Everlane appears to have hit a roadblock in its quest to build a company grounded in “radical transparency,” as it promises in its mission statement. A decade ago, Everlane’s founder and CEO Michael Preysman coined the phrase to encompass his brand’s wide-ranging efforts to build an ethical fashion label. Now, the company is under fire for allegedly promoting poor working conditions.
According to two recent stories by Vice‘s Anna Merlan, some of Everlane’s customer service and retail workers are frustrated with how they’re being treated and are reportedly working to form a union. In her latest piece, which came out earlier this week, Merlan spoke with 10 retail employees at Everlane’s New York location, who complained about “low pay, nonexistent benefits, [and] unpredictable scheduling.” Workers also told her that Everlane’s management team sent emails dissuading them from unionizing. Perhaps most explosively, they claimed that an Everlane manager tried to keep them from discussing their salaries with one another, which, if true, would be a violation of federal and state labor laws. (Everlane disputes this in comments to both Vice and Fast Company, saying the manager’s words were taken out of context, and she was trying to say that an all-hands meeting was not the right venue to have a discussion about salary.)
A.C. Betts, Everlane’s spokesperson, provided written comments for this article. “We are continually learning and evolving as a growing company,” she writes in an email. “Whether it’s learning directly from customers, employees, our online experience, or our retail stores, we continue to build a culture that encourages dialogue, takes ownership over our mistakes, and works collectively to get better.”
Merlan’s story points out that employees’ complaints about Everlane’s workplace culture don’t align with the company’s professed values, which we have covered extensively at Fast Company. Since Michael Preysman founded Everlane a decade ago, he has marketed the brand as one grounded in sustainability, worker’s rights, and fair pricing. Last year, I wrote about how Everlane went to great lengths to eradicate virgin plastic from its supply chain, including its garments and the bags used to transport them across the world. The company has also invested in improving the quality of life for factory workers who make Everlane garments overseas, including buying helmets for Vietnamese workers who travel by moped and building an on-site container farm to ensure Vietnamese denim workers have fresh food for lunch.
Of course, retail work is notoriously grueling. Workers often work part-time and in shifts, and don’t receive the same benefits as full-time employees. Even Starbucks, which is known for giving its part-time workers good benefits, has been called out frequently for its labor practices. What’s more, Everlane is relatively new to the brick-and-mortar world. The company opened its first retail store in 2017 in New York and has since expanded to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. The company may not yet be accustomed to the challenges of operating physical retail.
But evidence suggests that Everlane hasn’t handled its workers as well as it could have. In December, members of the customer service team announced their intention to unionize with Communications Workers of America, which represents workers in a range of industries including the education sector and media workers. When Everlane’s management caught wind of these unionizing efforts, Kelly McLaughlin, the brand’s head of HR, sent out several emails discouraging workers from going through with it, arguing that it would work against the company’s core value of “transparency.” “The Everlane way is transparency and open communications and we know that we can do a better job of bringing our culture to life for all of you,” she wrote in her first email. “We also have heard that there has been talk about unions among some of you. Deciding whether or not you want a union to represent you is your right but it is a big decision.”
She then followed up with a second email that said, “Signing is a major step because it is a legal document that can designate the union as your exclusive representative and forfeit your right to deal directly with us to resolve issues. This will reduce transparency and we won’t be able to work with each of you individually as we do now to improve your experience.” (Merlan pointed out that this is not, in fact, true, since employees can create union contracts that determine exactly how much direct contact they want to have with their employers.)
One tangible way that Everlane is working to improve working conditions is by making it easy for employees to contact their superiors to provide feedback (though, of course, not all employees may be comfortable voicing their complaints to their bosses or HR departments directly, for fear of reprisal). Merlan mentioned that several employees had expressed their grievances through these channels, but many others hadn’t. “We have an open door policy for all our retail ambassadors, with resources posted in all back rooms with direct emails and personal phone numbers for HR, our head of retail, director of stores, and store leaders,” Betts, Everlane’s spokesperson said. “This open line of communication is used frequently by our team.”