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Can Fast Fashion Be Ethical? Reformation Is Rewriting The Rules

Yael Aflalo, founder of the the clothing company Reformation, uses tech to create less waste. Her inspiration? Tesla Motors.

We think of fashion as a creative industry. But is it innovative? “I’ve found that fashion is not at the forefront of technology as a lot of other industries,” says Yael Aflalo, founder of Reformation, an eco-friendly, fast-fashion brand favored by Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Karlie Kloss.

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Case in point: Aflalo was recently interviewing a candidate for a tech position at her company who had a background in robotics. On the surface, it didn’t seem like this fellow was particularly passionate about the fashion industry, so Aflalo asked him why he was interested in working at Reformation. “‘In a nutshell,'” she recalls him saying, “‘fashion is so far behind technologically that there’s just so much opportunity for innovation.'”

Yael Aflalo[Photo: Celeste Sloman]

Aflalo, who launched Reformation in 2009, believes that there are many aspects of the fashion industry that can be improved with the right technology. As a passionate defender of the environment, she believes that the entire fashion supply chain should be scrutinized. Fashion is, after all, the third most polluting industry in the world. In a thoroughly data-driven way, her company quantifies how much waste it creates at every point in the manufacturing process, and then finds ways to offset any pollution. The majority of Reformation products are made in the company’s Los Angeles factory. When it comes to the consumer experience, Aflalo believes that technology can be used to make shopping more fun and less of a chore. Her new store in San Francisco reimagines how spaces in a clothing shop should be configured.

In this Creative Conversation, we talk to her about what inspires her, and why she thinks it’s possible for fast fashion to be sustainable and ethical.

You’ve said that you find inspiration in unlikely places, including Tesla. How did you connect a car brand with Reformation?

I look everywhere for inspiration for Reformation. I now own a Tesla, and the process of buying my car was really informative as I thought about my own business. Since I was starting a sustainable brand, I was intrigued by how Tesla does not market itself as sustainable. Instead, it describes itself as the best car out there. I realized the same was true for a fashion company: Sustainability is important, but you need to give the customer a stellar product and a fantastic experience with the brand.

I am also inspired by how Tesla reimagined the retail experience. Buying a car should be fun, and for the most part, it’s not. Tesla found a way to turn that experience around. Think about traditional car lots, which are expensive from a real estate and maintenance perspective. You’ve got to ask yourself, Why? Do people really need to see the actual car they are going to buy? Tesla decided that the way things were done was ridiculous, so they created retail experiences where they only display one car and let the customer build their own car online, which is then delivered to them.

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Then there’s the fact that most people feel really insecure about buying a car, and often need to go shopping with someone whom they feel has more experience. They’re worried they might get a raw deal, or they don’t know how to talk about the technicalities. Tesla, on the other hand, equips the customer with all the information they need through their website and informed sales associates. And importantly, there’s no pressure to buy a car when you’re shopping. There’s something pretty great about that: It’s fun and easy and liberating.

A model sports a Reformation dress.

How did you translate some of these discoveries to your own company?

When it comes to clothing, I think the shopping experience totally sucks. Unless you’re buying couture, clothing stores tend to have racks and racks of clothing you need to rifle through. It’s impossible to keep that inventory organized so you might never find your size. Then when you try on clothes, you’re stuck in a tiny changing room with terrible lighting. The goal of the store is often to get you out as soon as possible so someone else can use the room. I asked a lot of people what they thought about the average shopping experience, and most of them, like me, hate it.

So I used some of these insights to build an entirely new experience. Our new store in San Francisco will have touchscreen monitors where customers can pick the clothes they want to try. The outfits will appear in the fitting rooms. The way we use space in the store is totally different: Rather than using the main floor to store racks of clothes in every size, we only display a couple of best-selling outfits. The majority of the store is devoted to really plush, luxurious fitting rooms instead of the cheap, uncomfortable fitting rooms that most stores have.

Why are you so invested in being an eco-friendly fashion brand?

For me, climate change and the impact we’re having on the environment is the biggest issue facing humanity. I’m not an engineer and I’m not an environmental scientist, but I do know how to make clothes, so for me, this is my way of trying to address it.

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We do everything that we can to be sustainable. From sourcing materials to business practices, we think about our impact on the environment. We have the “RefScale”, where we measure the environmental impact for every item that we make, from carbon dioxide, to waste, to water usage. We look at the difference between what we do and what the industry average is, and ensure that there is a significant energy savings in our approach. We also offset the carbon dioxide and water we do use.

Your approach is unusual because it is so data-driven. Many other fashion brands that talk about being environmentally friendly don’t quantify their efforts.

It’s really not that hard to quantify sustainability. I think a lot of companies are approaching it from a marketing perspective, and I wonder how many of them actually want to make a big change. I also wonder how many of them can. It’s hard for a big company with a lot of staff to forgo profit because they want to be more green.

It’s also hard to reconfigure your supply chain to make it greener once it’s already been established. A startup has a big advantage in terms of developing a supply chain from scratch that abides by these environmental values.

A model wears a Reformation dress.

You call yourself a fast fashion brand, but your company is very different from say, Zara or Topshop, in terms of values. How do you define fast fashion?

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I think that fast is the future. Pretty soon, it won’t be called “fast fashion,” because all of the slow brands will be gone.

To me, fast fashion is about paying attention to what people want and making that right away. Instead of guesstimating what people are going to want to wear in 18 months, we release some products, see what is doing well then release more of those. It’s that simple. Instead of doing a giant advertising campaign to convince people to buy a red dress because you have a million units of it that you purchased a year ago, we just make what people are already buying right now.

One of the criticisms of fast fashion is that it encourages people to treat clothes like they’re disposable. How does that square with your environmental values?

I think training consumers not to treat clothes as disposable has to do with educating them about the true cost of the clothing. It’s about making it clear that there are people behind the clothes. If you wear a complicated jacket that you bought for $10, chances are there is human suffering behind it: you’re probably not paying the person who made it a good wage. If you’re buying T-shirts for $2, $5, or $7, that should immediately set off alarm bells. That’s just about inexpensive clothing.

The question is not fast we’re making the clothes, because you could take 18 months to make garments and still not pay your workers. We have our own factory where we focus on ensuring that we’re abiding by a code of ethics. But we’re also fast fashion.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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