How Ontario is becoming a hotspot for ethical apparel

Fast fashion contributes to climate change and labour issues worldwide. But designers, dyers, knitters, and farmers across the province are working together to offer stylish — and sustainable — alternatives
By Veronica Zaretski - Published on February 4, 2019
a seamstress in a sewing factory
A seamstress works at Mayana Genevière, a lingerie company and small factory in Toronto. (Courtesy of Mayana Genevière)

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The quick rise to fame of tidying expert Marie Kondo — she has a bestselling book and her own Netflix show — underscores a growing anxiety about overconsumption and the havoc it can wreak. And one of the main targets of our appetite for things is fast fashion.

Fast fashion is the mass production of cheap, trendy, and disposable clothes (think brands like H&M and Zara). It’s been associated with labour issues and climate change. Recent reports show that the industry produces about 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions each year — more than international flights and shipping combined.

Now a recent wave of designers and apparel producers in Ontario wants to offer a lasting alternative. The province’s burgeoning ethical-apparel industry consciously embraces collaboration, transparency, and innovation, emphasizing the DIY approach and creating new networks that promote collaborations between like-minded designers, dyers, farmers, weavers, knitters, and other professionals.

Kristi Soomer, the CEO and Founder of Encircled, had those values in mind when she started her small factory and boutique in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. “We make about 10 per cent of our inventory,” she says. “But 100 per cent of our products are made in Toronto.” Soomers says her company has grown significantly since it opened in 2012, and she is looking to boost production at the factory.

Her customers are informed and thoughtful, she says: they want to know who makes their clothing and how her employees are treated. She credits the company’s success to the fact that it deals transparently with such questions — and to its ability to produce clothing in small batches. “If you’re doing it in-house, you can run smaller batches and then you don’t end up overproducing clothing,” she says. “That’s really fundamental to the idea of slow fashion.”

Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks, founder and creative director of the Peggy Sue Collection, creates locally produced, sustainable apparel by working with yarn farmers and artisans, most of whom are from Ontario, and with cotton farmers in California and Texas.

When she established the label in 2016, she worked hard to find the right partners to help her produce her collections. “When we work with our farmers, we make sure that they treat their employees fairly and their animals fairly,” she says. “I worked on a number of the farms helping with their shearing seasons, their lambing seasons, and bagging practices, and so on, so that they understand what we’re looking for, and I understand their practices.”

She, too, points to the importance of transparency. “We don’t do the whole secrecy thing: our supply chain is entirely open-source,” she says. “I need these people to stay in business, and, furthermore, if anyone wants to use their services, by all means, please. Gone are the days of clothes handled in secrecy — in my mind that is just irresponsible.”

Deaven-Smiltnieks has found a supportive community through the Upper Canada Fibreshed. Started by Jennifer Osborn and Becky Porlier, and affiliated with the international Fibershed network, it brings together farmers, designers, artisans, and others who are working to build a system based on local fibres, local dyes, and sustainable labour.

For Porlier, connecting fibre professionals who have similar goals is meaningful work. “We started the fibreshed officially in 2015, and we incorporated as a non-profit in 2016,” she says. “And it’s grown exponentially since. The interest from the community is growing.”

She started the fibreshed, she says, because of concerns about climate change. “This has a huge potential to move the needle in terms of putting systems in place that are regenerative and that sequester carbon.”

When Nadine Woods’s Toronto-based lingerie company and small factory, Mayana Genevière, began operations in 2014, she wanted to create pieces that help women heal. That meant producing lingerie for women at all stages of life — including those recovering from childbirth — and doing so ethically. “I’m very particular about how I source and where I find the fabric, how it’s made,” she says.

When she’s not at her shop training sewing professionals in the intricacies of lingerie production (the making of a bra requires eight different machines), she’s working with knitters, dyers, and artisans — most of them Ontario-based. Still, sourcing sustainable materials can be challenging. But even that is changing: Woods says she recently found a company overseas that makes sustainable lace out of upcycled fabrics.

Soomers, Deaven-Smiltnieks, and Woods all say that the success of ethical apparel will ultimately depend on one key factor: consumer interest. According to a 2013 Business Development Bank of Canada report, one-third of consumers research a company’s ethical practices before making a purchase; a CTV poll from the same year showed that, overall, Canadians are willing to pay more for ethical apparel.

Corporations such as H&M and J. Crew have started to take notice, offering their own versions of sustainable fashion. Canadian brands helmed by sustainability-conscious designers — for example, Ethan Song, of Frank and Oak, and Stevie Crowne — are popping up. New businesses such as Sheryl Luz-Seller’s Artisella offer selections of ethically sourced brands. Even thrift stores are seeing a boom.

“It’s easy to make beautiful things,” says Deaven-Smiltnieks. “It’s not challenging to seduce people with a trend. But what I think is a truly worthwhile challenge is creating something that is good and sustainable.”

Veronica Zaretski is a journalist who writes about the arts, culture, and technology.

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