Quince Says It’s Ethical and Sustainable. Is That True?
Have you noticed a new brand called Quince popping up on social media recently? The company features “luxury” items at up to 80% off retail, such as its $59 Italian Nappa leather bags, $50 Mongolian cashmere sweaters, and $50 18K gold plated rings. Shipping and first returns are always free, and there isn’t even a membership fee to join.
The “unbeatable prices” has helped Quince quickly grab consumers’ attention, gather stellar reviews, and attract a long waitlist for its best-selling products, like the washable silk pajama set. Sponsored reviews from fashion influencers also rave about getting a great deal from a company that is “sustainably focused.”
Previously named Last Brand, Quince is a fresh San Francisco start-up that claims to produce “luxury essentials at radically low price,” with “no more middleman.” The brand discloses price breakdown for each product, and markets itself as “sustainable at our core.”
Does the lingo sound a bit familiar? Similar to Everlane, Quince is the newest entrant to the direct-to-consumer startup game and has raised $14.5 million in seed funding. The brand has been featured in Forbes and Fast Company for its pioneering manufacturer-to-consumer (M2C) model, where factories produce on demand and ship directly to consumers. It’s dabbled in a wide range of product categories, including clothing, leather goods, jewelry, accessories, and home goods. The founder Sid Gupta told Real Simple, “we are constantly looking at new categories that we can Quince-ify.”
A reader wrote in and asked us: Is Quince truly as ethical and sustainable as it labels itself?
After diving into its website and reviews, and cross-checking its claims with relevant certification databases, I found that Quince’s sustainability claim falls more under the rubric of an effective marketing gimmick than an authentic commitment to ethics and sustainability. In some cases, its claims start to look like outright lies.
Below are the things that troubled me about the brand:
Vague Sustainability Claims
Quince portrays itself as embodying “sustainability as a standard, not a luxury” and says, “each part of our business is designed with sustainability in mind.” That’s a bunch of pretty, empty words without referring to anything specific.
Quince says it offers “a vast selection of organic and recycled materials,” and it is “working hard to use sustainably produced materials that minimize our impact on the planet, like our Organic Percale Sheets”, and “Organic Turkish Cotton Towels.” I clicked through all the product pages, but couldn’t find any certifications that substantiate its claim that its “100% organic long-staple Turkish cotton” is actually organic or “free of harmful chemicals and toxins.”
Another common trick: green-washy brands like to cherry-pick a few token products with the perfect sustainability record and pretend that its entire product lines are equally as green.
For example, the Ultra-Soft Performance Legging does use 84% GRS (Global Recycle Standard)-certified recycled polyester, is produced in a factory that meets Bluesign standards and is certified by WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) for safe operation. Sounds legit.
However, I am also not sure how much of Quince’s products fall under the verified sustainable category within the brand’s diverse product offerings. Quince has no comprehensive list of all the materials used, what percentage are certified organic or recycled, how much of the materials are sourced, dyed, tanned, washed, and finished in a sustainable manner, and what is the plan to expand the share.
Another example is Quince’s best-selling Mongolian cashmere line (which is from Inner Mongolia, an autonomous province in China, not Mongolia the country where the cashmere is indeed famously high quality). The brand claims that its cashmere is “sourced from sustainable origins in order to secure top-quality and ethical practices.” How does Quince define “sustainable origins” and “ethical practices”? Can the brand provide any evidence of traceability and transparency in the sourcing process? I can’t find any.
Lying About Its Shipping Footprint
Quince highlights its supposed reduced carbon emissions by shipping directly from the factory to consumers. Shipping usually constitutes only a tiny fraction of a product’s carbon footprint (under 3%) and is far outweighed by the impact of production. Well, the impact is small if items are shipped by sea freight.
Let’s compare Quince to another brand that shares its cost breakdown: the new sustainable Swedish label Amendi. It says freight makes up around 4% of the sale price of each Amendi product. But Quince says its freight is 35% of the cost of a pair of pants. Why is freight so pricey? Is it because the made-to-order model relies on its items being flown individually instead of shipped bulk by boat to customers?
Quince declined to answer our question about its shipping method. So our team decided to test it ourselves by ordering an item in June 2021 and analyzing the packing labels. The product was manufactured in Shenzhen, China. But the tracking numbers show that the item was originally shipped from Taipei, Taiwan to San-Francisco in mid-2020, by air. After the order was placed, the item traveled from a distribution center in Edison, NJ to the local destination via air, and then was delivered locally by USPS.
It is clear that at least for this particular product, Quince did not manufacture it on demand or ship it directly from the factory, as advertised. Even for items that may ship directly from the factory to consumers, without a comprehensive carbon inventory audit, it is difficult to tell whether there are any carbon savings compared to Quince’s competitors. Even worse, Quince’s individual air-shipping model may have a greater carbon footprint than traditional bulk shipping, which usually relies on less carbon-intensive ocean and land transport.
Many reviewers also mentioned that the products at Quince usually do not run true to size and have to return their first orders, which only adds to the company’s shipping emissions.
So one of Quince’s main sustainability claims turns out to be almost entirely false.
Nearly Non-Existent Supply Chain Transparency
Quince said it only partners with factories that share its vision for “sustainability, accountability, and transparency.” Yet the only information the brand shares about its factories is a map of their approximate locations (mostly in China and India).
There are no details about the names, photos, or conditions of the cut-and-sew factories, let alone mills and raw material producers deeper into the supply chain.
Quince’s best-selling washable silk pajama sets claims to have met OEKO-TEX and Bluesign standards, and to be produced in BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) certified factories. We looked up the brand partner database of both organizations, but Quince is not listed. It is possible that for bluesign, the dyehouse or mills that Quince partners with are certified. But without disclosure from the brand about the specific factory names, we cannot verify such claims. Similarly, when we asked OEKO-TEX, a representative said that without a listed STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX label number, it could not verify the claim.
Moreover, BSCI does not issue certifications. It is a code of principles committing to gradual improvements. An auditor would audit against these principles, rather than BSCI itself conducting the audit. We asked the brand whether any factories in its supply chain have social compliance auditors but the brand did not answer by the time of publication.
Quince claims the factories it works with all “pay fair wages to their workers.” The same vague lingo again! How does Quince define responsible production? How does it determine what wage is fair? How many hours do the workers work per day? What standards does the brand adhere to?
I couldn’t find any Vendor Code of Conduct listed on Quince’s website, nor evidence that factories are following Fair Trade principles, SA8000, or participate in FLA (Fair Labor Association).
In fact, a Clean Clothes Campaign study found that 95% of brands were not able to supply “any evidence” of paying garment workers a living wage, and it’s widely believed that a tiny percentage of garment workers globally are actually paid a living wage. I can’t fathom how Quince is able to keep its price to the bone while paying its workers fairly.
In addition, Quince’s on-demand production model—if it’s even true, given the long warehouse journey of the above product we ordered—means there is more unpredictability and fluctuation in orders, with very quick turnaround. I am very curious to know how Quince ensures its partner factories can deliver on time without working overtime or outsourcing to subcontractors with less stringent ethical standards.
A Business Model that Fuels Over-Consumption
With the direct-to-consumer market becoming increasingly crowded and competitive, brands are trying to undercut each other on price, speed, and now green marketing.
That’s probably what worries me the most: Quince’s unbelievably low prices, free shipping and return policy, and deceptive sustainability campaign only further drive rampant consumption that exhausts our dwindling natural resources.
What is not shown in the company’s vaunted price breakdown is the cost of design, marketing, and corporate personnel. Amendi’s cost breakdown shows the brand and retail margin makes up a total 79% of the total price of a product. (That’s because even a minimum wage in the Western world is many multiples of a minimum or living wage in production countries.) It seems that Quince is only making a profit of $2 to $5 per product—making its total brand and retail margin on a $34 sweatpants less than 20%. (As a direct-to-consumer brand, its brand costs would include the marketing, fulfillment and returns that a retailer usually takes on. It would include those paid reviews from influencers and Instagram ads.)
I can’t help but wonder how the company manages to stay in business without cutting corners. Does it even pay its own employees at corporate headquarters a fair wage?
At the industry’s current level of technology, even the most responsibly-produced products still inflict negative impacts on the planet; that’s why Patagonia initiated its famous “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign.
Comparatively, Quince is probably at a pale green (if green at all) level in its sustainability journey, and it’s sponsored many reviews to persuade you that you need yet another cashmere sweater. Do you know that it takes four cashmere goats to yield enough fiber for one sweater? The regions that produce the majority of the world’s cashmere—Mongolia and Inner Mongolia—are mostly extremely fragile dry-land, highly susceptible to desertification, and the recent surge of cheap cashmere knitwear has led to explosive growth in the size of cashmere goats and 80% degradation of the grasslands. Less grass means undernourished goats and lower quality fiber, so herders make up for lost revenue by breeding more goats, hence starting another vicious cycle. This desertification is a direct result of the cheapening of cashmere.
Additionally, spinning, knitting, dyeing, and finishing cashmere are all very laborious and require highly trained, experienced hands. That’s why the crafting cost of only $5.61 for a cashmere crewneck is too low for industry standard. $0 for a similar v-neck cashmere sweater is definitely too low.
Please keep in mind, if the price tag is too good to be true, it is most likely being subsidized by a degraded ecosystem and underpaid workers.
Ambiguous Answers from the Brand
We reached out to Quince for comments before publishing this article. The answers we got either beat around the bush (emphasizing the number of years the producers have been in business rather than providing any specific proof for their ethical and sustainable practices), repeated their marketing claims, or dodged our questions about supply transparency completely by labeling it a trade secret.
Here is their response in its entirety:
“All of our sustainability information is available on our website. Answering most of the questions you asked would divulge some of our competitive advantages!
Quince was built with sustainability in mind. We ship directly from the factory to you, reducing the carbon footprint of getting goods to the final destination.
We partner with factories we know and trust. In China, where our cashmere is assembled, we work with a factory whose relationship with one of our co-founders spans more than 20 years. And the factory has worked with the same goat herders in Inner Mongolia for the past 30 years. In Italy, we work with a small factory run by two brothers who have been in business for more than 20 years. They create leather goods using small-batch production and their “factory” looks much more like an atelier run by a handful of master craftsmen who have spent a lifetime working with leather!
We work with world-class factories that are supplying products to the top brands in the US and EU. All of our factories are compliant with ILO standards, paying fair living wages and working conditions. You will see from the transparent pricing available on each product’s page that transparency matters a lot to us!”
Next time when you encounter very nebulous or generalized claims, I recommend you to call up or email the brands for clarifying questions. A truly sustainable brand will not be hesitant to share specific information, whereas ambiguous answers usually imply that the brand has something to hide.
Our Conclusion About Quince’s Green Claims
To recap, a selection of Quince’s products are made with organic or recycled materials (many without certifications) and the company claims to work with “ethical” factories (without disclosing any supply chain information). Quince says it reduces carbon emission by shipping directly from factories to consumers, but the label we examined showed items being air freighted from somewhere far from the factory over the course of a year.
Admittedly, Quince is a young company and might still be in the figuring-things-out stage. Or the company might be working with small suppliers where certifications do not yet make sense at their scale. But, the brand did not say this, choosing instead to copy-paste from a press statement.
Quince should, at the very least, be more transparent and honest about where it really is on the journey and where it plans to go, rather than to quickly tag itself as “sustainable at our core” without doing the work to back that bold statement up.
So, if you want to buy some actually ethical and affordable fashion, check out some of the transparent and pioneering brands we’ve listed for you here. They’ve been doing the hard work that Quince has not.