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Can This Startup Make The Ultimate Ethical T-Shirt?

Zady is trying to prove that it’s possible to manufacture clothing that’s good for workers and the environment–and at a reasonable cost.

How do you make a T-shirt that does no harm?

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It’s not a simple challenge. Growing cotton uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world, and processing the fabric typically involves dumping polluted wastewater into rivers. Garment factories are notorious for the type of negligence that led to the 2013 building collapse in Bangladesh and the death of over 1,000 people–all working on the latest fast fashion, likely to quickly fall apart and end up in a landfill.

A startup called Zady is trying to rethink the entire system and prove that it’s possible to do things differently.

“The bottom line of it all is that it’s really hard to un-know things once you discover them,” says Maxine Bedat, who co-founded Zady with Soraya Darabi. “That was kind of why we have ventured down this crazy but incredibly exciting path.”


Every step of the production process happens in the U.S., so the company can better track what’s happening–and rely on stricter U.S. regulations. Zady’s new T-shirt is made from cotton grown organically in Texas on farms that use compost as fertilizer and natural dips in temperature to kill bugs and defoliate the crops. The bales are sent to small towns in North Carolina–part of the last vestiges of the former American apparel industry–for spinning, knitting, and non-toxic dyeing. A worker-owned factory sews the shirt.

“It’s working entirely backwards from how the industry developed over the past 20 years,” says Bedat. “But as a result of going through the reverse process–starting with the farm and working our way forward–we actually were able to make not just a more sustainable product, but a better quality product.”

By working domestically, the brand can stay in better communication with the factories, and better monitor quality and design issues. They’re also automatically forced into long relationships with suppliers, since so few American apparel manufacturers are left.

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“Part of the problem in the fashion industry is that the fashion brands will be with one factory one season, the next season they’ll be with the next–it’s just kind of the lowest cost provider,” she says. “And we’re finding that we can develop a much better product by building these relationships over the long term.”


They can also easily see how workers are being treated, and avoid a common problem in the industry: A factory in a place like Bangladesh might outsource orders to another factory with human rights issues. “So you have this great relationship with the factory, and a brand might go and take a picture of that factory, but little did you know that the factory is outsourcing somewhere else that doesn’t look as pretty or have the same standards,” Bedat says.


The fledgling brand has also designed a socially responsible sweater from scratch, using wool from a ranch in Oregon with a carbon management plan. While most industrial sheep ranching–in places like Chinese and Australian deserts–relies on scarce water supplies to irrigate land for grazing, the ranch in Oregon uses rainwater. The wool is cleaned and dyed without the typical polluting processes (a typical wool cleaning plant might create as much daily waste as the sewage from a town of 50,000).

All of these details mean extra production costs. Still, the final product isn’t outrageously expensive–the T-shirt is $36, more than you’d pay at Gap, but less than you might spend at some boutiques. And the company is betting that people will pay for the quality and the story.


“It’s a challenge when we’re competing against people who are paying non-living wages, and we’re paying living wages,” says Bedat. “But it’s about getting a better quality product. And at the end of the day, people–especially in our generation–we have enough clothing. So when we’re buying something, we’re buying it for a reason.”

They’re offering a range of clothing from other small, sustainable producers, along with their own brand. They hope to target people beyond those who might already shop at Whole Foods and be well-versed on the challenges of the apparel supply chain.

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“We’re not just looking at those people who are kind of the do-gooders,” she says. “I have to admit I wasn’t one. I very readily bought fast fashion brands and incorporated that without any knowledge.”

The company’s mission, as much as selling clothes, is helping open eyes to the problems. “There are parallels with the tobacco industry,” says Bedat. “All of that information was hidden from us, but then once that information came out about what it does to our bodies, the trend kind of changed. The same can happen with apparel. We see we’re at the beginning stages of that whole movement. There has been an industry that has hidden this information.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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