Challenging Fast Fashion to Create a More Sustainable Industry

How one company hopes to change the way fashion is viewed and created.

by Lydia Massey, June 27, 2017

We had the chance to speak with Kim Kirton, co-founder of the Toronto-based clothing company UnCo., about her plan to revolutionize female fashion through a sustainable, collaborative capsule collection.

Kirton believes the fashion industry’s most pressing problems, including sweatshops and child labor, all stem from the overconsumption culture heavily present in Western society.

Making use of the age-old adage quality over quantity, the idea for a sustainable collection of a few season-less, timeless basics came to fruition. Through this, UnCo. aims to deter women from supporting fast fashion and instead invest in a few high-quality, versatile pieces that will endure the test of time. 

UnCo. believes collaboration, as opposed to competition, is the future of not only the fashion industry, but most industries. UnCo. teamed up with female-driven, independent brands and designers to create the collection. They make sure every company they work with also has a commitment to sustainability and ethical business practices. 

Kirton hopes the capsule collection will empower women to spend less time agonizing over what to wear and more time pursuing their ambitions. Additionally, it provides women the opportunity to use their hard-earned money to fund a revolutionary fashion movement that supports other female leaders and the planet .

1. What motivated you to start UnCo.? Why did you choose the fashion industry?

UnCo. actually evolved from another company I used to own: a sustainable t-shirt company. I was really fascinated by fashion because when I was in 2nd year of university, I came across this YouTube Video about sweatshop fires happening in Bangladesh and I was really shocked to hear that there are actual humans making our clothes. Sounds silly, but for some reason I never really thought about the story of clothes and how far they travelled just to be in the store, nor did I consider who was making them. 

Being adopted from China too, it made me feel grateful to be here in Canada and that I was super lucky to be here. If I never came to Canada, it could have been me working in a sweatshop, etc. 

After learning about fast fashion, it really compelled me to do something because there is something so powerful about the consumer having an active role in voting with their dollar for more sustainable and ethical products that benefit people and the planet.

So I started a sustainable t-shirt company and ran it for about 2 years and at the time I thought it was contributing to the problem. 

However, last summer I had an epiphany moment where I questioned everything and really asked myself if I was actually contributing to the problem. I thought the problem was sweatshops, child labour and not knowing where our products were coming from—but I concluded that the actual problem was consumption and how much we as a western society consume. The negative impacts like child labour, sweatshops etc. were just outcomes of the main problem. 

That’s when I decided to close that t-shirt company down as it wasn’t really solving the problem but actually contributing to the issues of mindless consumption by telling people to buy this shirt because it's sustainable—versus them actually needing that shirt in their wardrobe. From that experience, it provoked my business partner Jaclyn and I to move forward with a business that had the objective to revolutionize how we consume clothes and how often. 

2. How is UnCo. different than other companies?

Our core values of being a conscious, collaborative collection reflects how we are different.  UnCo. is unique because we see collaboration as the future of fashion and it is the best tool for success in such a competitive landscape. Instead of producing yet another clothing company/ brand in a world that has too many of them already, we thought why don't we partner up with already established independent brands and designers that are already doing great work.  They are doing this through choices of responsibly made or eco-conscious sourcing practices. We see the value of working together collectively, rather than individually.

Since we work with diverse brands and designers--the one thing that all unites us is our core values for sustainability and that it's quality or quantity.  We are providing an alternative solution to how society consumes fashion.  With the ambition of a closed loop system, consumers have the choice to be a part of the solution.  

3. What are some ways that your company is sustainable?

Our company works hard to ingrain sustainability into our business operations and let it be the core value that determines every business decision we make. Right down from the packaging being used or to the company culture we enforce--sustainability is our ultimate goal, always.

Our company's vision is to become a closed-looped fashion company where we will take old garments from the consumers and re-use those garments for future textiles or car stuffings or just alternative products. In exchange, customers will be able to get rebates on future purchases from us and will prevent consumers dumping textiles into the landfills. There are currently 10.5 million tons of textile waste each year. (US.)

Also, all of the designers we work with do local manufacturing meaning they either do it themselves in their home studios or outsources it within Canada: some benefits of this is that the garment doesn't have to travel as far to get to us and also most of the fabrics that are chosen are either eco-conscious or up-cycled.  In efforts to reduce textile waste, these good quality pieces we offer allow for longevity and long-term use as well as make up-cycling a possibility for future use.  

4. What are capsule wardrobes and how do they work?

The original term "capsule wardrobe" was coined in the '70s by Susie Faux, the owner of a boutique in London called Wardrobe. The concept is simple: downsize your wardrobe to only a few essential staples (Faux suggested 12 or less) that are interchangeable, color-coordinated, and season-less. The key to a capsule wardrobe is high quality basics that won't go out of style (nothing too trendy).

Our company's whole premise is that if we can show the individual how to build an effective wardrobe that is season-less but still versatile to create multiple outfits—we believe they will change their buying behavior into a need versus a want.  Additionally these minimal pieces allow the individual to style and accessorize their pieces to their own personal preference.

5. Why do you want to empower female leaders specifically?

 More and more women are starting businesses everyday (1200 businesses a day) , yet women still struggle to obtain 4% of venture capital and less than 5% of females have mentors to turn to about advice. There's an underlying culture amongst women where we sometimes portray each other as competitors rather than collaborators in a dog eat dog kind of world. We wanted to create a new culture, where women could vote with their dollar and not only support themselves in getting a capsule wardrobe where they feel confident in what they are wearing but that they could actually support other female founded designers during their entrepreneurial journey as well. 

Our research shows that women stress approximately 16-30 minutes each morning about what to wear, averaging out to a full business day each month of time wasted on stressful headspace.  By providing women with a simplified wardrobe and styling direction, we are empowering them with the opportunity to spend less time getting dressed and more time focusing on what matters.

6. What are some obstacles that you have encountered during your journey?

As every entrepreneur knows there are so many obstacles during this process, that you almost lose count as you overcome a bunch everyday but then an in flood of other obstacles start trickling in as the other ones start to leave.  However, as young entrepreneurs (21 and 23) and female-- I would have to say my most difficult obstacle is fighting for my legitimacy of my business and my ideas.

Not only that, but with the natural feeling of the imposter syndrome, I am constantly catching myself being conscious of every decision and every move I make because I know people will be determining what they think of me because of it.  It's something I am working on, always!!

7. What are you currently working on?

Currently UnCo. is running a crowdfunding campaign and there is only 7 more days left!! Our goal is to raise $30K to fulfill our first capsule wardrobe orders and finish the final features of our online platform. Post-campaign we have plans to expand our community initiatives with our company and to host online and in person mentor sessions for female folks working on ambitious, impactful projects or businesses.

8. What are your hopes for the future?

I am hopeful that businesses not only in fashion, but different industries will use collaboration as a driving tool for societal issues and see it more as a value add rather than competition. Also, I would love to see all ages and different people owning the capsule movement --I really do believes it's the way of the future. 

9. What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?

It can be exhausting trying to solve some of society's most pressing challenges, so my biggest piece of advice would be to make sure you take time to self-care as your mental and physical health is just as important when trying to contribute back to the world.