Canada Abandoned Its Fashion Industry. That May Prove Deadly

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
In a global pandemic, fashion is literally a matter of life and death. Canada faces a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gloves, and gowns. Ontario healthcare workers would have run out of protective equipment within the week had 3M not reached a deal with the U.S. to allow the continued export of N95 masks.
As other countries begin to restrict exports of these coveted items, we have little manufacturing capacity of our own to make them here. To fill the gap and prevent this from ever happening again, we must support made-in-Canada fashion — not as a luxury, but as a necessity. It isn’t just a cultural, economic, or tourism issue. It’s a national health and security one.
For years, the federal and provincial governments sat back and watched while the Canadian clothing and textile industry was all but annihilated. There were many appeals for help from fashion-week organizers, industry lobby groups, designers, brands big and small, and journalists. Sometimes, the government agreed to listen. They never agreed to act.
Now, ironically, in a time when the Canadian economy desperately needs stimulating, our governments will spend an estimated $2 billion to purchase PPE (as well as ventilators and testing kits) from other countries. Even then, they may not be able to buy enough, quickly enough.
Had any number of politicians heeded repeated pleas for support, Canada would be in a vastly better position to fight COVID-19 and supply frontline workers with essentials. “We’re clearly seeing that the apparel industry has incredible importance outside of just ‘fashion’ when it comes to supporting other industries, such as the health industry,” says fashion-industry lawyer and lobbyist Ashlee Froese, who also co-chairs the City of Toronto's Fashion Industry Advisory Panel. Now, we can’t shift textile production in a meaningful way because there’s so little production to shift.
Compare our situation to other countries. As large garment production hubs, China and Southeast Asia were able to quickly redirect textiles factories to produce PPE. In Italy, Armani and Prada made tens of thousands of medical overalls and masks for healthcare workers. French luxury conglomerate Kering will reposition Balenciaga, Gucci, and Yves Saint Laurent to manufacture masks and medical overalls.
Even in the U.S., a country that also outsources much of its production, Ralph Lauren is set to produce 250,000 masks and 25,000 isolation gowns. Jockey (yes, the underwear company) is making gowns as well, and New Balance will convert its New England factories to produce face masks. Brooks Brothers will pump out 150,000 masks per day, while a partnership between Reformation and the City of Los Angeles organizes local garment manufacturers to shift production to protective clothing.
Here in Canada, Canada Goose, which has invested heavily in rebuilding Canada's manufacturing infrastructure, will make a total of 10,000 scrubs and patient gowns at its Toronto and Winnipeg facilities. “Now is the time to put our manufacturing resources and capabilities to work for the greater good," said company president and CEO Dani Reiss in a press release. Fellow outdoor apparel brand Arc’teryx will produce 30,000 medical gowns at its New Westminster, B.C. facility, the prime minister announced today. These are admirable efforts, but they fall dramatically short of the output totals from European, Asian, and American companies. A large hospital typically uses 10,000 to 20,000 masks per week without the added burden of COVID-19.
While many indie design labels, including Christopher Paunil, Hilary MacMillan, Smythe, and Narces are now making masks, their output is naturally limited by the small scale of their operations. Other Canadian household names, including Lululemon, Joe Fresh, Roots, and Aritizia, have little, if any, manufacturing footprint within our borders.
For some, manufacturing overseas is a calculated choice to cut costs. For others, the shortage of skilled Canadian labour and a decimated domestic industry give them little choice. Canadian clothing manufacturing sales hit a peak of approximately $8 billion in 2002 and Canadian textile mills’ sales totalled $4.3 billion. By 2010, those numbers had dropped to $2.3 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively. They’ve hovered around that mark ever since.
In the same timespan, Ontario, which boasts the country’s highest clothing and textile manufacturing numbers, saw clothing manufacturing sales decline by a whopping 72.4%. Textile mills’ sales dropped by 48.7 percent. “The apparel manufacturing industry in Ontario is floundering. Family-owned, generational companies are trying to survive, let alone thrive,” Froese tells me.
So, what changed? In 2005, quotas in accordance with the World Trade Organization Agreement on Textiles and Clothing fully came into effect. This opened up the Canadian textiles and apparel industries’ previously protected major markets (Canada and the U.S.) to cheap foreign competition. In particular, it allowed concessions to “Least Developed Countries,” allowing for duty and quota-free textile and garment imports from 48 countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Laos. “When you outsource to countries where there are little to no human rights, little to no employee rights, you can certainly cut costs,” says Froese. 
There were, and still are, things that could’ve been done. Tax incentives to reward domestic manufacturing. Capital investment grants. Support to better integrate the fashion industry with domestic industries that require uniforms, costumes, and other sorts of apparel. Employer wage incentives and subsidies. Programs and funding to train and prime a new generation of designers, sewers, and other specialists for success. Canada is one of the sole developed nations that doesn’t subsidize its fashion industry in some form. The Italian, French, European Union, South Korean, Chinese, and Hong Kongese governments are among those that provide significant financial support to fashion designers and manufacturers.

Canada is one of the sole developed nations that doesn’t subsidize its fashion industry in some form.

The Ontario government funds cultural industries including recorded music, film, television, art, theatre and video game design to the tune of over $800 million per year. It doesn't consider fashion a cultural industry, despite it having the endorsement of museums and galleries around the world and it being an integral part of just about every other artform including music, film, theatre, and more.
Meanwhile, the federal government gives billions to a broad range of industries and companies it considers vital to our economy, including the auto industry, oil and gas companies, the dairy industry, and the forestry sector. (The feds and the four largest provinces in Canada collectively spend about $29 billion a year on business subsidies.) As of 2019, Ontario’s auto plants employed approximately 90,000 workers. In comparison, 50,000 workers are employed by the apparel/fashion industry in Toronto alone (provincial numbers aren’t available), half of which are in manufacturing. It has received no funding.
This all raises the question: why not fashion? 
There are clearly sound cultural and economic arguments for funding the fashion industry. There are also strong environmental and ethical arguments. More manufacturing under Canadian regulations will help protect the environment, prevent child labour and worker abuse, and likely save lives. 
The lack of support doesn’t seem to be a pragmatic decision, but rather a political one. Apparently, politicians don’t think it’s a good look to fund fashion. Likely because many of their constituents harbour ill-informed sentiments about fashion being a frivolous pursuit.
Historically fashion is an industry driven by female labour and female consumption. As such, much like women, the industry has long been pigeonholed and undervalued. While numerous government reports fret about male job losses in the auto sector, there are none expressing similar concern for largely female garment workers. It’s politically expedient to fund the making of cars — a product historically produced by and fanned over by male consumers. Not so for the making of clothes.

Historically fashion is an industry driven by female labour and female consumption. As such, much like women, the industry has long been pigeonholed and undervalued.

Over the years, various levels of government have punted the ball on who’s responsible for the fashion industry. The feds point to the provinces. The provinces point right back. Ministers argue over whether fashion is a cultural, tourism, or economic concern. Trying to get politicians to take responsibility is like having a front-row seat to an endless game of hot potato. 
In 2014, I interviewed then-Ontario Culture Minister Michael Coteau about the issue for Toronto's NOW Magazine. “If our fashion industry feels like it's not getting the support it needs, then that's something we need to change." he said. "Call me back in two months and check on what progress we've made."
Six years later, the industry is still waiting.
Last week, Ontario premier Doug Ford spoke to Canada’s supply chain problems in his daily televised press conference. “Never again should Canada be beholden to other countries around the world for the safety and well-being of the Canadian people,” he said. “There’s nothing we can’t build right here in Ontario. As we get these companies ramped up and as we get through this, we can’t be going over to other sources because we’re going to save a nickel.”
It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to realize that the fashion industry is an essential one, but it did. When things eventually return to normal, let’s not Canadian governments forget it.
Fashion, it seems, isn’t quite so frivolous after all. 

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