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  • Writer's pictureMyriam Laroche

From Profit to Ethical & Environmental Awareness: My Journey in the Apparel Textile Industry

Updated: 4 days ago

There are moments in life when we question the direction our journey is taking, and I wonder if I am becoming a modern version of Claude Cossette, the advertising pioneer who denounced "advertising as cultural waste" in 2001. At the beginning of my career as a buyer in the 1990s, achieving a profit margin of 50% to 60% was considered the norm. We lived in a time when quotas still governed the production of clothing in developing countries, where costs were significantly lower. Consequently, the rate of local production was higher. However, everything changed with the full implementation of the WTO's Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) on January 1, 2005. Quotas and local production were abandoned, paving the way for increased profits for retailers and brands. Officially, the removal of quotas aimed to open new business opportunities for developing countries, allowing them free access to developed markets and promoting their economic development by integrating them more actively into global trade. However, when we remove our capitalist hat, it becomes evident that the increased negative impact of the garment and textile industry on humans, animals, and the environment is intrinsically linked to this precise moment.

In 2000, 50 billion units of new clothing were produced, a figure that doubled to 100 billion units in 2015. This volume, when put into perspective, reveals the extent of overproduction and overconsumption. My first "wake-up call" occurred in 2006 when I held a senior position in the purchasing department of a Montreal-based chain with stores nationwide. At my director's request, I was negotiating for a $0.50 discount on the cost of a camisole that one of my factories in China had quoted at $8.00. Suddenly, the act of negotiating, a daily routine in my field, lost all logic. My final selling price for this camisole was set at $25, with a cost of $8. This represented a 68% margin, but I was required to achieve a 70% margin, an increasingly frequent demand. To illustrate, a 70% margin on an item sold at retail for $25 means the supplier was paid $7.50, and they too made a profit. The rest covers wages, materials, and transportation. For a cotton t-shirt, this includes costs associated with the farmer, spinner, weaver or knitter, dyer, cutter, assembler, presser, and packer, often spread across different countries. Although this may be considered a wholesale price, with perhaps 1,000 or 10,000 units produced, the enormity of the gap between the margins of brands and retailers compared to those of suppliers is deeply troubling. Convincing workers, mostly women, to work for such low wages inevitably involves abuse, violence, and oppression.

Feeling overwhelmed but still passionate about clothing and textiles, I decided to move to Vancouver in the winter of 2007. My choice was motivated by a need for change and the desire to live in an English-speaking city, as Toronto seemed too similar to Montreal in terms of energy. Unbeknownst to me, the energy of the West Coast exerted an irresistible pull on me, an energy that still accompanies me to this day. This region offers an environment where the imperative of "everything must be done for yesterday" does not prevail, a breath of fresh air that I greatly needed.

Thus, my career in Vancouver began with a Canadian yoga clothing brand (not lululemon). The products, made in Vancouver with fabrics knitted in Montreal, stood out for their remarkable quality, particularly in terms of durability and fit. Working for this brand was an endless source of inspiration, reminding me of the true value of clothing and the importance of being close to the product, knowing its origin. This is when the seed of my transition to sustainable fashion was planted.

After a year with this company, I wanted to contribute more to the sustainable movement. Being a fervent admirer of vintage and second-hand fashion, I launched my own line of vintage clothing, named Myriam's Closet. However, this initiative was short-lived, as I quickly realized that Vancouver did not truly have a fashion identity. The "fashion events" I attended seemed to aspire to be like New York, Toronto, or Montreal, a vision that did not suit Vancouver. The city stands out for its unique character, greatly different from major fashion capitals.

At that moment, the idea took root in me: why not position Vancouver as the capital of sustainable fashion, where local products are highlighted, where the quality, comfort, and functionality of clothing are prioritized, and where the environment is central to concerns? This vision was reinforced by the city's campaign to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Thus, in the fall of 2009, I launched Eco Fashion Week (EFW). Over the years, we organized 13 editions and 5 satellite events, including 3 in Seattle and 1 in Toronto.

Eco Fashion Week consisted not only of fashion shows and a showroom but also a platform for a collective conversation about the harms inflicted by the fashion industry and the various existing solutions and innovations. Initially, my approach was more flexible: as long as a brand was committed to sustainable practices, they were welcome. My goal was to start this discussion because, at the beginning of the 2010s, the topic was almost taboo. I wanted us to make noise, to get things moving, and it worked. We generated significant visibility, catalyzing changes in the industry. I am convinced that EFW's greatest success lies in the collective effort, the gathering of passionate and motivated individuals to transform the industry.

However, after eight years, we were exhausted and financially fragile. Paving the way requires a considerable amount of energy and money, and convincing the industry to invest in this "terra incognita" was an almost impossible mission. Thus, in 2018, the EFW adventure came to an end. And after eleven years in Vancouver, I returned to Quebec. I came back with what I would call a master's and a doctorate in sustainable textile and garment development from the "Eco Fashion Week" University. However, one question persisted: in which direction should I continue to forge the path? I did not understand why the industry was not keeping pace with me. The pandemic gave me an opportunity to take a step back. This retreat constituted my second wake-up call. It prompted me to acquire a deeper education, not only about sustainability but also about the toxic elements that characterize this industry beyond the long supply chain and manufacturing methods: capitalism, colonialism, misogyny, and racism clearly added to the list. This opened my eyes to an inevitability: even if a product is ecologically green, if it is made by exploiting and abusing, it cannot claim that label. If a new garment costs less than $20, the chances are very high that its production involves the exploitation of humans, animals, and/or natural resources. Period. Regardless of whether it comes with a certification.

A striking observation that resonates with me is that we are still at the beginning of a true transformation. My total commitment to the sustainable development of the garment industry has lasted for 15 years, and it is striking to note that the majority of brands and retailers have not yet taken significant steps. Their strategies often seem to fall within the spectrum of greenwashing. They seem to fear an unavoidable truth: the only real solution lies in reducing the production of new garments, especially those of low price and poor quality. These are precisely the products that generate the most revenue and profits for them.

The retailers of the future, those who will thrive over the next 15 years, will be the pioneers of significant transformation in the fashion industry. The mantra, as Thierry Brunfaut, Head of Creation & Founding Partner @Base_design , so aptly puts it, "The successful brands of the future care about people, not their brand" will define the new norm, placing emphasis on humanity rather than mere brand image. The fall of greed and capitalism will be accompanied by the rise of fair trade and fair pricing.

The future belongs to brands willing to voluntarily take a significant portion of their revenue/profits to invest in reducing the production of garments made of new materials. They will opt for the integration of circular pratices, collaboration among themselves, and true transparency. The well-being of workers will be a priority, and these brands will share their wealth, actively working to reduce wage disparities between employees and management. In this new landscape, prolonged resistance to real sustainable development will equate to decline. Retailers who remain attached to old models and practices will inevitably be surpassed, leaving room for a generation of brands committed to a more ethical and sustainable vision of the fashion industry.

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