It’s not just about sweatshops: Vancouver’s Sustainable Fashion Scene

Earlier this year Metro Vancouver launched a campaign to combat climate change. It wasn’t a typical ‘green’ campaign about the pipeline, or food waste reduction, or the elimination of single-use plastic. This new campaign is called “Clothes Aren’t Garbage”

According to Metro Vancouver’s Waste Composition Study, textile waste amounts to about 40,000 metric tonnes of garbage per year. “We buy an astonishing three times as much clothing as we did back in the 1980s,” said director Jack Froese, chair of Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste Committee. “Much of this ‘fast fashion’ is relatively cheap to buy and ends up in the trash when it could otherwise have been repaired or recycled” he told Metro Global.

Statistics collected by the U.N Economic Commission for Europe show that the fashion industry is the second biggest consumer of water, producing 20 percent of global wastewater and approximately 10 percent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is this consumption that pushed 10 different UN organizations to establish a UN Alliance on Sustainable Fashion in 2018. The report presented at the UN High-Level Political Forum argues that “changing consumption patterns towards sustainable behaviours and attitudes requires a shift in how we think about and value garments (SDG 12)” (pg.3, UNECE).

How did we get here?
Shopping as a social pursuit is a relatively new concept. The retailing revolution first emerged in London in the early nineteenth-century. Couture designers that used to rely on royal patronage became extremely commercially successful using dependable supply chains, sound marketing, and notable social contacts to establish control over their designs and employ mass-market business practices (Breward, pg.29).

Seasonal collections were commodified by this retail revolution. Traditionally couture fashion has two design seasons: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. Two collections a year was the most practical for couture because of the amount of time skilled artisans required to produce each and every garment. Buyers would have to wait a few months to get pieces handmade to their precise measurements. With the invention of the sewing machine in 1846, suddenly garments could be mass produced. Skilled artisans were replaced by lesser skilled labourers.

Faster manufacturing means more product, and in order to make consumers buy more product, fashion has to change more quickly. Fast forward to 2019 and the fashion industry is churning out 52 “micro-seasons” per year. With new trends coming out every week, the goal of fast fashion is for the average consumer to buy as many garments as possible, as quickly as possible.
This new business model focuses on quantity over quality and tricks the customer into believing that they have made a “good” purchase. These cheaply made products last just as long as the trends do: barely a few months. Then, the customer is forced to return to make a similar purchase because either the previous garment shows signs of wear, or because it is no longer in style. The targeted consumer is the repeat buyer, not the first-time buyer.

According to Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Spanish retailer Zara pioneered the fast-fashion concept with new deliveries to its stores coming in twice per week. At the time of writing her book, she says H&M and Forever21 get daily shipments of new styles, while Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website.

With Instagram and YouTube, the trend of the micro-season has exponentially worsened. Instagram influencers are being trained to churn out new content every day. Repeating outfits on social media isn’t “fashionable” when brand endorsements make you contractually obligated to post photos wearing items from new collections and upload “shopping haul” videos.

It’s an age-old technique: the glorification of luxurious lifestyles and habits of the rich. In the last year, multiple articles have been written about non-conforming celebrities that ‘dare’ to repeat outfits. Tiffany Haddish was written about in the New York Times for wearing the same Alexander McQueen dress to four separate awards functions over the course of 2018.

New York Times writer Vanessa Friedman praised Haddish writing “In our culture of disposability and influencers, wearing something in public more than once is often perceived as a sign, somehow, of failure: of not being rich enough, or powerful enough, or desirable enough, to continually acquire things.” She goes on to claim that through this $4,000 McQueen dress, Haddish was essentially embodying an anti-capitalist value system. As though appreciating the work that goes into making a wonderful garment and amortizing it through multiple wears is a concept never before employed by anyone in the working class.

The number of new garments produced annually now exceeds 100 billion and is double the amount produced in 2000.

What can be done?
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have created a base target for all fashion brands, but changing behaviour requires innovative solutions. Along with the UN and governmental bodies, civil society has to play a role in demanding green practices. Social media is being exploited by fast fashion brands, but it also has the power to hold brands accountable.

The “Good on You Ethical Fashion App” rates brands on their commitment to sustainability and has partnered with cultural icons like Emma Watson. These celebrities are trying to influence a shift in consumer culture, pushing the average shopper to understand the true price of ethically made garments.

So far, it’s rated over 2000 brands in a system that measures areas that the companies are doing well in and areas that need improvement.

For example, with retail giant H&M, the app applauds its sustainable fashion line but also asks for improvement in aligning with human rights sustainable development goals (SDG).

H&M has now started to use many recycled materials in its product lines, which saves energy and water, as well as lowering the greenhouse gap emission (Shen, pg. 6240). Cotton is a thirsty plant and its estimated that producing just one cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water. Polyester is an oil-based fabric and can take almost 200 years to biodegrade. In terms of manufacturing and distribution, ferries and trains have now become the main modes that H&M uses to distribute its goods, which significantly reduces carbon emissions.

H&M has not, however, delivered on its 2013 promise to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018. According to “Good on You’, all aspects of global supply chain models of fashion must be examined in order to comply with the UN SDG goals.

Ethical consumption of fashion looks at several points in global supply chains. It looks at the materials used to make the clothing (the environmental cost of production) and the people that make the clothes (the human cost of production). Consumers in general, are completely blind to the real cost of clothing. A t-shirt should never cost $5. A dress shouldn’t cost the same amount as a fast food meal. In order for that price to be profitable, the worker had to have been paid very poorly.

Fashion’s global supply chain is basically a ‘race to the bottom’ 1. Big brands outsource their work and factories constantly squeeze the worker’s pay or time in order to become more competitive and retain the brand. These workers are unable to create unions, they have no leverage or regulation available to better their working condition and as a result, they are overworked, underpaid, and generally exploited. The same thing happens with environmental regulations. If there is a government crackdown on unsustainable environmental practices in Bangladesh or China, brands like Zara and H&M will opt to move their supply chains to countries with lower barriers rather than deal with altering their modes of production.

It is therefore up to the consumer to pressure companies to create this change. One way to do this is by supporting companies that do create clothing ethically.
Some great online stores with sustainable clothing and transparent supply chains include:

‘The Girlfriend Collective’ – Where leggings cost less than Lululemon (which isn’t labour sustainable).

Each pair of their Compressive leggings is made out of 25 recycled post-consumer water bottles. The leggings are certified safe by Oeko-Tex and guaranteed recycled. They’re sewn with ECONYL®, a fibre made from recycled fishing nets and other waste that would otherwise be discarded into oceans and landfills. The company operates a SA8000 certified factory in Vietnam that pays living wages, provides fair working hours and safe conditions, allows unionization, and is using no forced or child labour. They state that every single drop of water that is used to dye their fabric gets sent to a wastewater treatment plant.

Pact – Unisex basics for the whole family.

Pact sells clothing for men, women, kids and babies. All the cotton is 100% organic. The factories are guaranteed 100% Fairtrade. It’s the perfect place to shop for multipacks of organic cotton t-shirts, tank tops and even bed-sheets.

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Everlane – High-end fabrics ethically-made

Everlane has promised to partner with the most ethical factories around the world. It sources only the finest materials and promises to be transparent about the true cost of every product made. It calls this ‘business model’ Radical Transparency. It also tries to create clothes that last. “We want you to wear our pieces for years, even decades, to come. That’s why we source the finest materials and factories for our timeless products—like our Grade-A cashmere sweaters, Italian shoes, and Peruvian Pima tees”. The clothing is priced high but look out for the “choose what you pay” section. When Everlane overproduces a garment, it lets customers pick a price they are comfortable with paying to move overstock.

Support alternative markets.
Another option to reduce clothing waste is to mend and repair clothes that show wear and donate or sell them to consignment stores. Most consignment stores will give cash or store credit for gently worn good quality clothes. This makes the cycle of slow fashion so much more lucrative. If you buy a well-made product and take good care of it, the cost can be offset both by the amount of times you wear it and by its resale value.

Hunter & Hare
Has a great selection of designer clothes and has locations in both Gastown and Chinatown. They also have an online store and regularly post new items to Instagram.

Community Thrift and Vintage
Founded in 2011, Community Thrift & Vintage is a social enterprise shop based in Vancouver, selling a tightly edited collection of recycled fashion at a low price point. They support at-risk people through a compassionate and supportive work training program, and all profits are donated to the PHS Community Services Society. The online store has everything from vintage Hermes scarves to old school Levi jeans.

Turnabout has six locations in British Columbia. It’s a resale store that has racks full of brand-name clothes, brand-name shoes, and barely used designer bags. All Turnabout stores have men’s and women’s sections. Consignors earn 40% of the final sale price in cash or credit.

If online shopping and consignment stores aren’t the right shopping experience. Consider some of Vancouver’s great sustainable fashion retailers:

Frank and Oak
This made in Canada brand is making great strides to be sustainable. Each garment is made in collaboration with Montreal’s Petites-Mains, an organization that helps women in need break out of social isolation, learn a trade, and integrate into the workforce in order to live with dignity. It uses recycled cotton, recycled hemp, organic cotton, hydro-less denim, and eco-friendly dyes. The company has two locations at Metrotown and Downtown. It also has a clothing subscription box where wardrobe essentials are shipped to subscribers monthly.

Arc Apparel
The brainchild of a BCIT alumni Sarah Stewart, Arc Apparel is a one-stop shop for sustainable fashion. A brick-and-mortar extension of its online marketplace, the Gastown space carries clothing and accessories from nearly 20 brands, each of which is committed to sustainability, ethical manufacturing practices, or philanthropic efforts.

There is no easy way to create change in the fashion industry. The cycle of fast fashion is hard to break especially when the cost of ethically produced clothing is so high. $70-$120 might seem like a lot for a single shirt, dress or pants but if the design is well-made, the fabric is high-quality, and the employee was well-paid, isn’t that worth the cost? Workers don’t need pity or charity; they need solidarity and allies who are willing to strategize with them about how to hold brands accountable. If you’re a student, join (or start!) a local chapter of the United Students Against Sweatshops. If you’re not a student, or don’t have the time to devote a significant chunk of money to the movement, there are many organizations out there that can match up with your personal ethics (the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, Avaaz, People and Planet, and Labour Behind the Label, to name a few). Donate a few dollars or sign a petition for these organizations. Clean Clothes Campaign is currently petitioning Asian retailer UNIQLO to pay its workers. Check out their Instagram to see testimonies by workers in their factories.


1 race to the bottom is a socio-economic phrase which is used to describe government deregulation of the business environment, or reduction in tax rates, in order to attract or retain economic activity in their jurisdictions. An outcome of globalization and free trade, the phenomenon may occur when competition increases between geographic areas over a particular sector of trade and production.


Rajita is Link Magazine's Associate Editor. She likes writing about tech, culture and politics.