On average, Americans buy a new garment every five days. The prices are so low that the clothes are now considered mainly disposable. According to a McKinsey study, for every five new garments produced each year, three garments are eliminated. Incredibly, research has shown that 90% of our clothes are thrown away before they need to be.
The rise of this fast fashion has created large-scale environmental and social side effects. for example Zara alone produces around 840 million pieces of clothing each year for sale in its 6,000 stores around the world, mostly by workers with wages below the poverty line.. In China, India and Bangladesh, once thriving rivers have been destroyed by the same discharges of factory sewage; they have now become biological dead zones full of carcinogenic chemicals. Plus, the tiny plastic microfibers that fall off synthetic clothes during the laundry process flood our water supply and food chain.
But some brands are pushing back on these trends and focusing more on “slow fashion”, producing clothes with trendless designs and premium, sustainable quality. For example, a company that works in this field is based in Toronto, Surrounded, one of the few clothing brands in Canada to be a B Corp, thus certified for its social and environmental performance. Encircled’s factories are located in Toronto, Canada, and they are OEKO-TEX (R) 100 certified, which means that no harmful substances are used to make their clothes, only ultra-soft fabrics of ‘sustainable origin. They are also transparent on their materials and provide a online list of their basic fabrics.
As part of my research on purpose companies, I recently had the chance to catch up with Kristi Soomer, founder of Encircled. Below is a revised excerpt from our online discussion.
Christopher Marquis: Why did you find Encircled?
Kristi Soomer: I founded Encircled in 2012 with a mission to design clothing that would allow women to travel light, without sacrificing comfort or style. Over the years, the brand has evolved to focus on how our customers can create a clean capsule wardrobe at home. We believe that the most durable thing you can do is wear all the clothes in your closet. Thus, we design multifunctional, timeless, comfortable and stylish pieces that we know customers will feel confident to achieve any day of the week. All of our clothing is proudly made in Toronto, Canada from sustainably sourced fabrics, which we are very transparent about! We believe in making clothing without compromise – our customers receive genuine pieces that are durable, stylish and will last a lifetime. Encircled is the wardrobe that does it all.
Marquis: What does slow fashion mean?
Soomer: Slow Fashion is an approach to clothing production that takes into account all aspects of the supply chain and, in doing so, aims to respect people, the environment and animals. It also means spending more time on the design process, ensuring that every garment is of high quality.
Fast Fashion retailers taught us that more is better, and thus created a huge consumer problem. The fast-paced fashion industry is cutting back on quality, exploiting the environment and its employees to create inexpensive clothes that don’t last. Slow fashion is the exact opposite of this. It is about creating careful and neat collections based on quality finishes, rather than producing large quantities of seasonal and fashionable clothing.
Our mission at Encircled is simple. We encourage customers to be more thoughtful and intentional about their clothes – and to choose pieces that will last a long time in their wardrobe.
Marquis: How many B Fashion Bodies are there in North America and why do you think there aren’t more?
Soomer: The B Corporation website states that there are approximately 70+ certified B companies in the fashion industry in North America. In Canada, where Encircled is based, there are approximately 15 B-Fashion bodies, of which only a handful are founded by women.
In my opinion, I don’t think there are more Certified B Corps in the fashion industry because it’s an extremely difficult certification to get – and for good reason! To become a B Corp Certified Business, clothing brands and businesses must demonstrate that they are committed to balancing their profits with a goal that positively impacts the community and meets high environmental and transparency standards. Many fashion brands in North America have yet to prioritize a sustainable and ethical supply chain as their top priority. Additionally, the certification process can be a disincentive, especially for smaller brands due to the time and resource investment required to pass the assessment and certification.
For fashion brands (and other businesses) to receive B Corp certification, they are measured on various aspects of their business, including governance, workers, community, and engagement. Every B-certified company receives an “ impact scorecard ” that describes its performance and rating, and companies must score at least 80 out of 200 points to achieve certification. To ensure transparency, this information can be viewed publicly on B Corp’s website, allowing the public to see any gaps, which some clothing brands may view as a hindrance. Personally, I see this score as a way to continue to develop our brand and make it the best it can be.
Marquis: What have been the benefits and challenges of obtaining B Corp certification?
Soomer: There are many benefits of becoming a Certified B Corp for businesses and consumers. From a business perspective, this allows customers to be confident that our actions meet all the standards that we advertise. You can trust what you see when the company’s values and actions are verified.
Having said that, it is a thorough process to qualify, and companies must renew their certification every three years. We must constantly think about the impact of our company on everyone, not just on shareholders. This includes our supply chain, the processes at our office, the materials used, etc.
Ultimately, it is 100% worth it, as it helps us create a great working environment for our employees and stakeholders, and our customers believe they are having a positive impact with their decision to buy from Encircled.
Marquis: What are your top 3 recommendations for creating a more sustainable fashion industry?
Soomer: Creating a more sustainable fashion industry requires a multi-faceted approach. It’s such a broad issue that affects all areas of the apparel supply chain – from raw materials to the end of a garment’s lifecycle.
The first recommendation is that consumers actively become more curious and intentional with their clothing purchases. Thirty years ago, we each had far fewer items in our average closet, and the fashion industry had 2-4 seasons. Now, fast fashion brands produce up to 5,000 styles per week, many of which run on 52 “micro-seasons”. This creates a huge problem with consumption. In general, we’ve found that most people only wear about 20% of the clothes in their closet, so a good start is for consumers to focus on vigilance – buying only what they need, investing in pieces without trend rather than trend and focusing on quality over quantity with clothing purchases.
Second, I recommend more regulation, accountability and transparency in the fashion industry. It’s still a top-secret industry, with many brands hiding where they produce, what they pay, and how workers are treated. Holding brands to account for their actions in countries other than their own is a big step towards stepping up big brands to pay living wages and be more responsible for working conditions in the garment industry. If there is no accountability on the part of the brand, it is too easy for fashion brands to ignore the entire lifecycle of their clothing production. This includes learning how the raw materials are harvested to make the yarn, needed for knitting and the dyes used, and how a customer should dispose of a garment when it is finished wearing it.
Third, the media needs to attract more attention and awareness to brands that are doing good things in the fashion industry. There are thousands of small and slow fashion brands around the world that have emerged with ethical supply chains over the past decade. However, the important media share of the voice goes to the big brands, who can afford to buy it. Showcasing more emerging brands that have real sustainability and ethics embedded at the heart of their business model will raise awareness and show that issues need to be addressed and help consumers make better choices.