standards of living for too long and overexploited global resources. It is hypocritical for those at the top -- whether they be countries or individuals -- to condemn those at the bottom for unsustainable practices if those at the top created the problem that requires people to be sustainable. Reformation’s sustainable, ethical, and fashionable clothing is already sweeping the nation and attracting many, but what we need is this business model replicated onto a different market. The ever-present challenge when confronting sustainability endures: how can we merge sustainability with inclusiveness? What we need is not a reformation capital for the elite, but to reform the way our entire planet operates.