Updated: Jul 19, 2021
I have to say, I cringed as I wrote that title, because I love my community here in East Vancouver.
It has always been my goal to maximize Helga Wear's local impact and minimize our carbon footprint: local manufacturing, North American supply chain, serving local trades industries. And over the past seven years I have made attempts at joining my cohort of amazing local sustainable startups. But I have found that Vancouver's textiles manufacturing industry does not support local small businesses like Helga Wear...and no, it's not just about the cost of labour.
*Photo by plepuc.org
Here are 3 reasons I am choosing to off-shore based on my experiences in Vancouver and the lower mainland, followed by my current stop-gap solution.
#1: Local manufacturers quoting based on what they think they can get, rather than on the actual cost
I first came up against this industry practise with one medium sized local manufacturer who seemed keen on taking on Helga Wear's Eileens (safety flame resistant coveralls) manufacturing run. After visually inspecting the Eileens they said they'd get back to me within the next day or so with a quote for the job.
They phoned me later that same afternoon and said their quote will be close to $300/unit just for labour. I was blown away, since this implies that it takes over 10 hours to sew each unit (*assuming they are paying a living wage of $21.50/hr, and tacking on a generous 40% margin).
"Well on the internet coveralls can sell for over $400/unit"
I pointed out the differences between these coveralls and the Eileens that account for the selling price difference, they stood firm.
By far this was the worst example of price gouging I encountered locally, still I am left wondering when did it become common business practice to quote manufacturing based on presumptions of a small business' margin, and not on reality? I understand we're in a seller's market, but this practise of price gouging is a guaranteed way to push local small businesses to off-shore.
#2: Shady local business tactics: grossly under-quoting costs, then strategically increasing price
I went to a well-known local manufacturer with decades of experience manufacturing coveralls to quote on our first large production run of Eileens. I had sought expertise and had good mentor/mentee experiences with this manufacturer for a few years...let's just say I believed the relationship was sound.
Theirs was the only local quote that yielded a high quality product, and let me offer our women's coveralls at the price that our distributer would tolerate, while affording my business to be making a few points shy of the industry standard margin. The numbers made sense from a business standpoint, and although their quote was lower than the quotes I received from other local manufacturers, I didn't see it as a red flag.
But then, halfway through the manufacturing run the manufacturer suddenly announced that the cost had gone up by more than 40%...(!WTF?!). I had to negotiate just to keep the current manufacturing run at the quoted price, with the understanding that any subsequent work would be at the new price. The cost increase more than eclipsed my margin, a margin that this very manufacturer had previously advised me on.
Knowing that I had standing obligations to my customers, I suspect it was their goal to edge me out of my own business. Really, how could a manufacturer who was very familiar with my garment, with decades of experience making coveralls, so grossly underestimate the cost of production only to up the price mid-manufacturing run... at best this shows a total lack of professionalism.
#3 Local industry choosing business-as-usual over innovation
Another reputable local coveralls manufacturer referred to me by industry contacts, spent a month in development with me - emails, phone calls, multiple in-person meetings discussing the Eileen's construction, features etc.
When they were finally ready to give me a quote, it was preceded by a shocking caveat: that they must use their standard grading scheme, not mine. So...knowing that the Eileens had been designed, prototyped, graded, and field tested specifically for women, they would only quote on the job if they could simply add the external Helga Wear features to their own, male-bodied, coveralls pattern.
I left them in a state of shock, and later that evening received a call from the owner of the company. He told me "don't worry, it's the same thing, we'll just change the size labels so that, for example, in stead of saying size 36 men's it will say size 38 women's".
Ignoring the voices screaming at him in my head, I carefully reiterated that the reason Helga Wear exists is because women's body proportions are distinct, not simply scaled down from men's. He, of all people, would know this from his technical understanding of the differences in grading unitary garments between the sexes. Ugh...one month's worth of time (not to mention hope) down the drains.
Yes, my experiences have taught me that local manufacturing is a privilege that small businesses like Helga Wear won't have unless we can disrupt the industry out of it's current stupor...essentially re-invent the system.
I have however found something of a middle road, a stop-gap solution. There are a handful of small-medium sized local manufacturers with partner operations off-shore (like Precision Design Group, The Cutting Room, and Bishop Custom Clothing).
While these local manufacturing branches are habitually at capacity, their off-shore sister factories will often have the capacity for smaller scale production runs. I have found that these types of local companies are a decent middle ground as they offer a high level of professionalism (face to face production support, adherence to tech pack, solid customer service, and quoting a landed product), often lower MOQ's, and as a bonus at least some of your money will still be spent locally.
I am proud to be in community with those who are constantly working towards a better solution to localize impact, and I am nurturing a few amazing irons in their local fires. So STAY TUNED, because the next chapter of our story is going to be GOOD, and hopefully in our back yard.