At the last moment, before unwanted jeans and buttoned t-shirts are packed into massive bales at the Goodwill Outlet in London, Ont., a pair of fashion design professors pluck materials for their upcycled product line.
Jennifer Wright and Meredith Jones, who teach at Fanshawe College, have spent the past six months designing apparel, home décor and a variety of bags to be made out of materials destined for landfill either in Canada or overseas.
They've been spearheading a federally-funded research project aimed at reducing the environmental impact of the textile industry, teaching newcomers employable skills and researching how second-hand materials can be used throughout the fashion design industry.
"We both feel really strongly as designers that we shouldn't be using virgin materials," said Jones. "This type of research is really about manufacturing methodology. How do you take materials that are used, and they're not standard in size, to make products?"
The product line is called Worth, and it's something of an antidote to the fast fashion industry.
"In our branding story, we really talk about the worth of people and the worth of things – keeping things for a long time – and appreciating what people can contribute to our communities," explained Jones.
The difference between a Worth bag and one from the mall
The product line, including everything from scrunchies and hair ties to a big narwal floor cushion, is in its final stages.
Jones and Wright are engineering the goods right now, figuring out the most efficient way to use the fabric and making sure no part of an original product goes to waste.
"You would think that because we're getting things from the donation stream at no charge, our process would be quite inexpensive. In fact, it's the other way around," said Wright. "We touch the product over and over and over again."
After trying out different methods and running several time studies, Wright said they've whittled down the price of a creating a square foot of fabric from $11 to $1.60. That will help guide the process of pricing the goods, which is still on their to-do list.
The difference, said Jones, between buying a Worth bag and buying something for $20 from the mall, is that Worth customers will be supporting people in their community with employment and a good standard of living.
And the profits will be directed back into skills training programs for newcomers.
The social benefit
Two dozen newcomers have passed through Worth's skills training programs, said Wright, and six have gone on to secure full time jobs with Goodwill Industries.
Among them is Esther Iyiola.
She moved to London from Nigeria in the summer, went through the skills training program in August, and was hired by Goodwill in November.
"I love fashion. I'm fulfilled doing it. I'm happy waking up in the morning, coming down here, because it's what I love to do," she said.
Iyiola was trained as an accountant and used to work in a bank in Nigeria, but said she spent all of her spare time at her sewing machine.
She has goals to start her own fashion design business.
"We'll make African wears, like people come in and buy African wears, cut to fit, or sewn to fit. Maybe I take their measurements and make what they really want. Customized, for them."
Striving to be zero waste
Worth's manufacturing platform is set up in a room at the Goodwill Industries Outlet store on White Oak Road, not far from a warehouse area where towering bales of unwanted clothing wait to be shipped overseas.
Some of the materials, if they're stained or worn out, are cut into little bits called shred. The shred is then used to fill items like pillows, a puffer bag, and home décor items like the giant narwhal.
It barely makes a dent on the volume of textiles destined for landfill, either in Canada or overseas, but Jones and Wright hope their research will impact the fashion industry on a larger scale.
They're also striving to be zero waste.
"We're challenged by zippers and buttons right now," said Wright.
"That's actually in our product development, because we know we can't shred that stuff, we try to incorporate it," explained Jones.
She and Wright are working with a $240,000 grant from the federal government's community college social innovation fund that'll last two years, with a hope that the non-profit business will sustain itself in the future.
The products are expected to become available at Goodwill's boutique stores, and an online store, in the spring.