Reformation: Green or Greenwashing

Is it green or greenwashing? This series looks at the sustainability practices of reader-nominated brands. For more details on the project and a bit about my background, the project page is here. This piece focuses on Reformation.

Here’s how they stack up against my 5 main tenets of sustainability:

They use more sustainable fiber types: recycled synthetics, closed-loop semi-synthetics, and regenerative natural fibers.

Reformation has strong tenets in place regarding materials. They have a grading list for fiber types that prioritizes organic, regenerative fibers and bans the use of virgin synthetics, furs, and acrylic. They also disclose their use of deadstock, or fabric that’s been made for another brand but won’t get used. (Brand goes out of business, cancels a style for copyright issues, the final product didn’t match the approved strikeoff sample, etc).

This is where the accolades stop.

The fiber standards conveniently leave off rayon and greenwash their use of viscose. Viscose and rayon are both “semi-synthetics.” Wood pulp is dissolved into cellulose with sodium hydroxide (a very concentrated version of lye). The cellulose is dried and undergoes a few chemical reactions based on exposure to oxygen and then being mixed into vats of carbon disulfide. Carbon disulfide has been found to cause severe health impacts in 30% of garment workers, including elevated risk for heart attacks and strokes. Emissions also harm communities around rayon mills (which is why the US decided to move production to the developing world). Carbon disulfide affects the cardiovascular system, which explains the heart attack and stroke issue, and it also causes neurological issues due to cerebral atrophy.

Reformation has viscose labeled as a “C” on a grade from A-E. C means could be better and is “not prefererable for Ref production. However, 459 pieces of their assortment use viscose. Only 3 of those are getting viscose from deadstock. That’s 20% of their assortment coming from a fiber they pretend they’re trying to avoid. They have more viscose in their assortment than they do fibers from their A & B lists like Lyocell or linen – ones they “goal” themselves of using in 95% of their products. Ref highlights the fact that their viscose is “canopy engaged” and FSC certified, which means that the wood being used in semi-synthetics isn’t being linked to deforestation. To me, it says a lot about a brand if the trees are worthy of protecting but environmental racism is a-ok.

Also, rayon and viscose are both incredibly cheap. Ref’s Lacey Dress retails for $248, but a viscose dress like that would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $8-20 to make. Assuming the typical mark-up sits around 60%, most brands would offer this dress for $20-50. Other than the the fact that the source wood is harvested sustainably, there’s no difference between the Lacey and all the other rayon dresses in that lower price range coming from TJMaxx or fast fashion brands.

Rayon and viscose also lose shape easily, especially when wet. All their viscose items need dry cleaning, which is an incredibly not-green process. Reformation recommends using “green” dry cleaning that doesn’t use PERC, but they also acknowledge that only 15% of dry cleaners offer green options. Then they list 38 green dry cleaners in the US and Canada. The closest one to me in Seattle is in San Francisco. And regardless of whether you dry clean or not, the garment will lose shape since it doesn’t have the best structural integrity.

Pieces are built for the long haul: not only are pieces physically durable, but they’re durable in the face of trend cycles. They’ll be relevent in your closet for years and capture strong resale value if they’re cycled out.

Reformation’s fibers are sustainable. And customers can buy from the brand sustainably. But Reformation wants you to fuck up the planet just as hard as any other fast fashion brand. “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” This is a lie. No one is going naked. The global fashion industry produces 100-150 BILLION pieces of clothing per year. There are 8 billion people on the planet. That’s 12-19 garments per person, per year. The majority of our clothing is made out of synthetics that last for over 500 years. There is no shortage of clothing on earth. It gets in our closets, gets donated to Goodwill, gets sold to 3rd world countries, and gets put in a landfill or incinerator. Pieces may get multiple owners or lots of wear on one step of the way, but that’s the exception, not the rule. (The average garment gets worn 7 times over its lifecycle).

If I could rewrite Ref’s slogan, it’d be “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. Wearing something out of your goddamn closet is #2. Borrowing a garment from a friend is #3. Thrifting is #4. Renting is #5. Stop buying shit for a fleeting hit of dopamine.”

Reformation’s business model is one that hooks you on a consumerism hamster wheel. They release new products weekly and lean heavily into trends. Trend-right items are a reason to buy. They’re not boring or basic. They catch our eye on a page full of product and we want them to do the same thing in real life or on social media – generate positive attention. When trend-right items become trend-wrong, it creates a reason to come back and make another purchase. And while traditional brands release clothing once or twice a season, Reformation puts new styles on site weekly. Instead of doing seasonal mall trips to build our wardrobes, Reformation has something new to offer you anytime you’re shopping out of boredom or looking for retail therapy.

Styling is trend-forward. Most of Ref’s pieces aren’t going to be your closet workhorses that have lots of outfitting options and get frequent wear. Like most fast fashion, they’re designed for a sickening Instagram post but feel like a little much to wear super often. In fact, the whole brand treats apparel as a performance for others. Their Instagram page is full of captions like “get some compliments” (on repeat too), fashion purchases are treated like a choice with make with others’ opinions in mind. Our stylistic pleasures come from the compliments and attention of others. Fashion has always been vain, but at least brands of the past urged customers to buy frivolous things that brought them joy directly – regardless of how anyone felt about it. And the most sustainable brands are pushing selling points like comfort, warmth, breathability, durability – the core reasons we humans got dressed in the first place.

Reformation’s role as a retailer really seems to center around White liberal guilt. Wealthier households (combined income $150k+) tend to have the largest carbon footprints despite the fact that they’re the most likely to pay an upcharge for sustainable products – Energy Star appliances, wool sneakers, organic strawberries, bamboo dish brushes. There isn’t a single product innovation that’s better for the environment than no product at all. But we well-off White Americans do not want to address the elephant in the room about conservation and how we desperately need to consume less. Consumerism is our manifest destiny. And as core investments like home ownership, healthcare, and retirement become less and less attainable, we want to participate in the one piece left of the American Dream that’s still within reach: buying shit. We pay a bit of an upcharge to buy different shit that makes us feel like we’re not the problem. (Spoiler: we most definitely are). Like this is not the rhetoric of sustainability:

“But Reformation does recycling!” They do, kind of. They push wearable product to ThredUp, where it sees greater markdowns than truly valued brands like Lululemon or Patagonia. The rest gets sent to a very new recycling startup, SuperCircle. SuperCircle’s a software company that links your retail purchases with your recycling returns. When you mail in a floral dress, SuperCircle has your purchase information and can easily find the fiber breakdown – even if you cut out the tags. Garments get sorted so that they’re easier to give to a recycler. Product sorting is a huge reason fabric recycling isn’t a widespread practice. However, there’s no transparency about where those bales end up downstream. Reformation says they upcycle anything they can (which usually means high-quality, single fiber fabrics – not blends). The rest gets downcycled, like being made into insulation or floor underlayment. That’s not a huge sustainability step. If you take some Shein duds down to Goodwill, they also downcycle a number of unsold goods. If downcycling was a major solution to textile overconsumption, we wouldn’t be exporting billions of pounds of clothing to sit in landfills overseas.

And even the clothing that does get upcycled will need to use fossil fuels and energy to transport and recycle the fabric. In case you forgot from elementary school, it goes “reduce, reuse, recycle” for a reason. Recycling is less impactful than the first two environmental strategies.

And before this gets too long, I’ll also add that they don’t line shit. At $200+ for most of their garments, no lining is criminal. Most people associate linings with comfort and aesthetics since it helps a coat glide over your other layers or keeps a skirt from having friction or bunching over tights. But it actually has a lot of durability perks. It keeps the major seamwork of the outer garment protected. It reduces friciton and therefore fabric wearing down. It adds dimensional stability. It creates a layer of protection for staining from sweat or blood. And yea, it aslo feels really nice if you’re paying “should be nice” prices for clothing.

They follow regulations on how to market green initiatives. They don’t rely on generalized, debatable terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable,” and instead use fact based language that’s reflective of their actions.

Reformation avoids a few issues where the FTC is particularly litigious, but they do a have a few issues. The Green Guides “recommend” that brands don’t use blanket terms like “sustainable,” but the FTC hasn’t ever applied penalties for brands that do. Reformation really likes to describe themselves that way. The only other compliance issue I’ve seen is for the Agathea Loafer. They call them recylcable, but don’t add any other context about SuperCircle. Brands should only use a blanket “recyclable” descriptor if at least 60% of people have acess to a recycling facility that accepts that product. SuperCircle’s entire business operation is a solution for products that aren’t accepted in municipal facilities, so Ref needs to be clear that they’re the ones offering a recycle solution. Customers can’t just drop their loafers off curbside.

Their other issue is their environmental “receipts.” Every item has a water savings and energy savings percentage. When you buy an order, your email reads something like “you saved 156 pounds of carbondioxide and 1,486 gallons of water. High five yourself.” COMPARED TO WHAT?! The FTC requires comparative claims to be clear about what the benchmark is. Are those savings compared to virgin polyester clothing? The average environmental impact of a single piece of clothing? Reformation should be adding the context and providing substantation to back that claim. And, again, you would’ve saved a fuck ton more if you had just decided to re-wear something out of your closet.

They’re clear on how products are made and how to best dispose of them: transparency about the brand’s green claims builds trust with consumers.

God, I have ranted so much I have little to write here.

They don’t play games with customer demand. Merchants have some tricks and gimmicks to manipulate customer demand: short term promotions, limited time offers, limited quantities and “a few units left” messaging. Sustainable brands give customers the time and space to decide whether they really want an item without creating pressure and mark down what’s left at the end of the season.

Reformation runs two sales throughout the year. Their production runs can be on the smaller side, so some customers feel a bit of urgency to buy things they like, but Reformation makes a waitlist for top items. Waitlists and pre-orders tend to be good for the environment since production can match color-level selling and size demand curves very precisely.

Ref’s biggest smoke-and-mirror tactic is a lack of reviews. Reviews off-site are a mixed bag (averaging around 3.4 stars at best on third-party sites). Linen’s well-received. Customers are disappointed by viscose. Everyone hates a green brand making dry clean only products that sit next-to-skin and need regular washing. Allowing each product to hold star ratings would expose what Reformation products are high-value choices and which ones are cash cows that line corporate pockets with customer disappointment. (Spoiler: those high margin pieces of shit are all viscose).

Bonus…ish? Points:

Reformation also sells carbon offsets. You can put funds towards a wind farm in Uruguay to offset a family’s carbon output for a year or to offset your carbon for a domestic or international flight. This is peak “comforting White liberal guilt” shit. The prices for these offsets are incredibly cheap. An individual, year-long offset costs $96, compared to other offset programs that charge in the range of $200-300 for the same year long, individual offset.

It turns out, their price has a lot to do with the offset market. Carbon offsets are a lot like airfare. Prices adjust up for highly supported projects and they’re cheaper for less supported ones. Wind is the cheapest offset option. A lot of people are willing to pay a higher price per metric ton of CO2 because it has benefits beyond environmental impacts. They create jobs in areas with weak labor markets. There are efficient stove projects linked to family safety and free up time for women and girls to get more education. So while they’re offering carbon offsets, I don’t love the idea of paying off the global south to clean up our mess. I also think it’s very telling that they’re looking for the cheapest way to check the box.

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