Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use this time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.
Reformation has come a long way since the days its founder Yael Aflalo made garments out of vintage clothes in the back of her Lower East Side store circa 2010. The company is now fully headquartered in Los Angeles, with an office in Culver City and a sprawling new factory Downtown it moved into last November. Eighty percent of Reformation's inventory is manufactured there by a growing staff of 289 people, who are able to produce a garment from concept to marketing within 42 days, helping turn Aflalo's goal of creating a true "sustainable fast fashion brand" into a reality.
One facet of Reformation's appeal as a brand — aside from the quintessential "cool girl" aesthetic of its relatively affordable clothes — is its commitment to sustainability. It advertises this in a way that is certainly prominent, but not overly preachy or granola. The message of transparency is particularly strong; for instance, every garment comes with a RefScale score, which details how much carbon dioxide, water and waste was saved in the production of that garment compared with the industry standard.
On Saturday (Earth Day), it took that transparency focus one step further by opening its LA factory to the public for guided tours — something that's pretty unprecedented in the apparel industry — and a smart move on Reformation's part. Apparel factories, particularly those in less-developed countries, have been getting some bad press lately and public opinion on them is largely unfavorable. By opening its factory to consumers, Reformation is showing the world that it treats its employees ethically and provides them with a bright, clean, safe environment in which to work. It's taking ownership and pride in its factory in a way we haven't seen since American Apparel. Somewhat ironically, Reformation recently hired many of its new employees, including management, from the American Apparel factory following its massive layoffs.
I attended one of the first tours on Saturday, guided by Aflalo herself. (Future tours, to be held the first Friday of every month, will be led by other employees.) Inside an unassuming building with a parking lot is a minimally decorated reception area with a simple Reformation sign and a plant. "Bright, white and clean" are the words I would use describe to the factory as a whole — and big; there is definitely room to grow, though there was plenty of Saturday morning activity to occupy much of the space. We saw the product development area, with rolls of fabric, big tables on which to cut said fabric and make samples, a room for fittings, and areas for vintage clothing upcycling and denim; a massive sewing room where workers were divided into "teams;" a huge room where fabric is stored and cut; and an empty room with desks which the tech team usually occupies. Aflalo spent much of the tour listing off facts about the company's sustainability initiatives and worker benefits for an audience that seemed to be largely made up of students and others who worked in the industry — and that seemed genuinely eager to learn about Reformation's eco-friendly practices.
The factory itself has efficient LED lighting, uses renewable wind energy, and was set up with the maximum amount of recycled or tree-free materials. Only nontoxic cleaning products are used, and the facility has a recycling and composting program. Employees are trained to cut in a way that leaves the minimum amount of wasted fabric; of course, there still is textile waste, which gets sent to a facility in Arizona and turned into alternative insulation for new construction. The company also sees big potential in denim to reduce water usage and is challenging itself to save one billion gallons of water compared with the industry standard. Currently, a pair of Reformation jeans uses 700 gallons of water to be produced, while the industry standard is 2,000. The company admits it is not "perfect" when it comes to sustainability, and Aflalo explains its process thusly: "What is the most impactful thing we can do that's the easiest?" It starts there and then moves onto the harder solutions.
Other future sustainability plans include the use of solar panels for electricity, finding a way to capture waste energy from the factory's many sewing machines and recycle it, installing EV charging stations, finding a more sustainable alternative to viscose and, perhaps most significantly, working towards the establishment of a third-party sustainability certification. Aflalo noted that since Reformation launched, sustainable fashion has become "cool," which has its downside. "There's a lot of greenwashing: people saying they're doing environmentally friendly stuff or that they're ethical or whatever all that means. So our big goal now is [figuring out] how do we create or help other people create or push forward third-party certifications that can give consumers confidence in what people are saying about their product."
As for employee benefits, the company offers biweekly ESL classes, a path to citizenship course, a masseuse, fresh organic produce, free metro cards and full health benefits. Workers receive a base salary plus overtime; there's also an incentive programs wherein teams are rewarded for meeting certain quantity goals.
Ahead of these tours, Reformation recently launched a "We are Reformation" campaign on social media featuring videos highlighting members of its factory staff. "Ninety-nine percent of the feedback is positive, but some of the feedback is negative and [people comment], 'What does it really look like in there and where are your windows?' So I was like, alright then come look," said Aflalo defiantly. Indeed, there are no windows in the sewing room, which Aflalo explained is for the workers' benefit. "Most warehouses don't have windows just because they're not conducive to what we're doing, but it's funny because our last building had a lot of windows and all the teams covered them with thick black fabric. It makes things really hot and adds a lot of glare and when you're working all day, the last thing you want is a big sunbeam hitting you in the face."
Aflalo explained after the tour that the decision to open the factory up to the public was the culmination of "making the factory the factory we wanted it to be" by setting up all the aforementioned sustainability initiatives and leading into it with the social media program. She said that she wanted Reformation to have its own factory not only to ensure sustainability and ethical working conditions, but also for logistical reasons. "I tried to work with contractors and I was like, 'This is the worst, you drive there and it's not ready and you're in a fight and it's like, agh.' It was just difficult, so I was like, 'We should just build a factory,' and I think factories are cool."
I haven't seen many apparel factories, but from what I've heard, they're not usually this nice, bright and spacious. It's clear that the company invested significantly in this facility, perhaps not only to scale production, but also as a marketing move. We're told tours are already booked for the next few months — and probably by a lot of students and industry figures who might be looking to improve sustainability methods in their own endeavors, and that can't be a bad thing.
If you can't make it to Downtown LA, check out photos of the factory and its workers below.