Canada’s place in the world of fashion is growing, but designers and apparel producers here face tremendous competition from cheap sources in Asia. Like other western nations, Canada has embraced fast fashion. This is a term that Lori Moran, lecturer in the department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta, uses to describe what has happened since apparel production moved to China.
“This idea of companies like Zara and H&M—these are companies that have a really rapid turn-around,” she says. “They kind of condition consumers to always be looking for the next new thing because they replenish their stock so quickly and they don’t repeat those items.”
Labour in China is cheap, and Moran says that initially when clothing production moved there from North America in the ’70s, the quality was pretty cheap, too. She says now the quality has improved some while the prices remain low—encouraging shoppers to continuously keep buying.
“There is some criticism that we have become too reliant on these cheap imports in the sense that many consumers seem to think that it’s disposable clothing,” Moran says. “It’s so low priced that if it doesn’t last a long time or you get tired of it, you feel it’s OK to get rid of it because you didn’t spend that much on it.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Pre-industrial revolution, before clothing began being mass-produced, Anne Bissonnette, assistant professor of Material Culture and Curatorship also in the Human Ecology department at the U of A, says there were a couple things that distinguished people by their clothing.
“It was the quality of the cloth—something we don’t understand today because everything is made of rather crappy fabric—but in an era where fabric cost 70 to 90 percent of the cost of the garment, that was really important. … second of all, you have the cut of your clothes,” she notes.
Up-to-date fashions were important but sometimes, even though the clothes might look stylish, the fabric was poor quality if the wearer was not part of the upper classes. But as clothing production became even quicker, it meant that even the working classes started looking stylish, although the quality was not there.
“So when we start to have ready-to-wear, that’s because you have a standardized system where the garments might not fit you super well, but they fit you well enough and the price is much cheaper,” Bissonnette says. It’s now gotten to the point where she says it’s cheaper to buy a $10 T-shirt than to sew your own clothing.
The introduction of free-trade agreements sent production jobs away from Canada to Third World countries, and that led to the Canadian fashion industry becoming depleted. Although some of the tariffs on importing fabric have been eased, it’s still expensive for Canadian designers to create quality clothing at home. The transportation of the fabric takes time and in this industry, time is of the essence.
“The taxes on things coming into Canada harken back to another era when we did produce more fabric in Canada,” Moran says. “So to encourage people to use what was made here, they made it more expensive to import goods.”
Bissonnette adds that it’s tough to compete with cheap labour. “So when we talk about Canadian fashion—we are suffering with other countries, we’re not the only one—with the fact that if somebody goes into business right now, how can they compete with an equivalent that produces designs in Canada but then has it produced elsewhere, which reduces the cost significantly? So if your shirt is $200 because you make it here compared to the shirt that’s $15 because it’s produced elsewhere, how do you compete with that? So that is something that in the past 25 years has completely changed not only designers in this country, but also production and sales.”
It’s easier for designers in Europe as Italy is a major fabric exporter for high-end fashion. Canada’s selection of importers includes those who dominate in cheaper textile production like China, India and Turkey.
“So if you’re a Canadian fashion designer, what you have available to you is a selection not as great as if you were working in Europe,” Moran says.
Then there are the environmental problems that come hand-in-hand with fast fashion.
“It’s encouraging people to be on the lookout and really be searching for the next new thing on a shorter and shorter cycle,” Moran adds. “Retailers typically would have changed what they had in the store by seasons, and then they would try to get consumers interested in the back-to-school season and the cruise season to try and get people to buy summer clothes in winter. They came up with all these different buying seasons throughout the year to keep people interested in buying more.”
The result of maintaining a continuous cycle of producing and buying also creates a lot of waste. Moran says cut-and-sew operations are leaving as much as 30 percent of the fabric on the floor. And then there’s the factor of all the travel required for the clothing to be restocked every two weeks and the attitude of consumers that this clothing is disposable—much of it ends up in landfills when the wearer is done with it.
Moran thinks this cycle of fast fashion will continue to be the norm until more people demand sustainability in the way apparel is produced.