Call it what you want, athleisure/athletic wear is not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s been featured in Vogue, earned itself a place in Merriam-Webster’s codified rule book, and according to many an expert, has metamorphosed from a trend to a closet staple.
The wearing of athliesure – with its associations to yoga – implies a more mindful wearer. One, perhaps who understands the mind-body connection, the food-as-fuel phenomenon and just maybe, the global impact of our purchasing-power. This wearer carries a reusable water bottle, shops via e-commerce and might have participated in a Kickstarter fund. He – or probably she – is a millennial and values the opportunity to choose what she consumes.
Aware of just how much the millennial customer values transparency, Kevin Chan launched Orin, an activewear line that allowed anonymous survey participants to choose nearly every element of the company’s development, from what types of products were made, to where the products would be manufactured, and who would model them.
Divided into three categories of product, manufacturing and models, the survey asked questions like “What is your favorite color for bottoms?” and “How much should factory workers be paid?” With just a few answer options, each question offered a short, infographic-type description to clarify any confusing nuance. As participants selected their options, a toggling price-per-piece average would calculate at the top of the screen.
The cosmetic answers were predictable. Tank tops (43%) marginally beat out sports bras (31%). Yoga pants (32%) ruled over shorts and capris. Not surprisingly, black and dark grey were neck and neck in the tops department, while a resounding 62% of users opted for basic black bottoms.
Over half of participants wanted to see athletic models over other-types of wearers, which makes sense. As for the race of the models, white won at 38%. (I guess that’s why other races are called “minorities” here in the U.S.)
When the survey started tackling the “tough” questions generally reserved for behind the scenes, things got interesting. Production location options, for example, were the U.S., China, Colombia and Sri Lanka. China and the U.S. almost tied for last place. Colombia (38%) beat out Sri Lanka (28%): both countries offered lower costs with average quality, but the Colombian factory has specialized in active wear.
When it came to wages and environment, survey participants, most of whom came via traffic at Refinery29, Business Insider and Yahoo, though premium materials were worth the increased price, but decided premium quality certification wasn’t worth a 10% cost increase. A huge majority, 88%, also decided that factory workers should be paid the status quo, rather than a living wage.
That might be shocking to you, but these results were aligned with the predictions Mr. Chan had going into the experiment. “None of the results really surprised me…consumers would want the highest quality products at the cheapest price,” he says.
Every survey question was loaded with neutrality to preserve the true choice of each participant. While most answers had their pros and cons, the question of pay, and answer of “status quo” versus “living wage” seemed glaring. Still, Chan seems unfazed. The outcomes, “were consistent with wanting to do overseas manufacturing because humans have a tendency to disassociate issues that are not in their backyard.”
But is it the responsibility of the producer to educate the consumer about the most ethical answer? Or does the culpability of sustainable retail lie in the consumer’s hands? Chan feels that it is up to the producers to define ethics for themselves. For Orin, “the number one priority is to make sure no human rights are violated: no forced labor, no child labor, safe working conditions, at least minimum wage. Since this is where I draw the line for working with a factory, I did not include the alternative options in the survey. Environmental sustainability and wages are secondary.”
The fact is, it should be standard for a company to establish a bare minimum of reasonable and respectful production practices, but in the world of trendy fast-fashion, these choices are inherently and intentionally different from athleisure’s status quo. Maybe we shouldn’t take such issue with 88% of users opting for their products to be made at an ethical factory for minimum wage, when most consumers in the $270 billion athleisure industry opt for products made in factories that do not even fulfill these basic requirements.
Now that the results are in, Orin will begin the production process, staying true to the choices of the consumers as they bring the line to market later this year. What will be interesting is seeing how consumers respond to their own choices. Will people really want the options they choose? If this is the case, will Orin experiment with more “ethical” options after it has won over the status quo, going with what’s popular before redefining normal?
Chan seems coyly optimistic. “For a new brand, going with what’s popular before redefining normal will make a bigger impact. You need to establish yourself as an influencer first…Aerie, for example, they are often credited as being one of the first brands to not airbrush their models, but hundreds of other brands did the same thing before them. The only difference is that Aerie had a significantly larger audience, which they built by following what was popular at the time.”
Aerie isn’t the only one: from Everlane to Outdoor Voices, brands have been riding the wave of normalcy before introducing off-kilter, do-good strategies like fundraising on Black Friday and using normal bodied people as models, both of which have yielded roaring success for the aforementioned brands. Will athleisure’s latest competitor follow suit? Results still TBD.