How Reformation tackled faster, affordable denim sustainably

With Reformation’s new line, Ref Jeans, the sustainable, direct-to-consumer brand for trendy women’s fashion is making faster, more affordable fashion.

Ref Jeans launched Monday with 11 styles of denim in 14 washes, 10 styles of tops and four styles of new dresses. The prices in the collection range between $28, for a T-shirt, and $148, for its priciest denim, and new styles will be added to the Ref Jeans lineup every week.

“With Reformation jeans, we wanted to tackle the worst polluting type of clothing: denim. Denim and basics are also garments that literally everyone wears. So we wanted to create more affordable pieces to reach more people with Reformation Jeans,” said CEO and founder Yael Aflalo. “The Ref Jeans line meets our same material standards and manufacturing practices as our main line, but we are able to make more and keep the styles simple to help lower costs. Limiting the amount of steps, chemicals, energy, and water usage actually helps reduce costs at the fabric and manufacturing level.”

Even with the cheaper prices and more frequent product drops, the company has managed to keep its first brand offshoot eco-friendly. While a typical pair of jeans uses 1,500 gallons of water in the production cycle on average, Ref Jeans’ production process uses a third of the water typically used in denim production and eliminates chemical waste by using a combination of deadstock fabric — leftover materials from apparel factories that either wasn’t used or didn’t sell — and sustainable fabrics, like Lenzing Tencel and Modal.

The company also currently uses a system of purchasing offsets (buying existing fabric, in exchange for all newly produced fabric) to balance out its water consumption. With Ref Jeans, Reformation went one step further by promising to clean 1,000 gallons of water for every pair of denim sold, in partnership with BEF and the National Forest Foundation.

While Reformation’s sustainable production process — in addition to using less water than other brands, the company works with domestic factories and is carbon neutral — Aflalo isn’t leading Ref Jeans’ marketing with the message that it’s sustainable.

“Making great products has always been the primary goal,” said Aflalo. “It’s in the way we present our clothes: If you look for 10 more seconds, you see the sustainability messaging everywhere. But we don’t lead with that. People don’t buy clothes because they’re sustainable. It’s our job to make clothes people want to buy, and then make them sustainably.”

For brands making products sustainably, and in America, it’s easy to hit walls with what can be done, in terms of production. Denim production, in particular, is considered particularly harmful, as 1.3 million tons of toxic chemicals produced in the cycle are sent back into water supplies each year, according to Reformation’s partner BEF. But progress is being made: Earlier this year, fellow direct-to-consumer brand Everlane branched into denim, with CEO Michael Preysman citing the company’s desire to “clean up a dirty business.”

Aflalo said that for Reformation, there’s no “dead end” when it comes to venturing into new categories.

“We decide what we want to do, and then we find a solution,” she said. “A lot of running a sustainable business is easy. The difficult part is forcing vendors to change the chemicals and the way they produce their fabrics. You have to invest money and convince people it’s worth it to go through a capitally intensive, longer process. But they can be convinced.”

The Ref Jeans line is produced in Los Angeles, with partner factories that meet Reformation’s social and environmental standards. While Reformation does have its own LA factory, where 80 percent of products are made, it outsourced for the denim run.

“These factories are known worldwide for producing some of the highest end premium denim brands around,” Aflalo said.

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