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Growing up in Ghana, Joshua Akom relied on second-hand clothes. Now living in Canada, the entrepreneur says second-hand shopping not only makes economic sense, but can also help the planet survive.
In 2016, he met Oghosa Ogiemwonyi, who has always loved the second-hand clothes that Akom now chooses to wear as an adult. When the pandemic shut down thrift stores, the two saw an opportunity, an opportunity that would fuel their love of fashion and help stem the environmental impact of the clothing industry.
They co-founded Thriftsome, an online thrift store that empowers Canadians to make more sustainable fashion choices.
“If you buy second-hand clothes, you not only save costs, but also extend the life of the planet,” Akom said.
Between the chemicals, the massive water supply needed for production, and the piles of clothes that end up in landfills, fashion is one of the worst industries on the planet. According to United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashionthe garment and textile industry is estimated to be responsible for 2-8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all international flights and global shipping combined.
But a number of Canadian companies are trying to slow down the process with circular concepts like online savings and the development of sustainable materials. They are part of a growing global trend of ethical fashion as more and more consumers seek to shop consciously.
Akom says he didn’t want to get into the fashion industry initially because of its negative impact on the environment. Ogiemwonyi sees their work as a mission to help the future.
“I think what motivates me the most is just the fact that I love fashion, first of all. And second, I want to have children one day and I know that with the growth rates of fast fashion, it’s scary to think about what’s going to happen in the future,” Ogiemwonyi said.
Ogiemwonyi refers to “fast fashion” – nicknamed “fast” because it’s not designed to last long. Its lower quality keeps the cost down, allowing people to buy more and get to landfills faster. It’s also fast for the speed at which styles on the runways arrive in stores.
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Impact on land and water supply
It is estimated that every second, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of textiles is dumped in a landfill or burned, depending on United Nations Environment Program. Industry not only impacts the land, but also the planet’s water supply. According to United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashiontextiles account for around 9% of the annual loss of microplastics to the oceans.
The United Nations Environment Program also states that it takes around 7,500 liters of water to produce a single pair of jeans.
Ogiemwonyi says many of the clothes the Winnipeg-based company acquires to sell still bear the original price tags.
“People just want to buy, and when it’s affordable, everyone wants to get it, and when they get it, they don’t even have time to wait for the next new trend,” Ogiemwonyi said.
Fast fashion weaves itself into our social fabric in large part because of a desire to follow social media trends. It’s powered by companies like Shein, which offer thousands of new styles and mass-produce affordable and fashionable clothes around the world.
The United Nations Environment Program warns that if this trend continues and nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use a quarter of the global carbon budget.
“The whole idea of fast fashion is to get it fast and get rid of it fast. And so if you’re buying second-hand clothes, you’re slowing down the process of [it] end up in a landfill,” Akom said.
Without a storefront, and still working to gain traction with buyers, Thriftsome’s clothes are currently stored in Ogiemwonyi’s apartment. But Akom is optimistic about their business growing, and he’s also trying to fight the stigma surrounding second-hand clothes, showing that they can be fashionable and durable, and not just a last-ditch option.
“We’re hopeful because this generation cares so much about the planet…and we hope they put their money where your heart is,” Akom said.
“We are literally wearing fossil fuels”
While some are reinventing the wheel, Waterloo, Ontario-based startup ALT TEX is inventing a new kind of material – from food scraps.
“We’re essentially creating a more circular alternative to polyester that’s biodegradable, carbon neutral, and re-engineered from food waste,” said CEO and co-founder Myra Arshad.
Arshad and fellow co-founder Avneet Ghotra want to replace polyester, a synthetic fiber that doesn’t break down. Polyester is a popular textile in the fashion industry, playing an important role in the throwaway cycle and adding to the accumulation of piles of clothing in landfills.
“A lot of us don’t realize it’s made from fossil fuels. We like to blame cars and power companies and say that’s what’s causing carbon emissions. But we don’t realize that we’re literally using fossil fuels,” says Ghotra.
“We really hope that by creating these items, the average Joe sitting at home can really connect deeply with the T-shirt they’re wearing. Take really good care of it, give it a long life cycle, but at the end of its life cycle, know that it has a home in the planet rather than the landfill,” Arshad said.
From apples and potatoes to T-shirts
By using biodegradable materials like apples and potatoes—two of Canada’s main agricultural products—the polyester alternative is more sustainable.
“All foods have the right building blocks. Every food contains a certain amount of sugars, so we can always upgrade and change our food waste,” Ghotra said.
According to Ghotra, it will be no different than traditional polyester, but the end result will be a garment that, instead of sitting in a landfill for centuries, will biodegrade. Not only do they hope to solve clothing waste, but they do so by diverting what would otherwise be food waste – and currently more than half of the food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, according to a report 2019.
Ghotra says they use commercial and industrial food scraps that don’t end up on the shelves. She estimates that a T-shirt would use about one kilogram of food waste.
Arshad and Ghotra aim to have prototype garments available within one to two years. To date, they have raised just over $2 million in funding, from both investors and grants. One of the investors backing the idea is retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.
Although the lab is far from fashion shows and production plants, Ghotra says they are currently in talks with a handful of potential clients.
“As soon as we have our product ready, we will race with them and hit those tracks in Milan soon, as soon as possible.”
“We wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time”
As Canadians wait for more sustainable options to become widely available, Kelly Drennan, executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a non-profit organization focused on sustainability in the fashion industry, says there are ways to mitigate the environmental issues in our current closets.
“We wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time. So basically 80% of our wardrobe sits there unworn,” said Drennan, of Toronto.
Drennan encourages people to shop their own closet before heading online or to retail stores.
“If you feel like you’re really missing something in your wardrobe, chances are it’s already there.”
Drennan preaches the seven Rs of fashion sustainability: in addition to reduce, reuse and recycle, there is reuse, repair, rental, resale and then recycling once the garment has exhausted its lifespan. .
It is a philosophy that her organization promotes to students through the youth education programs it offers in schools.
“We really wanted to play the long game when it comes to system change and behavior change. And we thought, okay, if we could get eight-year-olds to 17-year-olds to really connect with fashion and its impact on the planet and the people who make our clothes, so in the longer term we might see some of those changes.”
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The sustainability message reached some shoppers along Toronto’s Queen Street West, a trendy shopping district.
“One of my favorite things to do is vintage shopping. So by supporting vintage shopping, you’re supporting recycled clothing,” said Patrick Marzouk, 37. He said he shop online and in person at stores about once a week, always on the lookout for new finds.
For Tara Amina, 28, quality comes first.
“I definitely avoid Shein and the big producers. I don’t buy from them. I try to buy things that I know I’m going to wear all the time.”