Victoria clothing companies wrestle with fashion's wooliest questions

Anian has taken over Victoria with recycled wool clothes, even expanding to Vancouver—and it's not alone in the city's green fashion movement. How far can it grow without sacrificing its core values?

By Ayesha Habib
April 22, 2022

Victoria clothing companies wrestle with fashion's wooliest questions

Anian has taken over Victoria with recycled wool clothes, even expanding to Vancouver—and it's not alone in the city's green fashion movement. How far can it grow without sacrificing its core values?

By Ayesha Habib
Apr 22, 2022
Anian's Johnson Street storefront. James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Anian's Johnson Street storefront. James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Victoria clothing companies wrestle with fashion's wooliest questions

Anian has taken over Victoria with recycled wool clothes, even expanding to Vancouver—and it's not alone in the city's green fashion movement. How far can it grow without sacrificing its core values?

By Ayesha Habib
April 22, 2022
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Victoria clothing companies wrestle with fashion's wooliest questions
Anian's Johnson Street storefront. James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Wood tones offer a cabin-like feel to the new Anian location in Kitsilano, where rows of thick-knit overshirts are displayed in gradients of earthy colours. The fabric is sturdy yet soft; the design, understated yet modern.

“The future of textiles is circular,” reads the sleek golden lettering outside.

Employees are quick to offer the story behind the Victoria-based clothing company: what started as a surfboard-shaping company in 2013 has since turned into an outerwear brand focused on creating environmentally friendly, sharp-looking clothes for the eco-minded consumer. The brand has spent the last seven years slowly adopting more green practices, from reducing its synthetic use and eliminating dyes in its manufacturing to adopting the use of recycled textiles. 

It’s getting noticed. The company’s most popular product—a thick wool overshirt—has become the de facto uniform for a certain cohort of young outdoorsy types on the Island and, now, the Lower Mainland too. On a nice day on Dallas Road, at craft beer-laden tables in Market Square, or leaning against logs on Jericho Beach, the muted earth tones and straight-cut designs hang off a not-insignificant proportion of the population.      

Anian’s ethos was born from founder Paul Long’s time spent outdoors while working in the tourism industry in Nelson. 

“You spend all the time out there and you start wondering to yourself, like, ‘Why am I wearing all this plastic out here? Why am I actively destroying the place that I say that I love?’” Long recalls.

Today all the brand’s garments are made from recycled cotton and wool salvaged from landfills. The primary fabric is discarded wool that has been meticulously recycled at a factory in Prato, Italy—one of the only places in the world that has mastered this process. The refurbished yarn is then brought back to Vancouver, where it’s sewn into garments. It’s an example of a closed-loop circular textile economy: post-consumer waste—say, your tattered wool sweater from last season—is repurposed into a new product that’s built to last. This, as Anian’s signage would suggest, is the sustainable future of clothing.

The textile industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, with global waste alone reaching up to 92 million tonnes a year, costing the economy roughly $400 billion annually in the process. It’s an industry increasingly driven by a surge in fast fashion: closets now serve as a constant revolving door of seasonal styles as large fashion brands mass-produce cheap clothing at the severe cost of the environment. Producing new clothes in the linear textile economy requires immense amounts of water as well as toxic chemical dyes that end up in waterways. Production is typically outsourced to the Global South for cheap labour in often unsafe working conditions.

The backlash to those mountains of waste and the conditions that beget them has taken hold in Victoria.

Brands like Anian and Ecologyst, another local designer and manufacturer, are part of a growing “slow” fashion movement, marketing themselves on sustainable, ethical production and timeless style. Anian operates on a mandate to fashion products as trendless and high quality as possible, incentivizing the consumer to keep the garment from returning to the landfill, theoretically for life.

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The company opened its second location in Vancouver last fall, within walking distance to names like Patagonia and Arc'teryx in Kitsilano’s shopping district. Caleigh Smith worked there when it opened. She says a lot of people coming into the store were already familiar with Anian. Others were often pulled in by the sustainable slogans outside the store. 

“Lots of people were surprised and were like, ‘Wow, that's a great concept, there should be more of that,’” Smith says of the customers’ reactions to Anian's circular processes. “And I think that was a really cool thing to experience for me because it showed me that there's a lot of demand for this type of product.”

Anian isn’t the first clothing brand to come along with alluring promises of sustainability.  But when BC-born, local outdoor apparel favourite Arc’teryx hit the big time in the 1990s, it shipped 95% of its manufacturing overseas along with many Canadian companies in that era of global trade liberalization. Today, most of its manufacturers and suppliers are in Southeast Asia. 

There isn’t an established path for a brand like Anian to follow if it wants to simultaneously maintain its ethos and credibility while growing in an industry that, by its very nature, seems destined to twist it into an environmental and human-rights malignancy. The company will need to find a different way to grow—or reimagine success, in our growth-centric economy, altogether.

People in rag houses

In a large factory in Prato, mounds of wool garments are hand-separated by colour. Bits of fluff waft through the air as the wool is shredded into wisps, re-carded back into a fibre, and then finally, spun into a yarn. In this northeastern region of Italy, wool recycling is an ancient art mastered by the locals; most of the world’s recycled wool comes from here.

Recycling wool is a process that creates little waste as it bypasses the need for water and added chemical dyes, unlike virgin wool. Any post-industrial waste, such as excess wool lost in the process of cutting the fabric, is collected and recycled through again.

But where does that discarded wool come from exactly? The short version: “Asia,” Long tells Capital Daily, without disclosing exactly where. It’s not like that’s where it truly originates, anyway. “That’s where the world’s trash, for lack of a better term, gets sent. The way the economic system works is that you have Westernised or more financially savvy countries that don't want to see their garbage anymore. So, they ship it to [developing] countries that have less resources. So, there's large piles of [textile waste] in parts of North Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan. And we have to work within that system.”

Long works with what are called “rag houses” in Asia where workers sift through garment waste to extract wool pieces. A preliminary grading of colour starts here and gets more precise further down the supply chain as the piles of wool make their way to Italy.

Transparency of the exact processes within rag houses is a “complex web,” Long says. Despite the promises of Western governments to responsibly dispose of trash, it often ends up in landfills across Asia anyway—where local governments can also be part of the system contributing to those landfills. He explains that he’s been trying for years to get into the rag houses he works with, but workers are reluctant to grant that access and expose these system flaws. His efforts to sponsor the rag house workers to come to Canada has been stalled by Covid.

The textile industry is a trillion-dollar industry, and even its waste has been monetized well, Long explains, “So, it will be guarded. Quite highly.”

Textiles make up a trillion-dollar global industry—but most of Canada's share of that production moved overseas during the wave of trade liberalization that swept the world in the 1990s. Some companies, like Ecologyst (above) are swimming against that current and bringing production back to Canada; Ecologyst's production happens in downtown Victoria. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

To try to reduce the uncertainty around its materials’ origins, Anian sought Global Recycling Standard certification, a voluntary process that verifies the environmental and social practices of a company. “We have sent those certifiers to the entire supply chain from start to finish. That's as much as we can get.”

Going deeper to know exactly where discarded textile garments come from would be “a hard thing to trace,” says Paul King, the owner of KenDor Textiles, a wholesale fabric seller based in Delta that works in sustainable fabric.

Post-consumer waste passes through many hands, including charities, thrift stores, and bulk collectors, before making it to the sorter-graders who extract garments usable for recycling purposes.

“If you ever want to see a sad place, see a picking site, where they take garments that can’t be used anymore,” King says. “They send them to giant warehouses where they’re [piled into] mounds on the floor and people are literally hand-picking through dirty old garments, trying to find something of value. That’s part of the recycling world, and that’s not a great part.”

The limits of a local textile economy

Once upon a time, British Columbia was a textile epicentre. By the 1920’s, a robust apparel manufacturing industry was in place, largely due to the benefits of having port bases to import and export materials while also receiving skilled workers. The last 30 years, however, has seen a shift in industry towards Asia, due to cheap labour and the rise in industrialization in the continent. One in three apparel jobs in BC disappeared from the 1990’s to 2007.

Now Vancouver is a hub for sorter-graders who divert textile waste from disposal, says Karen Storry, a senior project leader at Metro Vancouver Solid Waste Services. But a large amount of the textile waste there is synthetic. Wool and cotton—the materials Anian works with most—are less common. 

Even less common are recycling facilities in British Columbia that have the capacity to recycle textiles on industrial scales. Long claims he would like to get to a stage where he can source recycled textiles locally, but there is little intellectual property on how to sort and grade textiles in Vancouver—let alone in Victoria, which he claims has virtually no existing industry—and he estimates that he would need an NFL-stadium sized facility to do so. 

“We don't have that re-manufacturing capability in BC like we do [for plastics],” explains Storry; local plastic recycling facilities are much more comprehensive than what we have for textiles. “For example, in BC we have a local company that is able to turn plastic from the blue bin into plastic pellets that can be then sold to various markets around the world to make new plastic items out of recycled plastic. We just don't have that same capability [for textiles.]”

According to a whitepaper co-authored by Storry for the Textile Lab for Circularity, an advocacy platform of which KenDor Textiles is one of several funders, there is a gap in apparel recycling and repair facilities in Vancouver. The city is responsible for 22,000 tonnes of landfill garment waste, 95% of which could have been repaired or recycled. Developing these sectors would be an essential step in diverting the city’s apparel waste from landfills while also creating green jobs.

But optimizing local recycling infrastructure would only take us so far. Offsetting the environmental damage of the textile industry would require a systemic shift in fashion business models from linear to circular. Storry says radical change would be needed in the form of government support and consumer behaviour adjustments. That means recycling regulations and a change in our shopping and disposal habits.

Governments have already done this before, specifically with plastics. “They're restricting the sale and use of certain [plastics] that are harmful for the environment. They are looking at recycled content. And they are also looking at building out that infrastructure needed to support re-manufacturing of plastics,” Storry says.

King suggests looking to Europe for an example of how textile recycling is managed, from clothing return centres similar to plastic depots to government regulations and recycling laws. France, for example, has recently banned the destruction of unsold textiles; garments must be donated or recycled instead. One way or another, he believes government intervention is necessary to change how we approach buying and discarding garments. “When you buy tires, there’s a 10 dollar deposit to each tire for its end of life. We have to start looking at it that way,” King says.

Long doesn’t think Canada’s government is going to be so bold.

“The government isn't going to act until they know [circular economies] are successful, which is frustrating,” he says. “It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation.” He estimates that even a 10% federal government-mandated requirement for recycled fabric on imported textiles would make a huge difference in the industry. 

A few companies like Anian and Ecologyst are pushing back against a tidal wave of fast fashion. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Making any sort of substantial change in the gargantuan textile system is no small feat. “I'm not a billion dollar company and even a billion dollar company wouldn't be able to change [the industry],” Long says. Short of government intervention, he thinks it’ll be up to consumers to demand change—but first they need to know the hidden costs of the things they’re buying.

This is the role he sees Anian playing: educating consumers about circular economies so that the shift in demand recedes from fast fashion and towards sustainable fashion. Through Anian, he wants to set an example of how brands can use post-consumer recycled material successfully. He doesn’t claim Anian is a perfectly green organisation—garments are not made of 100% recycled material—but rather a baby step forward in the larger movement towards a sustainable fashion industry.

“I think there's an idealism and then there's the reality [about sustainable fashion], and a lot of the movement in textiles that’s green-based can be a little bit more idealistic. But then the further you get into the industry, you're like, ‘Holy shit, this is not how it works. If I want to make a difference, I need to find some sort of middle ground between the two,’” he says.

Drunk on green Kool-Aid

The first H&M opened on Vancouver Island in 2013, at the Uptown mall, where it has remained an anchor tenant ever since. Next door is Forever 21, which opened two months earlier. The cavernous, boisterous stores often occupy the largest footprints in any mall, along with other fast-fashion juggernauts like Zara, GAP, and UNIQLO, any one of which could swallow the combined retail floor space of a company like Anian or Ecologyst many times over. 

Walking into one, armed with the knowledge of their worldwide output, can feel dizzying, as the recognition sets in that every t-shirt, every pair of shoes, every belt and tie is replicated tens of thousands of times around the world—and that in a few months, every single item will be sold, burned, or thrown away.

“Consumerism is the water we swim in. It's the water we're born into, it's the water we drink,” J.B MacKinnon tells Capital Daily. MacKinnon’s recent book The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Gives Us a Better Life and a Greener World carefully examines the complex balance of consumerism and the economy.

Buying fewer goods isn’t quite the answer we want it to be. “We've been thinking about simple living far too simply,” MacKinnon says. The economic downturn of reducing our buying habits would ultimately trickle down to the most vulnerable members of society—the same people who are already often the most impacted by environmental consequences of our economy.

“We can still achieve—and desperately need to achieve—that reduction in consumption. But we have to take it seriously as an economic proposition and talk about it as the system change that it actually would be,” MacKinnon says.

Ecologyst manufactures clothing right in its Victoria storefront. Photos: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Can large brands find economic success and still be sustainable? Patagonia’s repair model, where customers can bring in items for repair instead of tossing the garment away, has been a success. The brand has managed to grow while still complying with sustainable practices, but they “are still really only willing to go so far at this point,” says MacKinnon.

“My understanding is that they anticipate continuing to grow. They consider that what you might call ‘good’ growth. They think that they are creating the kinds of consumer goods that the lower consuming future demands: durable products, they are offering to repair them, they're doing more and more of their sales through second hand,” MacKinnon says. “They're positioning themselves against fast fashion and against the overconsumption of apparel more and more in their marketing. But they also expect that that will result in growth for them, rather than degrowth.”

That presents something of a paradox. If ethical companies grow, and gain market share by pursuing better practices, that’s a net win—but if the result of all that growth is more consumption, it’s a net loss. “We just end up the same system of every company still pursuing endless growth. And that's a problem. But for now, on the shorter term horizon, it's a reasonable position to take,” MacKinnon says.

Consumers are beginning to demand more environmentally friendly approaches from companies, but in the case of many fast fashion brands those approaches often don’t extend beyond buzzwords like “eco-friendly” and “green” without the supply chain transparency to back those claims up. Models like H&M’s Conscious line, which is made from various recycled materials, incites more skepticism from MacKinnon.

“I think that's the Kool-Aid that the millennial generation drank and might be waking up from at this point,” MacKinnon says. “The promise that we would have green consumerism, that we would be able to have more or less the same consumer lifestyle that we've always had, but with no environmental impacts—because we would green away all of those with recycling and circular economies and biodegradables and renewable power—I think we're starting to realise after 20 years of that message that it hasn't been delivering.”  

Thirty years’ worth of clothing

Anian’s Vancouver store, like its Victoria location, displays a metal cylinder filled to the brim with scrap fabric. “It’s just decorative, of course,” the employee says, but it serves as a visual “before” of an Anian garment. For the customer, it’s as simple as that: these shredded pieces of trash fabric are given a new life in the form of the fisherman sweater or the plaid button-up hanging on the racks adjacent. The circle of life, as they say.

But circular fashion economies, like Anian’s, can only take us so far when endless production and consumerism still drives the market.

“Circular economies can contribute to the reduction in consumption of resources,” MacKinnon says. “But if you're endlessly increasing the size of the circle, then you need to pour more and more resources into it. … There's a problem with the scale of consumption, not just with how things are made or what they're made of.”

Anian has become near-ubiquitous among a certain set of Victorians. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

If the world stopped producing new fibres now, both Long and King claim that there is enough textile waste in the world for circular economies to truly close the loop on garment production, at least for the foreseeable future. “Right now, there is enough textile waste for us to grow exponentially for the next 30 years and there would still be some textile waste still kickin’,” says Long, who has increased production as Anian expands, all while relying primarily on recycled materials. “Conservationism and capitalism don't have to go against each other.”

Conservationism and capitalism can co-exist when aggressive growth and profitability aren’t the only end goals. MacKinnon argues that businesses do not necessarily need to grow to stay profitable. Capitalistic greed, underlain by the push for profits by investors and shareholders, is “probably one of the things that would need to change if we wanted to shift towards an economy that was functional at a lower level of consumption,” says MacKinnon.

In the interim, how can brands that claim they are sustainable be held accountable? For King, it would be down to the consumer to demand complete supply chain transparency. But “it’s a very protective industry,” he says—brands don’t want to give away their secrets.

Long says he would not be able to share his entire supply chain for transparency. “For us we couldn't. The intellectual property that I spent the last seven years developing, it's how we've carved out our corner of the market. And it's very much a catch 22,” he admits. “Radical transparency on paper is an amazing idea, but the implementation of that and the reality of it is unless every single person does it, and unless people don't come around and steal your ideas, you're opening yourself up for risk.”

Brands like Anian are ultimately just the underdogs, a well-intentioned drop in an ocean of billion dollar fast fashion corporations. Systemic change is seismic, collective, collaborative, and to many, an idealistic pursuit. 

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