How Unbelts aims to fit more body types while maintaining ethical manufacturing standards

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University of Alberta graduate Claire Theaker-Brown moved to Shanghai to study Mandarin a week before the 2008 global financial crisis. Realizing there may not be a job for her back in Edmonton, she decided to extend her stay.

This is where she got the idea for Unbelts (formerly Flatter:Me) — stretchy pant keeper-uppers, meant to solve a near universal fit problem.

As an ethical fashion business, Unbelts also strives to create quality jobs for the men and women in their supply chain in China. This means better working conditions, a living wage, more manageable hours, and more upward mobility.

On Thursday, Theaker-Brown, who is also the new country coordinator for Fashion Revolution, will join Craig Ryan, director of social entrepreneurship at BDC, and Tim Coldwell of Chandos Construction to talk about what it means to be a B Corporation — a third-party certification that in the manufacturing world is equivalent to fair-trade. The panel discussion is part of BDC Small Business Week, which runs until Friday Oct. 20.

We caught up with Theaker-Brown, who moved back to Edmonton in 2014, prior to the panel:

How did you get the idea for Unbelts?

Claire Theaker-Brown

Claire Theaker-Brown

After I graduated from my one-year [Canada-China Scholar's Exchange] program, I worked for about a year and a half for a non-profit in Shanghai. It was there that I had the idea for the belt. My weight was really fluctuating — the food is different, and I was having a really hard time adapting in Shanghai. Like finding pants in western sizes. When I did find anything that almost fit me, I'd have to buy that and then try to close the gap — the literal gap — with a kind of stretchy belt thing that I had made with the help of a tailor on my street.

So you made it for yourself at first?

Yeah, and people started to notice. It looked weird. It was not a nice, finished belt like it is now. The stitching was a disaster; the buckle was really weird. But when people noticed it, we'd end up talking about how their pants never fit properly. What I thought was a really individual problem was actually almost universal in women: it's almost impossible to find pants and jeans that fit in both the hips and the waist.

So how did you go from an idea to a business?

I had gotten to know some tailors in my neighborhood in Shanghai. Women on my block who, every morning, would set up on the street corner just doing mending for anybody in the neighborhood. As my language improved, I could communicate more easily with them and just learn more about their situation. Their sewing skills were fantastic. I was curious about why they didn't want to go to work full time. In both cases, they had caregiving responsibilities and needed a flexible schedule.

My learning about the seamstresses on my block happened around the same time that I took a trip home to Canada and went to a craft show. At that craft show, I was chatting with somebody about their T-shirt business and they said, "These T-shirts are all sewn in the [United] States. They're not 'Made in China' garbage." For the first time, that really just rubbed me the wrong way. Is it really fair to say that everything that is made in China or made overseas is low quality, when we've contributed so directly to those lower standards? I went back really determined to show that there could be a different "Made in China."

Unbelts' Shanghai studio

Unbelts' Shanghai studio

As this business has grown, helping women of all body types feel really confident in their jeans, that's one reason that I get up in the morning, but the bigger one really is showing that quality garment jobs and quality products are possible, but also necessary beyond our countries' borders.

When you first started, you sat down with your workers to determine what ethical working conditions should look like for your company. Why is that?

It's a conversation that we keep having. People's needs change.

You can't determine as a brand owner what ethical means. You just can't. The word ethical belongs to the people [working]. It's up to them to determine what kind of job they need and want. It's my job to make sure that they feel empowered to do so.

Do you look for the same values in your suppliers?

I'm still a small brand and the reality is that as a small brand, there's a limit to how much change I can demand. But there is almost no limit to the amount of time that I am willing to spend to meet directly with workers and floor managers. With our limited buying power, that has been the most effective way for me to build a supply chain that I can be proud of.

There have been a lot of factories that would have been way easier to work with because they were closer to Shanghai or because they had a manager who spoke some English or had a good reputation for on-time delivery, but when I showed up, I couldn't in good conscience work with them. It's meant far, far slower growth, but it's one area I'm just not willing to compromise in.

How did you get involved with B Corp?

A couple years into the business, this would have been 2013, the words "ethical fashion" and "sustainable fashion" were starting to become part of our cultural lexicon. Partly because of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, all of a sudden, there were a lot of companies that were identifying as sustainable or as ethical.

I wanted to really put metrics to what we were doing. So I started looking for certifications. Any kind of third party that could look at our business and tell us how we measured up.

B Corp was a really natural fit. They didn't mind that we were small. What they wanted to see is that we were really big in the investments we were making and in our values. Compared to our size, those investments are big. It's been a considerable risk to grow this slowly, [in order to] make sure that our supply chain was stable or [that we] paid a living wage to our tailors. There have been a lot of compromises made in the areas of traditional business success so that we could succeed in the ways that were important to me.

Now that the labour laws in China have improved, are you thinking of relocating your operations?

I've always said with Unbelts that we'll try to create jobs where those jobs are most needed. Right now, I think that some of those jobs are needed in Edmonton.

We're about to introduce a new product line and they'll be 100% sewn in Edmonton.

It's so interesting, how much overlap there is between the situation for a lot of women here and the situation for seamstresses in China. Extremely skilled sewers who need and want to provide for their families, but can't do that with a regular full-time job, or maybe can't even access regular, full-time jobs.

Part of BDC Small Business Week, "Millennials: Taking Charge & Changing Business" takes place Thursday, Oct. 19, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the World Trade Centre, 9990 Jasper Avenue. Tickets are available to the public and can be purchased here.

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