How many “Made in Canada” labels do you have in your closet?
Likely, not many, if any at all. Ever wondered why that is? We did.
As outdoor enthusiasts with environmental degrees, we struggled with the fact that most of our outdoorwear was made overseas, often in less than ethical and sustainable conditions.
Now, before we go further with this, we emphasize that this debate is complicated at best – there is no black and white and we fully appreciate the many perspectives on the domestic vs. overseas manufacturing issue.
That said, “Made in Canada” mattered to us. Here’s why.
When we started out, we consulted with over a dozen manufacturing partners. We asked a lot of questions. We gave them our requirements – ethically-made in Canada and planet-friendly. With major strides in sustainable manufacturing over the last decade, we naively thought this has become the expectation – the norm.
Oh, how wrong we were. “That’s a tough road” we were told. “It’s too expensive to do that here.” “It just doesn’t make sense.”
We sifted through many manufacturers that simply couldn’t meet our needs, until we found our champions, who were transparent with us from the start – acknowledging the challenges but agreeing to work with us to help rebuild the local apparel industry.
Of course, we were tempted by the economics. Sustainable, Canadian-made outdoor products are 10-20 times more expensive to produce. This means Canadian brands like us have to prioritize small-batch, carefully designed niche products vs. offering a large inventory (like say, MEC or SAIL) - but that's the beauty of it!
If we were really chasing the profits, we should have said screw it – China it is. But we stuck to our guns. We were up for the challenge. Because it mattered to us. And if you’re reading this, it probably matters to you.
We believe that Canadian consumers – especially the ones that care about people and the planet – know at least a piece of this story. And, we encourage you to dig deeper, because this is a complex one.
What's the sitch?
Once upon a time, Canada had a thriving garment industry with expertise in denim, knits, fur and leather. Some of North America’s leading brands across produced their garments in Canada because of the reputation that our factories had for manufacturing high quality and durable products.
The shift to offshore manufacturing took over in the 90's, putting major pressure on the Canadian apparel sector. Cheap overseas labour, global supply chains, and migrating skilled workers resulted in market share declines and job losses in the industry. By the 2000s, domestic garment producers simply couldn’t keep up with the economics of overseas fast fashion.
Truth is, there are many reasons why even the outdoor brands we admire produce overseas.
Patagonia, for example, manufacturers almost exclusively overseas, and they manage to do it ethically and sustainably. They are transparent about their production facilities and believe brand-owned factories are the key are protecting against human rights violations. Patagonia's founder, Yvon Chouinard argues that eliminating outsourcing places the responsibility with the brand. They can’t turn a blind eye if they own the facility.
We get this. Though if you’re just starting out – it often makes sense to produce abroad. There’s no right answer here. You have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. Different items will make more sense in different locations. Going overseas to avoid environmental regulations and maximize profits is not OK. Going abroad for a better understanding and control your supply chain is a different story.
What does MADE IN CANADA mean, anyway?
Before we tell you why we went against the grain, let’s start with what “ Made in Canada” actually means.
In order to print “Made in Canada” on a garment, companies need to meet three qualifications (Competition Bureau Canada).
- the last substantial transformation of the good occurred in Canada;
- at least 51% of the total direct costs of producing or manufacturing the good have been incurred in Canada; and
- the "Made in Canada" representation is accompanied by an appropriate qualifying statement, such as "Made in Canada with imported parts."
In the fashion sector, fabric that is made in Canada is a tough find. Our climate is unsuitable for growing most conventional fabric fibers. In most cases, companies import the yarn and mill the fabric in Canada. In the worst cases, just labelling and decoration happened in Canada. That said, there have been enormous strides in innovative textile production in Canada, including eco-friendly materials.
Still, one of the biggest red flags is the infamous “Designed in Canada” label. This is just a way to distract you from the fact that the product was made elsewhere. The company may be based in Canada, but no manufacturing was actually done here, my friends. This is up there with advertising your cotton t-shirts as vegan... (we’ll save that one for later).
OK, so why did we pursue the Made in Canada route?
- Shrinking our carbon footprint: Reducing the distance our clothing travels during production decreases our carbon footprint. We’re not shipping fabric, samples, and garments from country to country for each stage of production. This all happens within our borders, and often within an hour’s drive of our home address. We also have a fantastic local fabric supplier that specializes in environmentally & socially responsible textiles while ensuring that partner mills adhere to global standards including the STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®.
Better working conditions: Made in Canada mattered to us because making clothing in a developed country ensures certain things are present that are rarely in place in overseas manufacturing. By law, in most Canadian provinces, there are strict labour regulations that govern working hours, working conditions, wages, age required to work, vacation and guard the right to unionize. There are environmental regulations that prohibit dumping fabric dyes in natural waterbodies. There are building regulations that require fire extinguishers/sprinkler systems, structural soundness, carbon monoxide detector, ample light and ventilation. We believe this should be a given. But overseas, this can get murky. Many offshore factories also still employ children for 16+ hour workdays in inhumane working conditions, some of which require workers to live on premise. They have limited breaks, poor ventilation, structural issues in the building, no fire extinguishers or fire exits - not to mention, low wages.
A close eye on quality: If done right, the ‘Made in Canada’ approach allows brands, like us, to be involved at every stage of their production process, ensuring the highest quality products possible. We get to develop amazing relationships with our contractors, most of whom are just a short drive away. This gives us confidence that human rights and the environment are being respected. Since many companies operate overseas, they seldom have this luxury.
- Supporting the local economy: We also get the added intangible benefit of knowing that we’re helping to bring back Canadian-made. This approach supports millers, sewers, artists, designers, marketers, production teams, sales professionals, book-keepers, facilities staff, and so many more workers. By shopping with your favourite Canadian brands, you’re not only supporting them directly but all of the companies they use to make their business run.
So REAL talk.
Yeah, this matters to us. We know it won’t easy (and we have a lot to learn), but we're starting with a promise to continue working with our Canadian manufacturing partners to reduce our carbon footprint, keep a close eye on quality and standards, and to help bring Canadian-made back.
We hope you join us for the ride!
We love you, Canada.