George Brown launches sustainable fashion program to capitalize on “reshored” manufacturing

As bad press continues to plague mainstream fashion and more brands come home to avoid overseas headaches, George Brown College’s new sustainable fashion production program may be just what the Canadian apparel industry needs.

What do you do when you learn that your dream job is contributing to one of the most destructive industries on the planet? The fashion world has been rocked by deadly factory collapses, damning documentaries and report after report detailing the industry’s devastating impacts on workers, waterways, you name it.

But was it ancient philosopher Sun Tzu or an HSBC ad that once said, “From chaos comes opportunity”? Either way, one Toronto fashion school says all that bad press is opening a door for industry pros who know how make clothes ethically.

“There’s no question that we feel responsible,” says George Brown fashion studies chair Marilyn McNeil-Morin. “We can’t just stand by and not do something. We want to be part of making a change.”

As of fall 2017, George Brown is kicking off a sustainable fashion production grad program to train a skilled workforce attuned to sustainability.

Whether they’re doing production here in Canada or overseas, brands are feeling mounting pressure to clean up their supply chain. Says McNeil-Morin, “There’s a science behind it. You’ve got to understand the whole textile production cycle: What chemicals are used? How is the dyeing done? Are companies you’re working with using ethical and sustainable practices or are they leaching pollutants into the earth?”

One surprise upside to the hammering the fashion industry’s taking on all sides is that more brands, like Roots, are starting to bring some manufacturing back to Canadian soil. “Our new partners have committed to making a bigger percentage of our production in Canada,” Roots head designer Syd Beder tells NOW.

As George Brown’s sustainable production program brochure spells out plainly, “Canadian companies have started to re-shore production locally to retain control over quality and lead time and to ensure they are meeting consumer sustainability criteria.”

Hence the need for more production managers, says McNeil-Morin. “We also need to look at doing it differently than we did before, which is why the whole sustainability piece is really important.”

Kathy Cheng, president of WS & Co., one of Canada’s leading apparel manufacturers, agrees. Her Scarborough-based company, which has produced for brands like Roots, Holt Renfrew, HBC and Preloved, has tripled in size since restructuring in 2009, partly because of the re-shoring surge.

With global fuel and transportation costs rising and the cost of producing in China climbing steadily, Cheng says, “brands are finding there’s quality control in being made locally. Communication is easier, problems are solved more quickly, shipping time and the use of fossil fuels in getting the product to you are reduced.”

The difficulty now is finding the right talent. The Canadian textile and apparel industry has been notoriously decimated in recent decades as factories moved offshore.

“It’s very challenging for Canadian fashion brands to produce if there are no producers,” says Cheng. “There’s a lack of capacity, skill and infrastructure,” which is why she  says George Brown’s new sustainable production program is so critical.

“Think of it as building a home: you need a foundation, education, training and platforms to master those skills necessary to drive innovation. That’s what George Brown is doing. It’s a really important role in a circular economy. It has to start somewhere.”

The grad program, open to applicants with a fashion, business or engineering background, isn’t about churning out more designers and buyers. Sustainable production grads might end up managing production (with hands-on training at George Brown’s Fashion Exchange factory in Regent Park) or sourcing (making sure outsourced materials aren’t plucked from sweatshops dumping toxins downstream) or as sustainability auditors (part of a multi-million-dollar auditing industry that’s popped up around the fashion biz).

George Brown isn’t the first fashion school to put sustainability on the curriculum, but it’s one of the few in the world to offer a dedicated sustainable production program.

Sure, enviro and worker rights issues are increasingly sprinkled into classes at most fashion schools these days, but only sporadically, says Kelly Drennan, founder of the non-profit Fashion Takes Action. “These will come up in very basic ways when they discuss fabric or labour.”

The city’s first program dedicated to sustainable fashion production is only the second in Canada. The other is at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

“This program itself is a disruptor,” says Drennan. “These will be the future champions for sustainable fashion, infiltrating the many Canadian brands and manufacturers that for years have ignored or avoided ethical or sustainable production, and influencing the ones that have just started to engage.”

McNeil-Morin, who’s been developing the program for about four years, says the time is right. Fashion students are fed up with being part of the problem. No one fantasizes about going to school to make tanks and Ts that crowd landfills, kill rivers and fuel sweatshops.

“There’s a depth of caring in students who want to be part of making fashion a better and more respected industry, rather than the second-worst contributor to global pollution,” says McNeil-Morin. “They want to see a shift. Collectively, I see us moving in that direction.” | @ecoholicnation

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