By Ruty Korotaev and Sarah Mariotti
Sitting side-by-side in a tiny soundproof glass meeting room, Eva Parrell and Chelsea Mazur, two fashion entrepreneurs at Ryerson’s Fashion Zone, discuss the various issues they have come across during their journey. The Fashion Zone, located in the basement of the Cineplex building beside Yonge-Dundas Square, is home to 34 fashion startups, all of which have unique and distinct products that often advocate for sustainability.
Parrell and Mazur are the founders of a startup called People’s Product, a women’s clothing company with a simple, feminine esthetic. Though their collection is not very big, they have a range of silk and intricately designed tops, dresses, and thinly woven cotton pants and jumpsuits.
The company has an unwavering focus on fair trade, and its founders go to great lengths to ensure that their clothing is made via sustainable and ethical means. “We’re kind of bridging the gap between the more fast fashion brands and the very classic ethical brands which tend to focus a lot more on very clean basics,” says Parrell. “But we’re still incorporating the fun fashion aspects of it.”
As the holiday season approaches, consumerism is at an all-time high. With the need to buy presents for everyone in your life, from your mom to that co-worker you got assigned for secret Santa, shopping is almost unavoidable at this time of year. In fact, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) says Canadians spend $1,500 on average throughout the holiday season. And though it’s great to snag a half-priced cashmere sweater for your cousin, there is often a cost associated with the production of clothing that transcends the concept of money. Often, cheap clothing and products are created at the cost of many human lives, who unfortunately have to work in unethical conditions.
“What I don’t get is how (sustainability) is not a big thing for everyone else,” says Parrell. “When you look at all the principles of it, it’s just common sense. No child labour, ethical practices, gender equality — it’s just an endless list that just makes sense. People should have safe work environments and get paid equally,” adds Mazur.
Parrell and Mazur are part of a generation of designers that is setting out to change today’s fashion industry. It seems that soon, the days of so-called “fast fashion” and sweatshops will be things of the past. Ethically made, quality items will be considered “in,” according to George Brown sustainability expert Winnie Leung.
Leung says that the fashion industry is rapidly changing and that all companies are going through a paradigm shift. Much of this has to do with the fact that the younger generations, millenials and Gen Z, are becoming a significant part of the consumer market. They are the next generation of shoppers with the most disposable income, as the baby boomer generation gets older. Leung says that this incoming generation is the first to grow up on the internet, and they are aware of all the issues that are going on around the world. There has also been an increase in sustainable fashion education in schools, where students are taught about incidents like Rana Plaza, the sweatshop in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013, leaving 1,134 dead. “It starts with education, and with the children. In 10 years, we’re going to have a highly educated population about sustainability,” says Leung. “Companies that are not on the agenda and not moving forward with it will no longer exist because all the data is telling us that Gen Z does not tolerate corporate greed.”
Sustainability education makes up a big part of the curriculum in Toronto’s fashion schools, though Leung says that she does not try to push this idea onto her students. “Everybody will have their own interpretation of sustainability,” says Leung. “Making them aware of the conversations that are going on is ever so important, but telling them that they have to do sustainability is not something that we do. It becomes a choice.”
According to Leung, fashion designers would be doing themselves a disservice if they’re not addressing the needs of the next generation, which is the most “socially conscious generation ever.” It’s almost inevitable — if a company wants to exist in the fashion business in the next 10 years, they must get on board with the sustainability movement. “Gen Z wants to know what your story is before they start buying from your brand,” says Leung.
Parrell and Mazur met during their first week at Ryerson’s fashion school. Throughout their years at university, the two became close friends, and when they graduated in 2014, the idea of starting their own fashion line was not even something they had thought about. However, when they entered the workforce, they quickly realized that the world of fast fashion was not something they were particularly interested in participating in. “I felt like there was just no heart in it,” says Parrell, who did an internship at Joe Fresh while she was still in school. “There was no creativity involved. It was really just about profit and product production, and everything I liked about design wasn’t involved at all.”
A year after graduating, the pair decided to start their own company. For a while, they had their own studio, but eventually decided to join Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) because it has a startup zone in Mumbai, India, which is where Parrell and Mazur had already been working. Currently, all of their products are handmade by a company called Sasha, which is part of the World Fair Trade Organization. It works with over 100 craft communities around India, with over 60 per cent of the workers being women. The focus of their platform is to work with local artisans while providing them with sustainable livelihoods and championing the principles of transparency, equity and social justice.
“We’re trying to create an ethical sustainable brand that appeals to people who might be shopping fast fashion, like people who are already shopping at Zara in the mall, but they are trying to switch into something that’s more conscious, more sustainable,” says Parrell.
However, being a sustainable clothing company requires a lot of capital, and the balance between paying their workers fair wages and maintaining reasonable consumer prices has proven to be a challenge. It is something that they are constantly working on, and every season they aim to make their prices a bit more affordable. Because they are selling directly to their consumers, they have a bit more control over the pricing of their products than if they were to use a third party to sell their clothing.
“At the end of the day, people are spending a lot of money on their clothes anyways. Buying a shirt from us isn’t going to break the bank,” says Mazur. They don’t have anything over $300, and most of their clothing is around $100. “It’s not ever going to be a Forever 21 because we’re not trying to compete with them. But we’re attainable to the same people who are shopping in those stores.”
Though they run a clothing brand, they hope for it to grow into a place for people to come and learn about conscious consuming, and ways to take care of their clothes and the environment. They hope to create something both educational and fun, and expand into other products that will also focus on the realm of sustainability.
“We have a lot more in mind than just the number at the bottom of the page,” says Parrell. “Teaching people about what we do and the importance of it is the biggest part for us.”
The Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation harbours long white desks where entrepreneurs sit busily typing. Located in the same building as the Ryerson Fashion Zone, it’s situated behind a big door and glass wall on the third floor. The fast-pace and soft chatter fills the open-concept office with a collaborative ambiance. The Joe Fresh Centre, in partnership with Ryerson University, gives independent companies the space and mentorship to develop their businesses.
For Ashley Alexis McFarlane, founder of a demi-fine and fine jewelry line called Omi Woods, the decision to shift toward sustainability was also instinctual. Before starting her own line, McFarlane worked with African prints in apparel and accessories. When she found out they had several dyes that polluted waters, she set out to find a way to have sustainable and ethical manufacturing, all while holding onto her business.
“I’m a Pisces so I was just like, I can’t do this to the water. So essentially I started to figure out ways to incorporate more sustainability into my business,” McFarlane says. She applied to be in the Joe Fresh Centre for Fashion Innovation to dive into her new business plan. McFarlane was one of 17 different startups accepted to participate in an 18-month acceleration program that helps young businesses grow. This is when she shifted her focus to jewelry. Omi Woods pieces are made with conflict-free gold, recycled plastic bottles and eco-friendly dye.
Continuing to connect her pieces to diasporic African cultures, her jewelry tells a story, and she hopes it will continue to do so as it’s passed down to future generations. Though the longevity of sustainable products is a great advantage, McFarlane emphasizes that the state of our environment is the reason we can’t ignore sustainable practices. “You don’t want to think that what you’re doing is contributing to the negative impacts on the earth at this point,” she says. “We all know that something’s going on, and we need to make sure we reverse this in every possible way.”
Though the Joe Fresh Centre doesn’t only focus on promoting sustainability, they look for companies that are innovative, so being socially conscious is common to many startups there.
Another startup at the Joe Fresh Centre, LeDaveed, a luxury leather bag company, is also looking for ways to do fashion in an ethical way, specifically with leather. Despite the fact that the process of creating leather is typically unsustainable, founder Andrew Dale has found a way to work around this problem. Usually, leather is sourced from an animal product or byproduct, then dunked into toxic chemicals. The employees crafting the leather often suffer from diseases caused by the chemicals and pollutants. However, Dale says that leather is a very durable material, which makes for long-lasting belongings and, essentially, less waste in landfills.
“We asked ourselves, can we do leather properly in a way that we can feel good about humanity in the way we were doing it?” Dale says. The team found a tannery in rural Germany that has the ability to make leather using 80 per cent less water and energy than average tanneries use, and avoids leaching chemicals into the ecosystem and supply chain. As well, its process focuses on treating workers in an ethical way, by keeping them safe from harmful chemicals. On top of this, LeDaveed’s leather is made of unused animal skins from sustainable farms.
LeDaveed takes videographers with them to document every step, not only to maintain transparency with their consumers, but also to educate people. Dale says that being a straightforward and honest company is now the trend and 10 years ago this would have seemed outlandish to the corporate world. “It’s not really about bags,” Dale says, “it’s about what we represent.”
Mazur and Parrell sift through the large rack of clothing that stands at the back of the big room of the Ryerson Fashion Zone, where people are focused intently on their computer screens. Finally, they pull out a white top, known as the “Isabella.” Made out of 100 per cent silk, they say that this makes it biodegradable, ensuring it has a good “end of life.” That means it will decompose much faster than a polyester shirt would.
For them, the desire to build a better and cleaner future transcends their desire to build their company as quickly and cheaply as possible. This seems to be what all of these sustainable fashion companies have in common — the refusal to compromise on their beliefs, and an inability to understand how bigger fashion brands aren’t making this more of a priority.
“You can’t do anything new in fashion anymore,” says Winnie Leung. “But you can have a purpose.”