Cuyana has been held up as a sustainable icon by everyone from Chalkboard Mag to PSFK, The Good Trade, Good Housekeeping, and The Atlantic. When I first heard about the brand, I also threw it in my shopping guide, but as the months passed and I attempted to pull product from their website for various blog posts, and thus explain why exactly they’re a more eco-friendly choice, I found myself growing skeptical.
For many brands, I can expend several paragraphs talking about all their sustainability initiatives. But Cuyana’s claim to sustainability is based almost exclusively on the promise that you will buy fewer things if you buy their classic, well-made items. Some articles point to the fact that Cuyana has things made close to where the material is sourced from. These claims are, frankly, no different from what every upscale brand says and is pretty vague. But somehow, Cuyana has convinced the world that their quality items will lead to a sustainable fashion revolution.
On their website sustainability page, Cuyana says, “Sustainability is deeply ingrained in our business practice. We encourage our customers to purchase fewer, but better quality pieces that they will love and treasure for years to come. With each item, we carefully consider our design, material and production process for a greater impact on your wardrobe and a smaller impact on the environment.” That’s a lot of pretty words and generalities, but not many specifics. They do go on to describe their recycled cashmere, cupro-Tencel pieces, and Italian leather from a Gold-certified tannery, plus they source Peruvian alpaca, which I Iove. And they will send you a bag that you can fill with your old clothes and send back for a $10 credit towards your next purchase, a common offering from brands ranging from Ann Taylor to H&M. (A later addition after publication: Founder Shilpa Shah says that about 60% of the materials they sell are certified (Oeko-tex, GOTS, or Blue Sign), and the other 40% are Pima cotton and alpaca sourced from small family-owned vendors in Peru.) That is the extend of their sustainability.
To put this all in context, here are some sustainability basics that the brands we feature address as a matter of course, but Cuyana does not:
- The names, location, pictures, or videos of their factories and workers. Some brands will claim that they don’t want to reveal too much in case another brand steals their factory, but Cuyana doesn’t even provide factory photos or a city.
- Whether their factories responsibly treat their wastewater or use renewable energy.
- Greenhouse gas emissions related to their production.
- Labor and wage practices, including what they consider an “artisan,” any certifications related to labor, or the fair use and payment for indigenous craft and design.
- A comprehensive list of all fabrics they use and how they’re made, rather than just cherry-picking a few, and an explanation of why and when they use synthetic fabrics, and whether they’re made from recycled materials.
- Packaging and plastic use.
- Taking back their own items for repair, resale, and recycling.
I tweeted about my misgivings last year when Fast Company lauded Cuyana as the answer to fast fashion, and the co-founder, Shilpa Shah, emailed me. She said, “If you read more about our company, you will find we are not ones to make false claims for marketing purposes. We can make a big difference by making premium quality products that last and have a timeless aesthetic. If we can consume more consciously, there will be fewer pieces that end up in a landfill. We are against fast fashion and their poor quality offerings. These items fall apart quickly and the trends they support don’t last.”
Then she said, “Please let me know if you would like to discuss further. We are happy to provide more information and address any concerns you have.” So I sent her a list of questions, which she never answered. When Cuyana’s marketing agency reached out to EcoCult asking to work with us a couple of months later, we sent back the same list of questions. This was their response:
“I wanted to reach out about the below and see how flexible you are with the questions being asked? Unfortunately, there are some questions that we are unable to provide due to their confidentiality specifically what tanneries they work with, etc. Also, Cuyana is actually not technically sustainable or organic in their materials as they do not use organic materials or vegan leather, etc. Cuyana is “sustainable” in that they do not waste a lot of their materials and goods – ie. burn their excess inventory, etc. Finally, the leather they use are from cows that are being used for dairy and meat – so “whole cow” – etc. Does that make sense?”
As I’ve pointed out before, almost all leather (save for calfskin) is a byproduct of cows raised for food. So, that’s not impressive. So there is no new information in here that convinces me that this company is sustainable.
Does their claim to improve the fashion industry based on their “fewer better” offerings hold up to scrutiny? As HBS points out, this promise of fewer could come in direct conflict with their desire to grow the business. Ideally, consumers would shift their purchase of several items from various brands to one or two items just from Cuyana. But without having any research to show that people who buy from Cuyana buy fewer items overall than a control group of non-Cuyana fans, then we just have no way of knowing if that’s even true. So far, I’ve never seen evidence of consumers shifting their overall buying behavior based on the environmental claims of one brand, so my gut feeling is that this is hogwash.
But, that’s what San Francisco start-ups do, in every industry. They relentlessly hammer home an overpromise of world-changing products. Meanwhile, small business owners who are passionate and thoughtful about changing the world do the opposite: they relentlessly question their purpose and wonder if they’re doing things right.
UPDATE 2/18/2020: After publication of this article, Cuyana founder Shilpa Shah emailed to apologize for never responding to my questions, and sent over additional information a week later. “I first wanted to reiterate our overall stance towards sustainability which is closely linked to our brand promise of fewer, better…A key piece of this is the quality of our products, which we believe is superior to our competitors, and enables our customer to wear and love our products for much longer. To give a few examples: the density of our silk is between 25-30 mommes vs. the 16-19 mommes which is standard in the industry. And our Baby Alpaca is superfine 20-22.9 microns, which is more durable and pill-resistant while many other brands are using blends with synthetic fibers. This investment in material quality is consistent across our entire catalog. The style and design details in our clothing also allows these pieces to be worn throughout the years without losing their relevance. We have made it a key initiative in 2020 to do even more to support our “keep it in your closet” stance towards sustainability as well as create the content that shares more about our production practices – more on this to come!”
Here are the things that I’ve updated in this article to reflect her response:
- Before I said that Cuyana does not have any certifications around toxicity. According to Shah, about 60% of the materials they sell are certified (Oeko-tex, GOTS, or Blue Sign), and the other 40% are Pima cotton and alpaca sourced from small family-owned vendors in Peru. “They are not at the scale where certification has made sense for their business in the past, but we are actively working with them on reaching certification.”
- She says they’ve visited every factory that produces for them, and all workers are paid a living wage. She hasn’t yet provided more information on what Cuyana defines as a living wage, but I will update this article if and when she does so.
- “75% of our leather is sourced from Italian tanneries, and 25% is sourced from Argentine tanneries. For leathers that come through our Italian tanneries, the crusts come primarily from Italy & Europe and are all traceable back to the slaughterhouse. For leathers that come through our Argentine tanneries, 20% is traceable from Argentina. It recently came to light that the last 5% of our leathers are coming from the Rio Grande do Sul region of Brazil, so although they are not coming from the region of Brazil suffering from Amazon deforestation, out of an abundance of caution we will be eliminating this source by the end of 2020.”
- Their viscose is from Lenzing, a certified rainforest-free material company.
- They currently use poly bags, but are testing biodegradable and recyclable options that meet the same standard.
- They donate 5% of sales made through their ThredUp credit program to H.E.A.R.T (Helping Ease Abuse Related Trauma), plus production samples. They’ve also done one-off donations to Future Coalition, Every Mother Counts, Charity Water, Baby2Baby, and East Bay Children’s Center.
There is some additional information here that adds to the picture, though I’m I still have concerns. What would it take for me to endorse them and the fewer-better message whole-heartedly? A repair, takeback, and resale program would be a great start. Some proof that their labor practices are as fair as they say they are is necessary. And using the HIGG Index to footprint and offset their production would be amazing. And all of this easily accessible and clear on their sustainability page. When that happens, I’ll encourage you to become a Cuyana customer.
You don’t need to shop from Cuyana’s conventional offerings in order to buy fewer and better items. As I pointed out in this blog post for Arcadia Earth, to buy fewer things you should buy from a company that has been around for a long time and has an earned reputation for quality, and provides a lifetime guarantee and free repairs. Or buy secondhand fashion products, whose long-lasting value is self-evident from the condition you find it in at the consignment shop. Or, you can buy from a brand that makes timeless, high-quality products and does many of the sustainability investments and innovations I mentioned above. You can support a small brand that is always questioning its purpose and wondering how it can do better.
Here are the brands that go above and beyond Cuyana’s initiatives in providing more sustainable, well-made, timeless basics that would make for a fantastic capsule wardrobe. (It’s a long list, because it turns out that’s a very low bar.)
Are there any other sustainable and ethical brands that you bought a piece from that has lasted you for years? Please comment and let us know!