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Why Retail Startups Are Working to Make Fashion More Transparent

As fast fashion attempts to repair the damage done in Bangladesh, a group of innovative e-commerce companies make transparency a pillar of their businesses.

The safety of garment industry workers has never been more closely examined. Multiple deaths and fires at factories in Bangladesh over the past year—most notably an April factory collapse that killed more than 1,000 people—have prompted mass retailers, from H&M to Walmart, to acknowledge the issues and ensure that better safety measures will be taken to protect their workers. Most recently, Fast Retailing—owner of Uniqlo and Theory—joined Zara, H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch by signing an accord that aims to do just that.

But while fast-fashion brands are doing their part—or at least trying—it's retail startups that are pushing to educate consumers on every single step of the manufacturing process. The entire marketing platform of Zady, an e-commerce site set to launch August 27, is based on the idea of transparency. Every item featured on the site—many of which are made in America or Europe, few of which are mass produced—will be given badges describing methods of production. Cofounders Maxine Bédat and Soraya Darabi have chosen to start with six badges: Made in the USA, Locally Sourced, Handmade, High Quality Raw Materials, Environmentally Conscious, and Bootstrap Project (which indicates a product made through Bédat's non-profit organization that helps to microfinance artisans across the globe). Launch brands include Steven Alan, Claire Vivier, and Imogene + Willie. "We've been working on Zady for about a year now, and a lot of that was educating ourselves about how things get made," Bédat says. "We want to be able to help set the standards." Zady's badges will be given more meaning via behind-the-scenes content that details the production process and personal stories behind each piece of clothing or accessory.

Everlane, the three-year-old company based out of San Francisco, has taken a similar approach to its marketing. Most recently, it launched a series called Everlane Explores China, where founder Michael Preysman and creative director Alexandra Spunt guide shoppers through five of the company's factories through a series of videos. "A lot of these factories treat their employees better than some in this US," Preysman says. "People don't realize what they don't know. By sharing, we're creating more questions; a more conscious consumer."

Indeed, consciousness seems to be at the root of transparency. In theory, the more you tell consumers, the more careful they're going to be about what they buy. But amidst all the good-doing, a retailer can't forget another crucial element: desire. "People talk a lot about the economic or political impact of local and ethical production and why transparency is important in that regard, but I think what gets left out is the significance of the emotional impact," says Erica Cerulo, co-founder of e-commerce site Of a Kind, whose premise is that the story is as important as the product. (In fact, 85% of Of a Kind's shoppers also read the site's editorial.) "Shopping is an inherently emotional act and to understand the people and thought processes and techniques behind a product humanizes consumption in a way that is very much emotional."

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Cerulo's anecdote drives this point home. "A month ago I walked into a restaurant and the hostess was wearing one of our A Peace Treaty necklaces," she says. "I complimented her on it and was about to tell her I was the co-founder of Of a Kind but before I could even get it out she interrupted to tell me how it was made in India and that her fiance is Indian and had given it to her—and how special that made it for her."

We want to know: how important has transparency become to you as a shopper? Do you really want to know how your clothes get made?