A garment’s country of origin isn’t that garment’s full story. Canadian belt manufacturer Unbelts is looking to prove that the fashion industry and consumers have a responsibility and an existing means to provide high-quality clothing-production jobs around the world. Plus, this 2017 Best for the World honoree is out to make women feel awesome in their pants — a goal that is also worthy of global adoption.
Unbelts founder Claire Theaker-Brown is used to the questioning looks that often come with shoppers looking for ethical fashion, finding her belts, and then checking the “Made in China” label. But it doesn’t change her commitment to providing fair, flexible, steady, living-wage jobs to women in China as part of her product’s supply chain.
“Regardless of where a garment was sewn together, there is a very long, intricate supply chain that goes all over the world,” Theaker-Brown said. “Recognizing that a garment has a long, international journey behind it is important, and those workers who live beyond our own national borders deserve respect.”
Unbelts’ mission is two-fold: To help women feel amazing in their jeans, and to provide quality work to seamstresses and menders in China. Unbelts, originally Flatter:Me Belts until last year, are designed to be worn a lot — they come with a 500-wear warranty — and the company welcomes worn belts back for repairs. Hear more from Theaker-Brown during her 2014 talk at TEDx Shanghai Women:
Give us a little background on the company’s origins.
I created this product out of sheer desperation — I blamed my body for not being the right shape to fit well into jeans, and I needed a better belt for me. When I started talking about it, I realized that fit problems were a lot more universal than I had thought; it’s not just an individual flaw of mine. Over time, I learned that it’s an overall flaw of pants.
The decision to manufacture in the way we do also started as a very individual experience. I moved to China in 2008, after graduating from university with an industrial design degree and a minor in Mandarin. The Great Recession hit right after I arrived in China, and I didn’t think moving back to Canada in that climate would offer me much opportunity. My skills were unique and sought-after in China, so I stayed and worked for a nonprofit before starting what I then called Flatter:Me belts in 2011.
I was living in Shanghai, and I noticed that women were sewing outside every morning in the neighborhood. I got to know two women in my community who did mending and I got to know their needs a little bit better. I learned that they weren’t a good fit for a full-time factory job — they had family obligations and minor disabilities, like arthritis — but they did need stable income. The hardest thing about taking odd jobs for them was that the timing and income was unpredictable.
I wasn’t able to offer anyone stable employment, but I could offer a contract to sew a few hundred belts. I took those belts and matched them to retailers, and I feel I was very lucky. I had found a product that didn’t exist in the world and that solves a specific problem for a large number of people. I was able to use those first sales to start building our manufacturing and to start offering stable employment to the women I knew in Shanghai.
I chose to build the business gradually. Since moving back to Canada three years ago, I’ve learned just how unusual my start to the business was compared with most entrepreneurial journeys. I don’t think I would’ve been able to start this slowly if I hadn’t been living at the source in Shanghai, where I could support myself working part-time jobs until I could support myself fully with the business.
How does your worker treatment differ in concrete terms from what you’ve seen in the garment industry?
The phrases “ethical fashion” and “sustainable fashion” are starting to become buzzwords, and with buzz comes skepticism. When I talk about what makes us “ethical” or “sustainable,” I have to process that with the caveat that this is very much a work in progress — not because of what I am limited in doing, but because of what I am trying to gain an understanding of.
Sometimes, there are really interesting cultural differences at play, where I think I can offer something different for my workers that I assume is better — but it is not actually better. For example, I believe in limiting workdays to seven hours, but the workers don’t always want that. They’d rather concentrate work in a season and work longer hours, and then go home and spend more time outside of the city, not working for us at all.
I have learned a lot by living in China and getting more involved in clothing manufacturing. There are a few factors that make garment jobs “bad”: demand for a lot of garments, produced very quickly, for very little money. I try to remove those three pressures. Our workers are not under pressure to produce a ton of product; to turn products around really quickly; or to produce those products too cheaply, meaning they are not asked to work for less money than they need to support their families.
Unlike most manufacturers, we have a long turnaround time. When we place an order, we give workers six to eight weeks to fill that order, compared with a company that can copy runway looks in two to three weeks.
We also calculate our prices and wages from the bottom-up, instead of the top-down. We price our products according to what we need to pay our workers to give them enough to live on, instead of pricing our products and then paying what it takes to make profit on it. We know what China’s minimum wage is, but we talk to our team of about eight to 12 sewers and ask what they need to afford living in Shanghai, which has a really high cost of living. Our workers’ family situations are usually pretty unique, too, so our wages are determined on a more individual level with worker input, and our prices reflect that.
What changes are happening in the industry that have you excited? What changes are you still wanting to see for real systems change?
What I’m excited to see are things that could cause some cynicism. For example, when I see H&M introduce a conscious collection, I get excited. It means the big brands are responding to a true, articulated consumer need on a scale that businesses like mine just don’t have the resources to do, no matter how much heart we have. To see big names introduce conscious collections is to say they have heard from the customers, and that response recognizes and validates the new demand for transparency. I think it could be easy to look at those actions and have a negative point of view, to say it’s all just marketing, it’s all just talk. But, the talk, to me, is really important and shows that somebody is listening.
I’m also excited by the growing recognition that country of origin does not determine how ethically a garment was made. Gildan Activewear bought American Apparel and is building in two-tier pricing, with “Made in U.S.” pricing and “Made in Other Countries” pricing. No one is being abused, but the price difference reflects the difference in costs of living. That’s really encouraging because it’s starting to get away from the narrative of “Made in America” and “Made in Canada” versus “Big, Bad Outsourced.”
Most garment-making skill is offshore, and beyond cut-and-sew, most suppliers are overseas. Regardless of where a garment was sewn together, which is what a “Made in X Location” label tells you, there is a very long, intricate supply chain that goes all over the world. Recognizing that a garment has a long, international journey behind it and that those workers live beyond our own national borders and deserve respect — this is exciting.
Everlane and Patagonia have done really great jobs. I’m so grateful to them for doing some of the pioneering work for businesses like mine to follow and have an easier time explaining our goals and values to customers.
I would like to see more of an understanding that “ethically made” can be made anywhere in the world, and needs to be made everywhere in the world. We have an ethical obligation as consumers to create high-quality garment jobs everywhere in the world. There is growing recognition that ethical production is possible and necessary worldwide, but you still see special recognition for “Made in Canada” or “Made in America.” The label needs to be replaced by something more like “transparently produced” or “progressively produced.”
What consumers actually want are goods made by people who are earning a living wage and able to support themselves on their craft, and that doesn’t have to mean limiting purchasing to locally produced goods. I want to see the current locally produced drive evolve into something that recognizes the long supply chain behind every object. What I’d like to see is the kind of translation of the “Made local” movement into a “Made by humans who were treated fairly movement,” and that would create transparency all the way through the supply chain.
Does this mean we’ll always be manufacturing in China? Nope. Our goal is to benefit the most garment workers we possibly can with our belts. China’s labour laws have improved in big ways since 2011 (see the results of one of many studies on the subject here), and we might find the time comes to bring our jobs to other communities. In other words, we’re focused on the who, not the where.
Could you speak more about consumption: What role do consumers play? How do your views on consumption shape Unbelts’ products?
I studied industrial design, which is really the study of how people use things. I thought there was nothing I could design that the world actually needed; there is so much stuff in the world. I could only justify it if it was something that would help curb consumption of something else. The consumption of denim, in particular, is a huge problem, and if I can help solve it in any tiny way, I would love to do that. We have a 500-wear warranty because we want our customers to wear their belts until they wear them out, then we want to repair them.
We don’t want our customers to throw out jeans that get a little saggy. We want to sell them a belt for $30 to fix that sag and save additional consumption.
I’m looking forward to people being able to access quality clothes that are made to last so they can consume fewer. I think that affordability is really key. High-quality garments and fabric are harder to find. The mills that produce such fabrics are suffering because of the demand for textiles that are faster, easier, cheaper to produce. I hope that designers of high-quality garments can find a way to be accessible to those with lower incomes, and find creative ways of addressing consumer cash-flow issues. Maybe it becomes normal to buy clothes on layaway again. Instead of fast fashion, we as consumers could remember the concept of “delayed gratification” and the sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency that comes with putting money away each month for a pair of jeans you buy at the end of the year.
We’re not just trying to give our customers a belt, we’re trying to give our customers a perfectly fitting pair of jeans. We also hold denim-rescue events, where we do onsite hemming and mending. As we grow, we’re figuring out how to make products only part of the solution for giving people a perfect pant fit. What other solutions can we present that actually reduce what they are buying from us?
And how can we help shift the current consume-and-purge, fast-fashion consumption habits? Purging your closet feels good, but it’s not a long-term solution. I started an event call Change of Clothes, a personal event I do not connected with Unbelts, where you can donate or swap or repair or upcycle clothes that you bring. We collect hundreds of pounds of clothes, but I don’t see it as a success. I’m looking forward to the end of the overconsumption, which would leave the purge unnecessary. The intention is in the right place, but we as consumers need to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of our purchases.
What’s next for Unbelts?
Gender inclusivity. We are working on the Adventure Belt, responding to a demand from our customers and those we hope will become our customers, for a belt that has a tougher hand feel, less-decorative buckle, and will perform better for people who carry stuff in their pockets. We are asked a lot whether we’re going to release a men’s belt. The answer is “no,” we won’t release a belt for men — we’re going to release a belt for people who wear belts, in this case, adding functionality and performance we aren’t currently providing.
The other thing coming up is that the Adventure Belts will all be sewn here in our Evanston, Alberta headquarters. We’re doing that because we know some people here who need stable employment and it allows us to test an idea on a shorter turnaround with lower investment.
This post, written by B Corp Canada/B the Change, first appeared on Medium on September 30, 2017.