Fast Fashion is destroying the planet, but Cuyana is here to help

Cuyana, a direct-to-consumer apparel and accessories brand, focuses on selling fewer, better things to decrease the environmental impact of apparel manufacturing and disposal.

Fast Fashion – it’s the democratization of fashion, we’re told. Retailers borrow what they see on the catwalk, design and produce cheaper versions, and sell those trendy clothes at incredibly low prices. At first glance, this is a win for the consumer. Fashion is no longer an exclusive, aspirational industry. We can all afford to play thanks to the likes of H&M, Forever 21 and Zara, who put the latest trends in all of our hands.

We’re buying into this message: every year, Americans purchase 20 billion new items of clothing, making fast fashion is a $1.2 trillion industry [1]. But the fast fashion business model is predicated on cheap prices for consumers, which leads to the use of cheap materials by manufacturers. The production of this enormous volume of clothing contributes to the apparel industry becoming the 2nd largest polluter of fresh water globally (after oil & gas) [2].

The cheap materials impact the environment once they’ve become “so last season.” On average Americans wear an article of clothing seven times before they send 10 million tons of clothing to the dump each year [2]. To satisfy our demand for low prices manufacturers use low quality cotton and polyester, which release methane, a greenhouse gas, and take hundreds of years to biodegrade [3]. What’s more, the poor dyeing and bleaching practices used to keep costs low can “leach from the textiles and – in improperly sealed landfills – into groundwater” [3].

These environmentally-damaging fast fashion practices are being addressed head-on by Cuyana, an apparel and accessories brand focused on selling “fewer, better things.” Their sourcing practices and customer experiences all encourage the environmentally-responsible and less frequent consumption of high-quality products.

Sourcing Practices

Cuyana emphasizes the consumption of “fewer, better things” with more than just its slogan. The company carries quality, basic products, and while prices are on the higher end ($215 for a silk dress), they’re more accessible than prices for comparable products from traditional luxury brands. This is due to the fact that “for each collection [Cuyana sources] exclusively from suppliers that produce the materials and garments in-house” [4].

Cutting out the middle man allows Cuyana to charge lower prices than traditional luxury brands. Thus, consumers receive high quality for a more accessible price, and are not inherently encouraged by the business model to constantly purchase and dispose of clothing, as is the case in fast fashion. Cuyana’s quality and accessible yet expensive pricing strategy are working to help drive down the 150 billion items of clothing that are produced each year [5].

Customer Experience

Cuyana’s sustainable business practices are demonstrated throughout the customer experience. In addition to further driving down costs by being a direct-to-consumer brand (amplifying the impact of accessible prices and quality items explained above), Cuyana also launched the Lean Closet Program along with the brand in 2013. When a customer purchases a product from Cuyana and selects “lean shipping,” the customer receives a reusable bag, which is to be filled with old clothes. The customer can then ship the bag back to Cuyana, who will donate the clothing to a non-profit, H.E.A.R.T. (Helping Ease Abuse Related Trauma). The Lean Closet program encourages customers to adopt the practice of donating rather than simply throwing away their clothes. It also helps to directly reduce waste by donating clothes on behalf of the consumer.

cuyana2 cuyana1

Pressure from Investors

            The goal of retail is, ultimately, to drive sales, so Cuyana’s branding could eventually come into conflict with its business. Cuyana is a venture-backed retailer, and pressure for positive cash flow could put its sustainable business practices at risk [6]. Because Cuyana’s business model is fundamental to how they are addressing climate change, any risks to the model are risks to its sustainability. Cuyana should be diligent in deciding which investors it raises fund from, to ensure the values of the company are not compromised in the future.





Exxon, in Denial?


Cashmere Catastrophe

Student comments on Fast Fashion is destroying the planet, but Cuyana is here to help

  1. Hey Jenn! This is fascinating. I can’t believe the statistic about how we only wear an item of clothing 7 times before throwing it out! Cuyana sounds like it’s doing great things to improve the sustainability of fast fashion. My big question is – can Cuyana really have an impact? The cycle of fashion, even fast fashion, seems predicated on the cycle of high end fashion, which is also supported by some of the facts you provide early on in your blog post. Do you think Cuyana can make a fundamental change to the way we consume fast fashion before changing our mindset about fashion in general? Do you think high end fashion bears the onus for tackling this issue and creating more sustainable trends with less frequent turnover?

  2. It seems that there are two main factors at play here: production and disposal. On the production side, companies focus on cash flow as you mentioned and are therefore incentivized to cut down on costs (hence the reliance on cotton and polyester). To what degree are other natural fibers considered as alternatives? Yak down, for example, provides a similar level of softness to that of cashmere (Yak Down fibers range from 16 – 20 microns), is even warmer than merino wool (10% – 40% depending on the study), and is a fraction of the cost, not to mentioned farmed more sustainably. On the disposal front, are there methods to reclaim materials from old / used clothes? Aside from the “icky” factor of reusing someone’s old socks, the cleaning, extraction, and reuse of old clothes seem like a process which could decrease the overall number of clothes in landfills. If the cost to reclaim a square foot of adequate quality fiber is markedly less than that of newly harvested fiber, such companies could compete on price point in offering raw materials in the manufacturing process (assuming the quality and cleanliness of reclaimed fiber is comparable to that of newly harvested fibers).

  3. Extremely interesting post. It makes a good job highlighting a very important issue which we are commonly not aware of. I believe that we have all been victims of the fast fashion industry, buying into the business model and how it benefits the consumer. Before reading this post, I had never entertained the idea that this particular industry is a large contributor of the world’s pollutions and climate change. It is nice to hear that there are companies trying to tackle the issue, specially by the donation program.

    Having said that, I am very skeptic about the success of Cuyana in the long run. I do not see the value added of buying the clothes through their platform instead of going directly to the mid-point price point designers. It will be very difficult to educate the population on the effects fast fashion has on the planet, specially since retailers have spent the last decades training consumers to adapt to these business models.

  4. Wow. I had no idea that a) we only wear an item of clothing an average of 7 times; b) that cotton and polyester release methane; and c) that the bleach used in clothing has that large of an impact after being tossed away. I’m a big fan of Cuyana’s business model, though I do think it remains a relatively inaccessible option for most consumers; if Cuyana hopes to make a big impact, it’s going to have to find a way to reach a larger, more inclusive option. (Take thrift stores, for example — I always just viewed them as a great place to buy a Halloween costume, but I never considered them through the lens you’ve presented in your post.)

    Is there a way to democratize access to sustainable clothing? Or at least communicate the costs of simply throwing out old clothing instead of recycling? The cynic in me is saying: no, there’s no way people will curb their purchasing habits. What if we direct them instead to used, or recycled clothing?

  5. Super cool Jenn! It’s good to see that companies are looking to close the loop on their products. I know this is something the technology industry has attempted to correct, given the potent impact of their rare earth components seeping into landfill earth. It’s great that Cuyana is taking up the sustainability cause with such a unique plan, that also helps the less fortunate within society. I think Cuyana is on to something significant here. Companies should not just be responsible for the sustainable development and presale activities of their products, but also take an interest in the ultimate use of most products – garbage. Very innovative stuff here! Great find!

  6. Jenn – thanks for sharing! I am actually a huge fan of this brand and was not aware of their sustainability efforts. I also did not realize how much pollution the retail industry was causing! I’ve always viewed the Zara model and its peers favorably in that it makes high-fashion more accessible to the masses but I never realized the downside of their lower prices and lower quality goods.
    I hope that Cuyana is able to keep its investors satisfied and agree that this will require investors with similar values. I also hope Cuyana is able to find a business model that allows them to maximize profits as well as work towards sustainability. They should make sure to leverage their sustainability practices in their value proposition. I am not sure customers are aware of this aspect of the company and this could get more people to buy into the brand!

  7. Thanks for the great article, Jenn! I had never considered the environmental impact of “fast-fashion” to be material enough, until I read your piece. I think Cuyana’s business model is really interesting, but like our classmates mentioned above, it seems rather inaccessible and at the current price point it may not be able to compete with the H&Ms and Zara’s of the world. I do think that Cuyana needs to find a way to bring down its production costs while still retaining quality. It seems to me that consumer behavior in this market is driven less by durability of products and more by the fleeting nature of trends (I was so surprised to learn that we wear an item of clothing on average 7 times!). I do think more needs to be done to collect and recycle clothes that people no longer have use for.

Leave a comment