OUR BUISNESS MODEL INTENTIONALLY INTERNALIZES SUSTAINABLE VALUES.
We have structured our operations in a manner where sustainable values are not an add-on but an integral part of what defines our business model. In other words, we consciously focus on each step of our value chain. We hope to go beyond framing sustainability purely from the perspective of the end consumer (i.e., going beyond convincing our customers that their purchase is ethical/sustainable because certain boxes have been checked-off).
Our model has been adapted, in-part, from the work of Dr. Kevin McKague who co-authored research on an ‘Integrated Approach to Poverty Alleviation’. This model was included in a Springer Journal titled The Business of Social and Environmental Innovation (2015).
The model focuses on how the greatest impact that companies or social enterprises can have is through creation of productive jobs across every section of the value-chain (from farming of our material to delivery to your door). While we are currently a small business, where possible, we focus all of our business costs to associate with engaging a diverse representation of talented local artists, designers and other contractors, in both India and Canada. To complement this, we also consciously minimize environmental impacts and maximize social good across each step of our value chain. Our hope is to evidence a business model where commercial success hinges on the fulfillment of sustainable values.
WE ARE COMFORTABLE EMBRACING THE COMPLEXITIES OF OUR GLOBALIZED WORLD
Almost 50% of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada. Untold/Unknown is in some ways, a product of this community and we have a high degree of comfort with acknowledging and celebrating Canada’s inter-connectedness with the rest of the globe.
While conducting market research to launch Untold/Unknown, one finding that we came across was that a large majority of Canadians prefer clothing that is ‘Made in Canada’. However, we also discovered that the nuances of ‘Made in Canada’ are not very well understood. To qualify as ‘Made in Canada’, only the “last substantial transformation” of the clothing must occur in Canada AND 51% of direct costs of manufacturing have to be in Canada. Needless to say, it is fairly easy for brands to qualify as being ‘Made in Canada’ while continuing to have substantial amount of labour and sourcing from abroad. And this does not even factor for the need to source fabrics from abroad and use tools/machinery that is imported, irrespective of how ‘Made in Canada’ an apparel brand is. In a survey that we conducted, we found that 74% of respondents were unaware of these technicalities of ‘Made in Canada’.
We were very tempted to be a ‘Made in Canada’ brand because our potential-customers seem to value this very highly. From a technical perspective, it would not have been too complicated for us to be ‘Made in Canada’. However, it seemed to be fundamentally against the spirit of what we are attempting to do. So instead, we have chosen to openly share the nuances of our thought process for not checking-off the ‘Made in Canada’ box.
Each of our current Untold/Unknown themes directly or indirectly speak to the global inter-connectedness of our societies. The food on our tables is courtesy the labour of Mexican and Caribbean migrant farmers flown in every year. Is this food ‘Made in Canada’? The historical and ongoing impacts of our energy choices, usage, consumerism and the consequences of climate change are in no way limited to Canada. And neither is the scale of our waste or which part of the world it ends up in after being ‘recycled’.
The ‘Made in Canada’ label seems to bring with it, aggrandized assumptions of superior quality, ethical business practices and “local” economic contributions. We are far more comfortable with embracing the complexities of our globalized world rather than assuming that these values can be truly attained all based on a label.
We have the benefit of being a small business and having local presence in India where our production takes place. Much of what we have observed in the name of sustainable fashion is a series of labels and standards created for the benefit of guilt-free buying by consumers in high-income countries. Farmers, factories and producers in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) may often find themselves jumping through hoops to satisfy these standards. From our perspective, we don’t believe that these farmers, factories and producers in LMICs are minimized in value just because they are unable to jump through these metaphorical hoops that have been created for them.
We ourselves are also a part of this ecosystem and have chosen to use GOTS certified organic cotton that is unbleached. While there are multiple studies that speak to the benefits of various sustainability focused standards, it can be challenging to objectively say how truly beneficial and ironically, sustainable at scale some of these practices are. We believe that much of this is attributable to the homogenization of lives in LMICs when we think and speak about them. For instance, the life of a farmer who produces cotton in India, typically includes multiple other farming and non-farming jobs undertaken throughout the year. On many occasions, these farmers may not even be aware that one component of their labour is going towards what we in high-income countries deem to be sustainably produced cotton for trade. The range of issues that they deal with in the course of their lives are usually in no way “solvable” through trade. We hope to speak to these facets in much more detail through our newsletters. Please subscribe here.