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How the fashion industry strives to keep its products out of the landfill

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Kristi Soomer is the founder and CEO of clothing company Encircled.

Glenn Lowson / The Globe and Mail

When Kristi Soomer launched her sustainable clothing brand Encircled almost ten years ago, she wanted to make sure her products were environmentally friendly and socially fair.

This has not been easy.

Fashion has grown into a $ 3 trillion per year global industry, largely because it is based on the principle of buying low and changing with the seasons. This is called fast fashion.

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The fashion industry is known to exploit labor and the environment, says Ms. Soomer.

Toronto-based Encircled Inc. is a Certified B Company, which means it has passed a third-party assessment of the company’s social and environmental performance, from raw materials to worker wages. The circled clothing and accessories are produced in Canada with 75% biodegradable materials.

Using sustainable materials and maintaining a low-carbon supply chain have added levels of challenge, stress and cost to the business, says Ms. Soomer.

It certainly adds complexity, but I think it was worth it, says Ms Soomer, whose company is part of what’s known as the slow fashion side of the industry. Finally, I’m starting to see people interested in the why of our brand and our values, which is exciting.

As climate action becomes increasingly important to consumers and businesses, Ms. Soomers’ persistence is paying off. Encircled, which sells direct to consumers (online only for now), saw double-digit growth last year despite the pandemic.

The biggest challenge is to compete with fast fashion, says Ms. Soomer. Materials and labor cost 10 to 20 times more for durable products than for mass fashion produced abroad.

But clothes that are cheap and easy to put away might be valued.

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Profits in the fashion industry fell 90% in 2020 due to the global pandemic, according to global management consultancy McKinsey & Co. State of Fashion 2021 report.

Meanwhile, consumers have changed, he says. Fashion leaders will need to revisit business models that exploit people and the planet, McKinsey says.

The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and combined shipping, according to a report by the World Bank Group released before the pandemic. At this rate, he said, the industry would increase its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% by 2030. This is the opposite of the reduction targets set in the United Nations Paris Agreement. on climate action, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2 C, preferably 1.5 C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

They have a long way to go, but most industries do, says Coro Strandberg, president of Strandberg Consulting, a Vancouver-based company specializing in corporate sustainability and social responsibility.

Soomer established the brand in 2012 after imagining the multi-purpose Chrysalis Cardi, which could save luggage space and be both versatile and fashionable.

Glenn Lowson / The Globe and Mail

Canada is lagging behind other countries, says Strandberg, but believes changes are starting to occur in the industry. For example, she cites Metro Vancouvers Textile Lab for Circularity, which aims to divert the 22,000 tonnes of clothing that goes to the region’s landfills each year.

Companies like North Vancouver-based Arcteryx have launched online second-hand marketplaces and several Canadian cities now have high-end fashion rental outlets.

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Arcteryx and Lululemon Athletica Inc. are two Canadian clothing companies that have signed the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, says Strandberg, an initiative to reduce the sector’s GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

But industry alone won’t do it, says Strandberg.

If we leave it to these pioneering companies, the Patagonias, the Lululemons, to innovate and evolve their supply chains and products to be circular, low-carbon and regenerative, we could be 10 years old and we barely moved the needle, she said. . You cannot do this work one business at a time. You have to work at the sector level, at the level of the whole industry.

The federal government, which will host the Global Circular Economy Forum later this year, has a role to play, she said.

First, it can level the playing field with regulations such as carbon pricing, a landfill ban and / or extended producer responsibility, which would force companies to take back end-of-use products for them. to recycle.

Second, it can enable companies benefiting from financial and fiscal incentives to decarbonize and innovate, and it can help set up sectoral take-back and sorting systems for recycling.

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Right now it’s an uphill battle because the whole logistics system is ready to take the goods from the farm or the factory and land them. This is the system we have in place and it is the cheapest system there is, she said.

For example, the European Union is funding a circular economy initiative called New Cotton Project, which recycles used textiles.

We don’t see that kind of investment in Canada, she said.

Fashion Takes Action, a Toronto-based nonprofit that aims to move the industry towards sustainability, recently ended its Ontario Textile Diversion Collaborative after its core funding ended.

The Canadian industry has been slow to commit to sustainability, but over the past two years we are finally seeing progress, says Kelly Drennan, Managing Director of Fashion Takes Actions.

Encircled manufactures all of its clothing locally using natural fabrics.

Glenn Lowson / The Globe and Mail

More and more Canadian brands, large and small, are becoming B-Corp. certified, which is not easy, she says.

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According to Drennan, there are a few key elements to accelerate green fashion in this country, including government policies such as extended producer responsibility and federal tariff changes to discourage retailers from destroying unsaleable products and excess inventory. .

Government and industry can also invest in research and development of sustainable technologies, she said, while ensuring industry transparency and accountability in environmental performance.

The fashion industry must also collaborate more to solve the problem, adds Drennan.

We don’t have time to duplicate efforts or reinvent the wheel, she says. There are too many issues to be solved, so it is better that we align our efforts, because we will get to where we need to be much faster.

Yet one of the biggest challenges is overcoming consumer demand for novelty, says Katie Wilson, senior director of sustainability for Vancouver-based Arcteryx.

It’s consumer demand and it’s part of what created this cycle of overconsumption, Wilson says. It is not easy and it is certainly a challenge that we have to face: how to give a feeling of newness without producing a lot more products.

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Arcteryx, which works with 20 factories in a dozen different countries, has always offered repair services. The used gear market was recently launched on its US website, but Canadian customers can offer equipment exchanges for discounts.

That’s one of the ways to achieve our climate goals, is to actually invest in business models and product offerings that don’t require us to create new products, she says.

Clothing resale is one of the fastest growing segments of the fashion industry. In the United States, the used clothing market is expected to reach $ 64 billion by the middle of the decade, up from around $ 28 billion today, according to a report from ThredUp and GlobalData Retail. The report says second-hand goods are expected to account for 17% of consumers’ storage space by 2029, up from just 3% in 2009.

Consignments and second-hand clothing in Canada were worth between $ 2.4 billion and $ 2.8 billion in 2018, according to a report by Trendex, a marketing research and consulting firm.

The fashion industry must stop procrastinating, says Wilson.

It is up to companies and individuals to make decisions to act and find a path to progress, not perfection. We don’t really know the answer. It was difficult for us to set ourselves ambitious and frightening goals, but also important ones to incite action.

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