At first glance, a cotton T-shirt from independent label Small Trades might look like any other basic striped crewneck.
But Small Trades founder Robin Weiss says there are a few things that set her brand apart. Her rib knit shirts and dresses last longer than usual fast-fashion fare, she says, because the people who make them bring a legacy of craftsmanship and manufacturing expertise.
Plus, buying them supports 64-year-old Beverly Deysher, who has worked for Mohnton Knitting Mills since she was 18, always living within walking distance of the factory in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and to factory owner Gary Pleam, whose great-great grandfather built a water wheel in 1873 to power the hat factory that became Mohnton Mills in 1906.
Deysher's first job was to put elastic in underwear waistbands, back when mass-produced garments were the company's bread and butter. When production of commodity goods went overseas, Mohnton Knitting Mills found a niche in custom jobs for boutique clients like Small Trades, creating shirts from high-quality combed ringspun yarn. Today, Deysher is the sewing floor supervisor who "makes everything work," Pleam said.
So here's the question: Does knowing Deysher's story, the history of Mohnton Knitting Mills, or a boutique's commitment to selling them make you more likely to buy a Small Trades shirt -- starting at $50?
A handful of brands and retailers are banking on the notion that some consumers care about where their clothes come from and are willing to pay a premium for the story behind the label.
It's good for business on many levels, Weiss said.
"You know who you're supporting. It makes you feel good," she said. "There's nothing like having that personal relationship. I can talk to Gary on the phone in the same time zone or drive to the mill if I have to."
'People care about where their clothes come from'
Small Trades is just one brand that will be featured on Zady, a shopping site launching this week dedicated to transparent fashion. Zady co-founder Soraya Darabi says the price of goods they showcase isn't really a premium. It's simply a fair price for quality products made by skilled employees who earn a living wage like Deysher and sold by business owners like Weiss.
"The fast-fashion frenzy has come at the cost of the quality of clothing and fair working conditions for factory workers. We see it over and over again in factory disasters around the world," Darabi said. "People care about where their clothes come from, and they want to know the story behind the label."
A series of deadly incidents in the past year in overseas garment factories prompted widespread outrage and calls for companies to improve conditions and oversight. After a building collapse in April killed more than 400 factory works in Bangladesh's garment district, more than a million people signed an international online petition urging companies to commit to an enforceable fire and building safety agreement. Outraged shoppers also registered their anger on companies' social media sites.
Major U.S. retailers announced a plan to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh garment factories in July, and companies worldwide have pledged to improve worker safety conditions through funding, inspections and training.
But will that outrage translate to conscious consumerism? Even people focused on the issue say it's hard to know.
Co-founders Darabi and Maxine Bedat say they are targeting people like themselves, style-conscious and socially aware shoppers who have outgrown their trendy wardrobe of cheaply made goods. They say they're looking to build a timeless collection of quality pieces they can feel good about.
Their goal isn't just to sell stuff, but to start a movement, one they compare to what Whole Foods did for local and organic food, Bedat said.
"We've seen through the whole farm-to-table movement that people care about where their food comes from," she said. "We're trying to reach those people."
Elizabeth Cline, author of "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," agrees that the local food movement shows that consumers are willing to pay more for transparency -- and a good story.
"Consumers want to feel like they're supporting something positive and authentic, not just rejecting something negative when they buy," she said.
"Up until now, ethical clothing's story was it was sweatshop free or organic," Cline said, "but what was missing was an authentic and feel-good human story about the people who design and make clothes."
The story behind the clothes
Zady is just one brand that's trying to tell the stories of where clothes come from. Apparel brand Patagonia has long touted its dedication to promoting "fair labor practices and safe working conditions," through detailed information on its website. Several e-tailers with a heavy emphasis on American-made products, such as Made Collection and Huckberry, play up the stories of makers with transparent sourcing and manufacturing.
When the executives behind American brand Everlane toured the Chinese factories that make its silk shirts, cashmere sweaters and canvas bags, it documented the journey on the company's Tumblr and Instagram accounts.
Everlane founder Michael Preysman said "radical transparency" was the company's philosophy from the start, and it established a pattern of transparent pricing, listing costs and markups for each of Everlane's bags, shirts and belts.
Showing where clothes were made seemed like the natural next step, he said. Preysman and his colleagues spend months finding the right manufacturers for each product anyway, so why not share that information with customers?