The fashion industry is considered a major contributor to air, water and soil pollution, as well as an enabler of exploitative sweatshop conditions for garment workers. Fashion accounts for around 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. The last few years have brought increased awareness to the issues at play.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg used a recent interview with Vogue Scandinavia to call out fashion companies for greenwashing.
“Many are making it look as if the fashion industry are starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘green,’ ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair,’” Thunberg wrote in an Instagram post, promoting the article. “But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”
Ecologyst’s founder René Gauthier knew he wanted to change the system. But turning away from the successful business he had already built, whose manufacturing and supply chains relied on traditional models, was no easy feat. It meant completely reshaping how the company does business.
“I have a passion for doing things a bit differently,” says Gauthier, whose business profs at university thought he was “mental” when he wanted to pursue a surf company, Sitka, back in the early 2000s. Shaping surfboards quickly turned to a line of branded lifestyle gear and the rest is history. The takeaway? Gauthier knows how to trust his instincts.
Gauthier chose to focus on eliminating plastic from the environment. He stopped using microplastics in ecologyst’s clothes. Typically found in clothing, microplastic particles wash off from products such as synthetic clothes, contributing up to 35 per cent of the primary plastic polluting our oceans. Every time we do our laundry, an average of 9 million microfibers are released into wastewater treatment plants that cannot filter them.
“The choice there is to stop making clothing out of plastic; it’s a simple solution, right?” says Gauthier. “People are pretty hooked on it at the moment, and I want to change that. It starts with us walking the walk and talking the talk.”
Gauthier wanted a model based on what people actually need, rather than what they want — making fewer, better items.
Transparency is foundational to transforming the global fashion industry. A lack of transparency perpetuates a system where people are expected to trust brands that have continued to put profit and growth above all else — this is where the dubious environmental claims that account for greenwashing are a problem.
Literally reinventing the wheel, ecologyst’s newly opened headquarters are a factory, warehouse, distribution center and shoppable showroom, all in one. It’s also home to ecologyst Films, whose projects reflect the company’s values and mission to do things differently — going against the grain to slow down content creation by looking closely at issues and giving voice to those who own the stories being told.
Located in the historic Powerhouse building at the end of Victoria’s Store Street, the stunning location fosters connection over consumption and is a model that the company hopes to roll out in other cities in the Pacific Northwest and across Canada.
In a traditional supply chain, most feedback will never make it back to the top. Products that are sold by an independent retailer, not by the brand itself, will find far more barriers to closing that loop. Even if the feedback does make it back to the brand, they then have to disseminate it through the right channels, which might include designers, trading companies, manufacturing contractors.
With garment workers in the same room as customers browsing the shop floor, ecologyst has been able to produce small batches of each item, make ongoing adjustments to improve fit and increase quantities on demand. When clothes are made by overseas contractors, brands get pushed by factories to meet high minimum orders, creating increased waste when products aren’t purchased.
Gathering customer feedback seems to be a natural process given the setup on Store Street. The ecologyst team is customer-focused, both with in-person sales and online, offering live fitting sessions online and writing personalized notes to customers for every order shipped.
30-35% of the microplastics found in
the water are related to textile washings.
“Within this space, the people actually making garments are literally hearing the feedback,” says Gauthier. “It’s not a very big loop.”
In fact, transparency is at the heart of everything. It’s the reason they landed the name ecologyst, after issuing an open call to the community, and it’s the reason that ecologyst recently achieved its goal of 20 per cent community ownership. Previously, the team had been creating a monthly newsletter, updating a small group of investors on the company’s wins, fails and industry news.
“It was a lot of work for half a dozen people to get this email,” says Gauthier “So we thought, what if we send it to our entire list? We’re a transparent company. Let’s let people see what we’re talking about.”
They sent it to 30,000 people, and the response was more than positive — customers replied asking how they could invest. Gauthier realized that maybe there was another route, one that didn’t leave him “pounding down the door of VCs that didn’t seem to understand what we are trying to achieve.” In 2019, that route led to raising $700,000 in equity crowdfunding through a campaign on FrontFundr.
At All Costs
Ecologyst’s clothing comes at a cost — the cost of fair pay for everyone contributing to the supply chain (garment workers in Victoria make the family living wage of $19.50/hour, whereas the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $96 USD/month); the cost of quality, ethically produced fibres; the cost of offering lifetime repairs. Staying on top of these decisions requires ongoing research and continuous improvement.
Many customers have provided feedback that this is the only brand they will buy new, says Lisa McAnulty, ecologyst’s sustainability and innovation specialist. Customers come to the brand searching for ethical, sustainable clothing and arrive well informed.
“They’re curious about different processes we use and where the fibres come from,” says McAnulty.
A sustainable textile will take into consideration factors such as raw material extraction, textile production, added chemistry and end-of-life. There are certifications available to identify the caliber of the material, the quality of life of the people farming and producing those materials, and the quality of any additives, like dyes, which are often toxic and potentially harmful to the wearer.
These highly certified suppliers are still few and far between. Organic cotton makes up only one per cent of global cotton. The majority of the world’s leading ethical wool, ZQ-certified merino, which supports the five animal freedoms, farmer welfare and land management best practies, and from a small pool of sheep in New Zealand.
“I always want to understand the full impact of making a decision to use more [of any one material] as well,” says McAnulty. “There’s just so many more levels of consideration — there might be a forest cut down to make room for more farming.”
Looking ahead, ecologyst is evolving its knitwear processes, which will include the use of climate beneficial wool — a fibre that sequesters more carbon than it produces and comes from California, significantly reducing its carbon footprint in transit. The purchase of an industrial scale knitting machine will enable the brand to localize its knitting production, which currently takes place in New York for lack of alternatives,
“One of the challenges of not using any plastics in our products is stretch,” says Gauthier. “But you can knit things to achieve a mechanical stretch. That’s an area that we’d like to develop.”
Unlike a sewing machine, which requires its own operator, knitting machines can run autonomously for long periods of time, even overnight. One operator can oversee up to 10 machines. The benefits will move ecologyst another step closer to filling orders on demand and offering a range of stretch clothing.
30% of clothing that gets made never gets purchased.
In 2020, ecologyst had Synergy Enterprises do a carbon assessment. The company had reached a similar scale, in terms of revenue, compared to 2013 when it was last assessed. But their carbon footprint had reduced dramatically — 80 tonnes of carbon that previously resulted from shipping was reduced to seven tonnes.
Ecologyst has launched a second life program, where their products are now sold online alongside new styles, giving a new purpose to pre-loved pieces. Anyone who has an ecologyst product they’d like to pass along can list it on the website, and when their product sells, they will receive an ecologyst gift card to use on a new or second life product. Ecologyst also recycles offcuts produced at their factory location to increase circularity.
This still uncommon service is offered by companies like Patagonia and Lululemon but is something we can hope to see more of in the future. Bodies, moods and lifestyles change, says McAnulty, and a program like this acknowledges that our relationship with clothes needs to evolve.
On average, the production of one piece
of clothing takes 9 kg of C02.
The program will contribute to an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and will significantly reduce water use. The scale of potential for second life and resale clothing is projected to double in the next five years, reaching $77 billion, estimates a report by thredUP Co.
“Although it’s a very low percentage point of people who usually take advantage of a program like this, I think it’s a highly impactful opportunity,” says McAnulty.
“We want people to keep a product alive as long as they can. Twenty to 30 per cent of your closet lays dormant most of the time. We’re trying to mitigate that by providing timeless design: functionality, durability, all these other aspects. We want to be able to make sure that people can still love that piece and pass it on to the next person.”
“Should I buy this piece of clothing?”
Q&A with Lisa McAnulty, ecologyst’s sustainability and innovation specialist.
Do I need something new?
Buying a garment through a second life program, vintage or passed down can reduce the impact by over 80 per cent. It also keeps perfectly good gear out of landfills. Two thumbs up!
Will it go out of style, or is it classic?
By prolonging the use of a garment by just nine months, the environmental impact can be reduced by as much as 20–30 per cent. Purchasing garments that fit your lifestyle and function for numerous events in your life will keep your product in use longer. We recommend owning fewer, better-quality pieces that you love.
Is it made of natural or synthetic materials?
A thicker synthetic blend button-up shirt with polyester buttons could contain nearly one pound of plastic. When these garments are worn or laundered, microplastic shedding occurs. These fibres end up in our waterways and are ingested by aquatic beings and humans alike. Microplastics have been found in many foods and human placentas, and take hundreds of years to degrade. We suggest opting for natural fibres whenever possible.
How long will it last?
By offering a repair program, ecologyst can keep perfectly functional garments in use approximately 1.4 times longer. A badge of honour — it’s also a way to customize.
How you care for your garment matters. By washing clothing less, using cold water and skipping the dryer, we can significantly reduce our emissions impact and keep clothing lasting longer. Try airing after wearing (a little fresh air will do you good).
Who made this garment?
In some countries, people can be paid a mere one dollar per hour for manufacturing clothing while being subjected to potentially adverse working conditions. At ecologyst, our factory team members are paid a family living wage and work alongside the entire team at our Victoria head office. When we don’t make it in-house, we work with manufacturers across Canada and one facility in the United States to ensure people are treated fairly. People matter.
How is it delivered?
We feel it’s important how products are delivered. We use packaging materials that are easily recyclable in local and international facilities (cardboard/paper). We prioritize ground shipping whenever possible, as it is a 4x reduction in impact versus air shipping. We offset our shipping impact through supporting projects around the world that are working to restore biodiversity and green spaces.
Where is the information about a brand’s sustainability?
Most companies that are committed to sustainable development practices will openly share information on their websites. This could be on a per-product basis or their overall strategy for corporate social responsibility. If there isn’t information in relation to social, environmental or ethical business practices, we encourage people to ask that of their customer experience teams. If they aren’t willing to share this information, one might wonder why they wouldn’t, and if that would be a positive choice.