Translated with the help of Lucie Battaglia. Thank you Lucie!

Until recently, my knowledge about the realm of fashion and clothing was quite limited. After all, I’ve never been one to follow the latest trends and accumulate clothing in my wardrobe.

Yet when I moved to the ecovillage “La Cité Écologique” a year and a half ago, I discovered Respecterre, who manufactures its own line of clothing (ecological, ethical and locally produced). Thus began my discovery of a new world: the way garments and fabrics are manufactured, what conditions employees work in, how marketing works, etc. Since then, I feel a lot of respect and admiration towards dressmakers.

Why does this interest me all of a sudden? Probably because, as I will show you in this article, the “fast fashion” (disposable clothing) phenomenon is awful both for workers and for the environment. On the contrary, at Respecterre, I discovered another way to work, focusing on the use of more natural fabrics and dyes, on workers with authentic values, and on the importance of local production.

Giving a voice to the workers

Being aware of the importance to raise awareness about the impact of our clothing choices and easy-to- adopt ecological, ethical, and local alternatives, I thought of giving a voice to Respecterre workers. They are best placed to talk about this subject. So, in the coming weeks, I recommend you read their stories, different though complementary with one another.

This week, I still would like to make you wait a little, because it would be interesting to put you in context before anything else. What lies beneath fast fashion? Why should we encourage other alternatives? In this context, what can a business like Respecterre offer us? How did this project emerge and who is behind this work? I will try to introduce all those subjects through the following text.

The dark side of the massive fashion industry

“We increasingly want to know what came before the products we buy, behind the company who made it, behind the brand image. Who worked to create the products and who made them? Where and how was the clothing produced? What are the manufacturer’s values and way of life?” says Ugo Dutil, director of marketing and sales for Respecterre. Well, few people fully realize that fast fashion impacts workers and the planet in a permanent manner.

Inhuman working conditions

With the increase in globalization during the twentieth century, major clothing brands have sought to reduce their production costs. The “solution” was adopted at the turn of the century: relocation of western production plants to the eastern parts of the world such as China, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. However, it is well known that labour laws and standards in these countries are much more relaxed than in Canada. In recent years, several reports and documentaries have identified the inhumane aspect of garment factory work for major brands in the textile industry. Whether it’s the documentary The True Cost, the web series Sweatshop, or any other, all testify to difficult working conditions:

  • Unsanitary, poorly ventilated and unsafe factories;
  • Assembly line work, where the same process is repeated at a furious pace;
  • Working hours without end, with few holidays;
  • Low wages: it is common for a worker to be paid $0.50 for a piece that will sell for 100 times this price;
  • Children are employed in several factories;
  • Highly toxic substances are used, either in dyes or in various manufacturing processes as acid-washing, and those substances sicken workers. Contact with toxins is often left to children, adults being aware of the dangers.

An ecological disaster

If textile workers are abused during this process, what about the environment? Again, serious consequences can be observed here. The first one has to do with the source of the fabric. We all look at the fibre content while buying a garment. But do we really know what each term means? Imagine I told you that 60% of all textile fibres on the planet are synthetic (which means polyester, nylon, acrylic, among others), all petroleum based. These fibres encourage use of a non-renewable and polluting resource.

You may reply: “Agreed, but many of my clothes are marked as ‘100% cotton.’ How is this problematic, considering that cotton is a natural fibre?” First, because the majority of the cotton produced in the world is grown using large quantities of pesticides and insecticides (which impoverish the soil and contaminate the land and rivers). Moreover, according to Équiterre’s garment guide, of all pesticides used on the planet, no less than 25% go towards cotton! The impact of these practices is confirmed by statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO): “22,000 people die each year due to the use of pesticides for cotton.” It is also a water-intensive culture: producing a single kilogram of cotton requires 5,260 litres of water (source: Encyclo- écolo)! Cotton is often genetically modified, encouraging dictatorship of companies like Monsanto. Its environmental footprint is strong and the choice of this fibre is problematic. Fortunately, alternatives exist in natural fibres, as we shall see later.

If the fabrics are a problem, be aware that manufacturing processes are also questionable. The worst part is often the choice of dyes, which generally contain highly toxic substances, both for industrial workers and for all people who wear these clothes. A study by Greenpeace in 2012 showed that 63% of clothing made by major brands contained NPEs, PFOAs or phthalates. These chemicals act as endocrine disruptors (causing infertility and hormonal disorders), and may also be the source of allergic reactions, liver and kidney conditions (affecting organs that manage the disposal of our waste and toxins), and cancers.

Finally, the last major ecological impact of outsourced clothing production is transportation. Our clothes have travelled thousands of kilometres before we wear them. In Quebec and Canada, we are increasingly encouraged to buy foods that limit pollution due to transportation, in addition to encouraging local producers. But this mantra is rarely applied to clothing.

Alternatives and options

Given this human and ecological disaster, what are our options? You will agree with me that if a boat is wrecked, but no life buoy is available, discouragement will ensue. It is often said that we should vote with our dollar, and that’s the best way to change the course of events. How about we start encouraging clothing companies that share our environmental, ethical and local production values? In Canada, the supply of clothing advocating these values is certainly not as great compared to that of fast fashion, but I will recommend some retailers at the end of this text.

Respecterre: ecological, ethical and locally produced values

photo atelier 1Let me introduce you to Respecterre. Founded in an ecovillage in 2007, it offers a line of clothing made of natural fibres: hemp, bamboo, Tencel (eucalyptus), linen, and organic cotton. These fibres, to varying degrees, are much more environmentally friendly than the conventional fibres mentioned above. For more information on their characteristics, please read this article. The only synthetic component that can be found in the Respecterre products is spandex (elastane), which gives the fabric greater elasticity, making it suitable for all bodies!

Another aspect that differentiates Respecterre is the importance given to local production. The company buys fabric or yarn from abroad, that is woven and dyed in the region. Then, it takes care of production in its countryside factory. People from the ecovillage and the region are involved, from creating styles to cutting the fabric, sewing, wholesaling and retailing. This encourages local employment and limits the pollution caused by transport.

Another value that is defended by Respecterre is ethics, primarily through working conditions given to its members. Despite such a competitive sector and the need to meet tight deadlines, tasks are varied, schedules are flexible and convenient, and the atmosphere very is friendly. And the workplace is outstanding, with its countryside location and multiple windows! Respecterre also relies heavily on its relationship with the customer and on the transparency of its methods of manufacture. All of this is done in an inspiring ecovillage life environment!

How Respecterre came to be

Before giving the floor to those who breathe life into this company in the coming weeks, I think it would be important to talk about the company’s origins and evolution. Its very interesting history will help understand today’s situation. Respecterre uses a sustainable business model with several interesting facets:

  • The power to transform one of society’s problems into constructive solutions;
  • The ability to use many people’s professional experiences for a new business model;
  • The weight of core values and beliefs necessary for the research of sustainable practices;
  • The positive influence of a healthy, collective, and sustainable lifestyle (here in an ecovillage).

A matter of survival

Respecterre was born in 2007, but its roots go back to 1990. The ecovillage was in the midst of its development. Families had founded the site with the primary goal of offering an alternative school for their children and creating jobs nearby so parents wouldn’t have to travel too much and could participate more actively in the education of their children. As the new community struggled to make ends meet, they had the idea to take on sewing subcontracts at the ecovillage. So was born the first garment manufacturing business in “La Cité Écologique,” HIGHTEX S.E.N.C. (All workers were associates). At that time, there were five sewing business in the village of Ham-Nord, and HIGHTEX has been able to develop primarily due to the nearby help and expertise. Just like that, almost all the ecovillage’s parents learned to sew. The company grew rapidly, offering more than 80 jobs at its peak. Through the ages, people have sewn for Sears, La Senza, La Baie, RGR, photo atelier 2Milton, Effigi, Avanti. Except for sporadic failed attempts to start its own clothing line, HIGHTEX has always sewn for others in the disposable fashion industry. Back then, the company did not have an ecological vocation: it focused on the survival of the ecovillage. The factory was set up in an old barn, recycled for this purpose (it was perhaps the greenest aspect of HIGHTEX!). In 2003, when business was still at full capacity, sewing in a barn was no longer a viable option. HIGHTEX then built a new sewing factory.

Changes in the global context and necessary adaptation

Unfortunately, this period coincides with the relocation to Asia of most sewing jobs in the textile industry. The years that followed were difficult: contracts declined non-stop and prices declined as well. In 2007, revenue went down by 50%. In this light, things needed to change in order to avoid a crash. The second generation of the ecovillage, who also knew how to sew, gradually built Respecterre with the aim of recreating jobs and not depending on external contracts. Market research helped reach the conclusion that a line of environmentally friendly yoga clothing would be an interesting niche. The transition was, however, difficult and demanding: “Going from being a subcontractor to becoming a fully operating brand is a huge turn. From creation to marketing to retail to wholesale, new skills were to be developed and challenges abounded,” says Karen, our production manager.

Respecterre also wanted to be ecological and ethical, using fabrics made of natural fibres—organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, linen, Tencel— made in Canada and dyes certified safe for health. It was, from the start, their chance of survival: to find a specialized niche, providing customers with an alternative concept of fashion, local business and sustainable practices. This is how Respecterre was born!

Sustainable living

Since 2007, the company was able to overcome challenges such as the constant loss of new contracts, retailers going out of business, independent management of the website, and training employees. The current result, a “green” and diverse range of clothing, was reached thanks to hard work by people who strongly value teamwork, employment for the ecovillage and municipality, ecology, and ethics … in short, the importance of a sustainable lifestyle!

Giving the workers a voice

In this article, I told the story of a fashion company that goes against the current. I would say that beyond ecology, the driver of Respecterre’s success is the group of individuals behind its creation. That is why I will give them a voice. I invite you, in the coming weeks, to read their stories on the Respecterre blog. You’ll learn about people who have very different life stories, but, overall, have as a common ground their human and ecological values, as well as their desire to go against the current in a world of fast and disposable fashion.

photo fin

 

References

About the Author Charles Marceau-Cotton: With just a little more than a year of life in the ecovillage “La Cite Ecologique”, I’m the new room! Setting foot in such a community, and above all decide to settle here has its share of great moments but also challenges of all kinds. I therefore propose, through these texts, my views on various aspects of community life and personal observations of the gap that sometimes exists between the “mainstream”  life and the ecovillage life .