Dec 23, 2015

The New Fashion Police

When the financial crisis hit and the floor dropped out of the economy, finally, Yael Aflalo thought, she had a reason to close her clothing business. She had started it when she was 20 years old. The first five years were an education. “The second five years I really hated,” she said, speaking at the kickoff event of the Bright Lights, Green Sights speaker series, which focuses on urban environmental entrepreneurs. The time felt right and Aflalo shut the doors.

Without the company, she wasn’t sure what to do. Her parents were both entrepreneurs and she’d never bent toward a traditional career path. She took two years for self-directed study, which resulted in an unexpected cascade of events—environmental documentaries on Netflix, a design partnership with Urban Outfitters, a dinner party conversation about the environmental footprint of fashion, and, the day after this conversation, a trip to China to work on a new line of shoes. Aflalo had visited Hong Kong and Shanghai before, but never the interior industrial regions. She traveled to one of fashion’s manufacturing centers. “The pollution was on a scale that’s hard to understand unless you see it,” she said—hazy air, sludgy waterways splitting rice fields.  Fashion, in fact, is the third most polluting industry in the world. “I had this moment with an incredible amount of empathy, and then this other thing: an incredible amount of accountability.” After that, she was sure what to do.

In 2009, Aflalo founded Reformation, a Benefit Corporation dedicated to high-quality sustainable fashion. The company started by making its products from vintage clothes, but this quickly became impossible as the company scaled; they incorporated “deadstock,” or leftover fabrics headed for landfill, into their supply. Today, Reformation also purchases material new, drawing heavily on fabrics like Tencel, which is made from FSC-certified Eucalyptus fiber and requires 80 percent less water than cotton. In cases where the industry has no environmental alternatives, Reformation aims to develop them. With a coalition of other companies this coming year, for instance, Reformation hopes to help the manufacturer Lenzing develop a more sustainable alternative to rayon.

For Aflalo, all of the effort required on her end—working to source and develop sustainable fabrics and dyes, paying good wages, using renewable energy whenever possible—is precisely the way it should be. She said that sustainability ought to be easy for consumers; they shouldn’t need to think about how to do the right thing, or even what the right thing is. “I think the onus should be placed on businesses to make those decisions,” she said.

In the fashion world particularly, Aflalo said, this is not a common perspective. “People are so accustomed to super cheap products,” she said, noting that decades of globalization have encouraged and reinforced this expectation. “But when I see a $12 blazer, I see a cost sheet, and I realize there is human misery on the other side.” It’s this insight into the need for change—this driving sense of accountability—that pushes her in the unorthodox direction she’s moving. Reformation, she said, “would like to be a part of reshaping how people think about” the kinds of clothes they’re willing to buy.

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