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What Happened When I Realized My Cheap Clothes Were a Global Problem

4 minute read

I come from a family of Jewish “garmentos,” so when I started a clothing line at the age of 20, it didn’t exactly surprise anyone.

But as I learned more about the fashion industry, it became increasingly apparent to me how stuck it was in antiquated processes—and how others in the industry had very little understanding of its overall impact on the environment. I also realized that I didn’t feel particularly fulfilled by or proud of what I had built. Then the recession hit, and everything changed overnight. I closed my business and moved to New York City while I figured out what to do next.

During this time, I explored a few different business opportunities. My interests gravitated toward science, technology and the environment. The tech industry was really taking off at that point, and I was incredibly inspired by this new technology-powered world where anything felt possible. It was the opposite of how I’d felt working in fashion.

In 2008, I started to think about how I could combine all of my different interests. While working on a shoe collection, I visited a large manufacturing city in China and was shocked by what I saw. The smog was so thick that I couldn’t see beyond one city block. I became short of breath and started to cough after a short walk. The waterways I passed were brown and sludge-filled, but I still saw rice farmers working on the banks of them.

As I began to ask questions, I discovered that fashion and textiles were a dominant industry in the region. I understood for the first time, in a very real way, the connection between fashion and the environment. The clothes that filled my closet were responsible for this horrible pollution.

When I came home from China, I started doing my research and learned that, according to an article in the journal Natural Science, more than 8,000 different chemicals—including formaldehyde, chlorine, lead and mercury—are used in textile processing and dying. The same article notes that The World Bank estimates that about a fifth of industrial water pollution across the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles. One of the most surprising things I learned was that cotton is one of the worst textile crops for the environment, yet it’s used to make about half of the clothing and other textiles worldwide, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

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It doesn’t stop there. Cotton is extremely water-intensive: A single T-shirt requires about 2,700 liters of water, or more than 700 gallons, to make. So the industry-wide impact multiplies quickly. Switching to synthetic fibers isn’t the answer since they require chemical treatments during processing, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

Let’s get a few additional facts straight, as well: I eat cheeseburgers, I wear leather and I sleep on cotton sheets. As a consumer, I can rationalize these transgressions as minimal in the grand scheme of things. Also, what am I supposed to do if there are no comparable alternatives? I don’t like veggie burgers, fake leather or polyester sheets. What I can’t rationalize is being a part of a business that produces tens of thousands of dresses a month in China that are hurting the world we live in. Once I realized the scope of the impact that my industry’s production has on the environment, I knew I had to make a change.

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Then something clicked, and I realized I could build a sustainable fashion brand. My vision for Reformation was simple: Create a brand where fashion and sustainability coexist.

To make Reformation clothing, we use sustainable fabrics, repurposed vintage clothing and rescued fabric from fashion houses that have over-ordered. Our office in Los Angeles also sources electricity from 100% renewable power suppliers, and we use LED lighting and Energy Star-rated appliances. We pay attention to every detail and do what we can to improve every day.

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The other big piece of my approach has been educating the consumer. It’s not only our job to provide beautiful, limited-edition clothing to women around the world, but also to let our consumers know how much power they can have in the fight against traditional fashion practices.

I hope that, moving forward, sustainability isn’t seen as an added bonus for companies. It should just be the standard.

Yael Aflalo is the CEO and founder of Reformation, a lifestyle brand that utilizes sustainable fabrics and practices to create cool and feminine collections that are eco-conscious.

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