When Kristi Soomer started the Toronto-based women’s ethical clothing brand Encircled nearly seven years ago, her goal was to create a high-quality capsule wardrobe concept for women made from sustainable materials and manufactured in Canada.
Today, the ethical clothing line uses several sustainable fabrics that are knit and dyed in Toronto – such as silky MicroModal, which is naturally derived from beech-tree pulp – and sources garment production among six local Toronto sewing studios, but getting to this point was not easy. Soomer’s initial challenge was finding factories that would work with her.
“Labour supply was and is an issue, and then to scale up with us from maybe 50 pieces per [production] run and be able to grow with us to 200-300 pieces? The [factories] are picky and the failure rate for new designers in fashion is incredibly high so I can understand that hesitancy. It’s a financial risk.”
But even with a fractured supply chain, Encircled’s design ethos of seasonless apparel has so far worked to Soomer’s advantage: Today, it’s a seven-figure business.
Soomer chooses to make her products in Canada because fair treatment of workers is a priority. "We can rely on the province to enforce health and safety and environmental regulations,” she says. Customers, she adds, often mention that seeing The True Cost or RiverBlue documentaries about the global fashion industry’s negative environmental and human-rights impact has changed their perspective on where and how things are made. Much like the renewed interest in the food industry’s supply chain, after years of fast-fashion imports and disasters such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, consumer demand for transparency has driven a renewed desire for goods to be made in Canada.
Capital investment grants and policy aimed specifically at scaling up independent local apparel manufacturing would help address some of the challenges designers such as Soomer face. Seasoned sewing-machine operators, as well as marker makers and other specialists, have aged out of the industry and closed up shop, leaving behind a shortage in skilled labour that affects access to production across the board. “There are new entrepreneurs and slowly, a revival,” Soomer says, “but there still are gaps in the industry.” For example, Encircled knits about 50 per cent of its fabrics in Ontario, and dyes it there as well, but there are only five knitters and one dye house left to choose from.
“The biggest issue right now in this sector is the lack of labour,” Glynis Tao says. The Vancouver apparel-business specialist and consultant works with British Columbia-based brands on sourcing and product development, and has been in the industry for 20 years. “There were 31 local factories in operation in 2000 [in the greater Vancouver area],” Tao says. “Now, it’s down to 13.”
“The ones that do exist are swamped and cannot accommodate the demand, and that stunts the growth of emerging and mid-sized designers,” she adds. Remaining factories in B.C. are at capacity producing for larger national brands, such as Mountain Equipment Co-op and Lululemon, and can’t take on work for smaller ones.
According to the B.C. Alliance for Manufacturing’s last comprehensive apparel-industry labour-market report, released in 2016, the industry is the fourth largest manufacturing sector in the province. But the projected 9,000 apparel-business vacancies expected by 2025 will further undermine competitiveness. The solution to significant skills shortages would be training, Tao says, but there’s no funding support to help mid-sized enterprises train a talent pool, let alone lure new young workers into the industry.
The makeup of the waves of immigration that have historically helped populate Canadian production jobs has shifted, and priority government-policy areas for economic growth are in tech or advanced manufacturing. Work-force expansion programs and employer wage incentives would be helpful, especially given the level of skill required for the same minimum wage more easily earned elsewhere.
“There is no question in my mind that talent, generally, at the production level is the constraint going forward – in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal,” says Bob Kirke, executive director of the national Canadian Apparel Federation (CAF). “There are constraints on what you can pay, and sewing is a challenging job,” he says. “Relative to other employment you could get for a similar or better wage, it’s hard.”
Canada Goose is the exception that proves the rule, Kirke says of the wildly successful outerwear company. “They are training new people at the sewing machine and production supervisor level. They’ve devoted the resources and time to building a new work force.”
The CAF has operated effective wage-subsidy programs in the past but, now that funding has come to an end, Kirke says the company is looking at other programs and lobbying for advocacy priorities for the sector that would help support various other parts of the puzzle. “We need to look at non-traditional areas and communities,” he says, “then companies have to increase their own capacity to train those people. It takes six months to train someone, and it costs money.”
The continuing crunch is most felt by mid-size companies such as Encircled. “You’ve got small, growing internet-based companies – and then you have the Gooses,” he says. The reality of the skills scarcity, Kirke adds, is that, in the future, brands that are growing may have to consider manufacturing with sustainable-practice factories in countries such as Portugal as a viable alternative to Canada.
Amie Cunningham, who started her organic apparel company Thief & Bandit a decade ago, has a different problem – a lack of equipment to keep up with demand. Thief & Bandit sells direct to customers (sales in 2018 were in the mid six-figures, up 40 per cent over 2017). And in the past, she had no problem sourcing interested skilled sewing and garment-production workers from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design’s fashion department. Until now, Thief & Bandit’s apparel has been made to order, but the company has recently started to build up inventory to help cover the busy season and account for sales in its new showroom.
Cunningham recently combined her in-house screen printing and cut-and-sew production under one roof. “It’s been a big leap for us to get into that space, where customers can see the entire process of the product being crafted,” Cunningham says of the airy heritage property in downtown Halifax that also incorporates a new showroom boutique.
The company has gradually reinvested profits in industrial sergers and straight-stitch machines, but in some cases still relies on a number of sewing machines meant for home use, which have smaller motors and wear out more quickly. “An industrial cover-stitch machine would be a dream but at nearly $5,000, that’s not in the budget for a small business like mine,” she says. Government grants to help invest in machinery would bolster the bottom line.
In the past, Cunningham has entered corporate-sponsored grant contests, and participated in Employment Nova Scotia’s worker wage-subsidy program (many of them are now permanent employees). That was “a game-changer” for scaling the business, she says. “I’m hiring kids out of school and paying them a living wage to do the thing that they were trained to do! That’s pretty amazing, and it’s honestly one of the things I’m most proud of.”
As for Soomer, she says her persistence while looking for factories is what paid off, although she hopes to see more industry and government support for businesses such as hers in the future. She also says, she’s seeing a cultural shift among designers in the industry. There’s a new collaborative spirit, sharing of both supply-chain and sourcing information: “It’s a different generation that’s coming up and they’re really wanting to develop this industry together.” She points to CRW, a factory in Scarborough, as an example of how businesses grow in tandem with one another’s successes. In addition to producing for Encircled, CRW now also works with several entrepreneurial Canadian labels on everything from athletic apparel to contemporary fashion, and has in five years tripled its overall production capability.
It’s heartening to see the ripple effect of those who have made Made in Canada a priority. The domestic apparel sector may never be what it once was, the current rejuvenation embodies the ethos at work: quality over quantity.
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