The connection between the fashion industry and the environment is clear – depending on various standards of measurement, the global fashion industry produces anywhere from four to 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As a multi-trillion-dollar sector that’s only expected to grow, brands are scrambling to become more environmentally-friendly, especially as consumer awareness increases.
But difficulties arise when retailers try to address sustainability, because fashion is not just one industry – it’s several, including the agricultural, chemical and fossil fuels. Adding to the interconnected nature of fashion is the fact that sustainability models will look different depending on the size of the business and across products and regions.
”I think what’s really important to remember about sustainability and sustainable practices is that it’s a spectrum,” says Anika Kozlowski, assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University. “It’s continuously evolving and we’re adapting as we learn new information about the impacts and how to measure these impacts.
”What this looks like, in reality, is that Canadian retailers are finding different ways of adopting sustainable practices that are most suited to their niche.
Take Kotn, a Toronto-based home and clothing brand that sources directly from Egypt, for example.
Chief executive officer and co-founder Rami Helali is a strong believer that traceability is the foundation of any sustainable retailer. “You can’t tackle your material impact on climate change as an industry without understanding the entire impact of your supply chain – not just the final garment being assembled,” he says.
This means knowing where all stages of production take place, ranging from where raw materials are farmed to where the final product is put together.
A 2021 report on transparency in the fashion industry published by Fashion Revolution found that, among 250 of the world’s largest brands, only 47 per cent disclosed their first-tier manufacturer details, which is the final stage of production such as sewing and packaging.
The numbers beyond first-tier suppliers are much more dismal, with only 27 per cent of surveyed brands disclosing second-tier suppliers, also known as processing facilities. When it comes to the final tier of where raw materials are sourced, the number drops to 11 per cent. Notable Canadian brands on the list include Aritzia and Canada Goose, which both scored one per cent on traceability.
While larger brands may be behind on this front, Kotn isn’t the only Canadian retailer to put an emphasis on supply chain transparency. Footwear company Thesus, which changed its name from Alice + Whittles on Nov. 1, is also committed to reaching full traceability. While the company is close but not quite there yet, CEO and co-founder Sofi Khwaja says that it is a priority.
Where Thesus really thrives are its designs and materials, says Ms. Khwaja. “The most important thing for us as a brand, and which has really set us apart from the beginning, is our real attention to material and the diversion of waste in our products.”
Thesus isn’t a fast fashion company – they don’t release new products every season, or even every year. Instead, Ms. Khwaja says they take the time to develop a product that is sustainable. “An important part of moving away from fast-fashion models … is really knowing your partners at a deeper level and committing to them so that you can be accountable for that.”
The company is part of a growing trend in the industry to pivot away from more damaging materials such as polyester and toward more environmentally friendly materials such as hemp.
At Canadian retailer Frank and Oak, hemp is fast becoming a popular material, along with fabrics such as kapok and yak wool. For Melisa Alessi, head of production and design at Frank and Oak, it’s clear the industry is currently more extractive than it is additive. She wants to help the company move toward the latter.
Ms. Alessi has led Frank and Oak in adopting more sustainable measures such as using recycled polyester and designing for an eventual circular economy. At the same time, she recognizes that the company still has room for improvement, such as on traceability.
”It’s on us to be able to trace our supply chain and to be able to speak in a transparent way about it,” she explains.
While Ryerson’s Ms. Kozlowski says recycling materials is helpful to creating circularity, it’s not a silver bullet.
”The scale at which we’re producing is out of control and recycling is not the answer to allow the production to continue at the rate that it does, especially when clothing production is forecasted to increase over the next 10 years,” she says.
She hopes the Canadian fashion industry will realize the importance of creating circularity and start working toward that in a variety of ways.
”Sustainability is a spectrum. It’s not a binary, it’s not good or bad. There’s so many ranges on what sustainability can look like.”