Uncommon Threads
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Cheap, throwaway clothing can be as slow to decompose as plastic bottles

When Vancouverite Sarah Stewart learned that the average American tosses away more than 30 kilograms of attire and textiles each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, she rolled up her sleeves and started researching the sustainability practices of various brands. Stewart uncovered a lot of skeletons in the fashion business’s closet.

U.S. womenswear designer Eileen Fisher famously said that the industry is one of the world’s largest polluters, second only to oil. The advent of so-called fast fashion—the rapid production of trendy items sold at low prices, thanks to cheap labour—perpetuates a disposable culture, with consumers buying more and tossing more. The poor-quality threads, often made of petroleum-based fibres, end up in landfills, as slow to decompose as plastic bottles.

Throwaway FashionThe dark side of the sector prompted Stewart to found Arc Apparel, a store selling women’s garments from brands around the globe that meet a high ethical and ecological standard. She launched online in 2017 and opened a 1,000-square-foot shop in Vancouver’s Gastown this February.

“I wanted to create a place where women could trust that everything there had a minimum standard of ethics,” Stewart says. “Our customers know what they put their money toward is going to something positive for the world.”

Arc is in good company with other B.C. businesses committed to slow fashion.

It’s Only Natural Clothing, purveyors of sustainable goods including a made-in-Vancouver line of attire, has had a shop in Victoria since 1999 and opened a location on Granville Island.

Smoking Lily, another brand from Victoria, and Nelson’s Lilikoi design and fabricate organic pieces in house. Both aim for zero-waste production, reusing scraps in pillows, kids’ clothes and accessories.

“For two years standing, we haven’t thrown out a single piece of waste,” says Trish Tacoma, founder of Smoking Lily, which launched in 1996 and opened a Vancouver location in 2004. The studio calculates it saved 2,145 metres of fabric from the landfill in 2017.

Manufacturing is a big part of the conversation around slow fashion. Inca Dinca Do in North Saanich recently launched B.C.’s only functioning fibre mill to process animal wool and hair. Before it opened, owner Tracy Brennan says, B.C. farmers had to send their product out of province, with wait times of several months to a year.

“Fleece was ending up in landfills,” recalls Brennan, who produces wool and stuffing that can be used in quilts. With her mill up and running, she hopes farmers will see animal fibres as a viable business stream.

Although B.C. has plenty to offer when it comes to ethical and sustainable attire, slow fashion can be a tough sell if consumers compare prices with big box stores. Companies like Lilikoi sell “the exact opposite of fast fashion,” says founder Barbara Boswell. “It’s a little bit more expensive, but it’s better-made, better-quality, sweatshop-free, and it lasts.”