On average Americans buy a new piece of clothing every five days. Prices are so cheap that clothing is now seen as essentially disposable. According to a McKinsey study, for every five new garments produced each year, three garments are disposed of. Incredibly, research has shown that 90% of our clothing is thrown away before it needs to be.
The rise of this fast fashion has created large-scale environmental and social side-effects. For instance Zara alone produces about 840 million pieces of clothing for sale in its 6,000 stores around the world each year, mostly by workers whose wages are below the poverty line. In China, India and Bangladesh, once prosperous rivers have been destroyed by these very same factory wastewater discharges; they have now become biological dead zones full of carcinogenic chemicals. Additionally, the tiny plastic microfibers that fall from synthetic clothing during the laundry process are flooding our water supply and food chain.
But some brands are pushing back against these trends and focusing more on “slow fashion,” producing clothes with trendless designs and premium, long-lasting quality. For example, one company that is working in this area is Toronto-based, Encircled, one of the few apparel brands in Canada that is a B Corp, so certified for their social and environmental performance. Encircled’s factories are in Toronto, Canada, and they are OEKO-TEX(R) 100 Certified, meaning that no harmful substances are used to make their clothing, just sustainably sourced, ultra-soft fabrics. They are also transparent about their materials and provide an online listing of their core fabrics.
As part of my research on purpose-driven businesses, I recently had a chance to catch-up Kristi Soomer, founder of Encircled. Below is an edited excerpt of our on-line discussion.
Christopher Marquis: Why did you found Encircled?
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Kristi Soomer: I founded Encircled in 2012 with a mission to design clothing that would enable women to travel light, and to do so without sacrificing comfort or style. Over the years, the brand has evolved into focusing on how our customers can create a streamlined capsule wardrobe at home. We believe the most sustainable thing you can do is to wear all the clothing in your closet. So, we design multi-functional, timeless, comfortable, and stylish pieces that we know customers will feel confident reaching for any day of the week. All our clothing is proudly made in Toronto, Canada from sustainably sourced fabrics, which we’re super transparent about! We believe in making clothing without compromises – our customers receive genuine sustainable pieces that are stylish and that will last a lifetime. Encircled is the wardrobe that does it all.
Marquis: What does slow fashion mean?
Soomer: Slow Fashion is an approach to producing clothing which takes into consideration all aspects of the supply chain and in doing so, aims to respect people, the environment, and animals. It also means spending more time on the design process, ensuring that each piece of apparel is quality made.
Fast Fashion retailers have taught us that more is better, and thereby have created a huge consumption issue. The fast fashion industry is driving down quality, exploiting the environment and their workers to create cheap garments that do not last. Slow fashion is the exact opposite of this. It’s about creating mindful, curated collections based on quality finishes, versus pumping out large quantities of seasonal and trendy clothing.
Our mission at Encircled is simple. We encourage customers to be more thoughtful and intentional about their clothing – and choose pieces that will last a long time in their wardrobe.
Marquis: How many fashion B Corps there are in North America and why do you think there are not more?
Soomer: The B Corporation website states that there approximately 70+ certified B Corporations in the fashion space in North America. In Canada, where Encircled is based, there are approximately 15 fashion B Corps., with only a handful being female founded.
In my opinion, I believe that there are not more Certified B Corps in the fashion industry because it’s an extremely hard certification to gain – and for good reason! To become a Certified B Corp, apparel brands and companies alike need to demonstrate that they are committed to balancing profits with a purpose that has a positive impact on the community and meets high environmental and transparency standards. Many fashion brands in North Americ have not yet prioritized a sustainable and ethical supply chain as a top priority. Additionally, the certification process can be a deterant, especially for smaller brands because of the time and resource investment required to get through the assessment and certification.
For fashion brands (and other companies) to receive B Corp Certification, they are measured on various aspects of their business, including governance, workers, community and engagement. Each Certified B Corp receives an ‘Impact Score Card’ that outlines their performance and rating, and companies must achieve at least 80 out of 200 points to gain certification. To ensure transparency, this information can be publicy viewed on the B Corp website, allowing the public to view any potential shortcomings, which some apparel brands may view as a hindrance. I personally view this score as a way to continue building our brand and making it the best that it can be.
Marquis: What have been the benefits and challenges of gaining B Corp certification?
Soomer: There are numerous benefits of obtaining becoming a Certified B Corp for both companies and consumers. From a business perspective, it allows customers to trust that our actions are consistent with all the standards we advertise. You can trust what you’re seeing as the company’s values and actions are vetted.
That said, it is a thorough process to go through to get qualified, and companies need to renew their certification every three years. We are constantly having to consider how our business impacts everyone along the way, not just shareholders. This includes our supply chain, processes at our office headquarters, materials used, etc.
Ultimately, it is 100 percent worth it because it helps us to create a great working environment for our employees and stakeholders, and our customers trust that they are making a positive impact with their decision to purchase from Encircled.
Marquis: What are your top 3 recommendations to create a more sustainable fashion industry?
Soomer: Creating a more sustainable fashion industry requires a multi-faceted approach. It’s such a broad issue that touches all areas of the apparel supply chain – from raw materials to the end of lifecycle of a garment.
The first recommendation is for consumers to actively become more curious and intentional with their clothing purchases. Thirty years ago, we each owned way less items in our closet on average and the fashion industry had 2-4 seasons. Now, fast fashion brands produce up to 5,000 styles a week, with many of them operating with 52 ‘micro-seasons.’ This creates a huge consumption issue. In general, we’ve found that most people only wear about 20% of the clothing in their closet, so a great start is for consumers to focus on being mindful – only purchasing what they need, investing in trendless pieces vs. trendy and focusing on quality over quantity with clothing purchases.
Secondly, I recommend more regulation, accountability, and transparency in the fashion industry. It is still a very secretive industry, with many brands hiding where they produce, what they pay and how workers are treated. Forcing brands to be accountable for their actions in countries other than their own, is a big step towards intensifying big brands to pay living wages and to be more accountable for working conditions in the garment industry. If there’s no accountability on the brand’s part, it’s too easy for fashion brands to not take an interest in the full lifecycle of their garment production. This includes learning about how the raw materials are harvested to make the yarn, needed to knit and the dyes used, and how a customer should dispose of a garment when they’re done wearing it.
Third, the media needs to bring more attention and awareness to brands that are doing good things in the fashion industry. There are thousands of small batch and slow fashion brands globally that have emerged with ethical supply chains over the past decade. Yet, the large media share of voice goes towards the big brands, who can afford to buy it. Featuring more up and coming brands who have genuine sustainability and ethics built into the core of their business model will create awareness and showcase that problems need to be solved, and help consumers make better choices.