Everlane revealed: Transparency is a journey that’s as much about inside as out

Exposed this week in the New York Times for transparency ambitions that don’t match up with company reality, Everlane are becoming an example of what happens when you don’t follow a robust roadmap for transparency, but treat it as a stand-alone marketing strategy. Here our CEO & Founder, Jessi Baker, shares her take on what went wrong and tips for brands looking to not make the same mistakes.

Transparency is core to the future of your brand, it’s not just a marketing initiative

According to Unilever, an estimated €966 billion opportunity exists for brands that make their sustainability credentials clear. Transparency reaps rewards both in terms of bottom-line efficiencies and top-line growth. It is no doubt essential to your brand’s future, but it comes with responsibilities and risks far more complex than your standard marketing strategy.

“Today’s consumers increasingly expect companies to be transparent about how, where and by whom their products are made.” – Orsola de Castro, Co-Founder Fashion Revolution (source: Global Fashion Agenda 2020)

When I first saw Everlane back in 2013, as a longtime fan of Patagonia I was overjoyed to see another brand with transparency as part of its core operating system. Everlane’s fresh approach inspired countless other direct-to-consumer brands to listen up and take a proactive approach to share their factories and costs.

Everlane transparent pricing

It became easy to spot Everlane items – from shoes to sweaters – at the many sustainability conferences my team and I attended. Bold transparency communications became shorthand for “trusted”. Soon they graduated to a marketing mood board staple for brands new and old, but those in the know started noticing their lack of delivery against their brand promise.

The expose this week in the New York Times shows how transparency isn’t just a brand marketing-focused initiative, it must sit at the core of how you operate your business. Preserving integrity – even at scale – is fundamental to its success.

What went wrong for Everlane?

  1. Missing supply chain leadership, despite supply chain transparency being core to the brand
  2. Lack of delivery against policies in place across business operations, particularly diversity and inclusion.
  3. Scaling good intentions presents challenges. Growth to $50m revenue in under 5 years meant they struggled to keep up with their vision.
  4. Culture vs brand marketing disconnect – they forgot that who you are inside = who you are outside
  5. Failed to recognise that transparency isn’t a campaign you can fully control – your supply chain and employees can be open too, with or without your consent

This resulted in an open letter from several employees, past and present, challenging the company’s management and calling out their ethical image as an illusion.

What does this mean for your brand?

Transparency on supply chain and impact is an increasingly vital part of your brand operations and communications mix – from corporate comms right down to product proposition design. Particularly if you are marketing to values-driven Gen Z, you cannot ignore it.

Here’s our take on how to not make the same mistakes with your transparency initiatives:

1. Ensure you have “transparency trained” leadership stakeholders in place and have full buy-in across supply chain, sustainability, corporate governance, brand and marketing 

Accountability doesn’t sit in just one business unit, transparency is a team effort. At Provenance one of our first jobs with a new client is to create a shared language and way of working together to ensure we have buy-in across the company.

2. Public or not, you need proof to back up every marketing claim related to supply chain and impact 

Brands can’t mark their own homework. Provenance devised Proof Points to ensure transparency comms always have credible, materially relevant evidence.

A Proof Point is an interactive statement a brand can make about the impact of their business or products. It connects what they say to information from their business operations or supply chain. See how Cult Beauty is using Proof Points to deliver proven information around the social and environmental impact of products on e-commerce.

3. Transparency requires management: Internal roadmapping of supply chain and impact initiatives that ladder up to a communications plan with gateways 

Transparency requires a strategy and it’s not just a communications plan. It starts with supply chain and sustainability teams and ends with marketing measurement. It’s a complex area for many companies. If treated as a supply chain initiative alone, your brand won’t benefit. If treated as a marketing campaign, you’ll get called out. There must be robust gateways (go – no go) in place to prevent the company from talking about something in a way that doesn’t reflect reality.

4. Sometimes it’s good for brands to be vulnerable through two-way communication channels, particularly when you aren’t there yet 

Oatly made their 2018 impact failures clear

Transparency isn’t just about showing off credentials, it’s about starting a conversation with your stakeholders, customers and employees. Opening the door to bring your sustainability report designed for shareholders to real people. This means explaining your commitments, not just your achievements.

5. Show progress through consistent, comprehensive communications internally and externally 

For a brand the size of Everlane a yearly impact report is a must. It can be an overwhelming task as an SME, but if you are making claims and commitments, ultimately you must report against them. We have seen some great examples from SMEs, including Organic Basics and Natoora. And ones to aspire to from larger groups like Innocent’s latest and Kering’s biodiversity strategy.

Ultimately, I think Everlane’s transparent approach did inspire positive change in many brands, as sometimes only great marketing can. But it’s clear they need to take action fast to correct their mistakes and get back to executing on their original vision. In a statement to The Times, Everlane founder Michael Preysman said that the company had “urgent work to do to rewrite Everlane’s code of ethics.” They are certainly under the spotlight, as will be the very longtail of direct-to-consumer brands they inspired.

Thinking about your own transparency initiative? Let’s chat

🔎 See how we’re bringing more transparency to the supply chain and proving sustainability in our latest fashion project.