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Canadians send tons of clothes to landfills every year. These businesses want to shrink those piles

A whirring sound fills the room as Tess Gobeil switches on a red machine, and a wheel begins to spin. 

She holds up a sandal and runs its soles against the wheel’s surface, smoothing its edges.

The sanding belt is one of several wheels on the large piece of equipment used to restore shoes, including the one in Gobeil’s hand — one of many in the queue for repairs at Awl Together Leather.

Since opening in 2021, the East Vancouver shop has repaired everything from knitted cardigans and denim jeans to leather boots. This year, they’ve served more than 7,500 customers. 

Amid mounting concerns over textile waste, repairs offer one last resort for damaged clothes before they end up in a landfill.

A person repairs a black leather jacket using a large, vintage-looking sewing machine.
Ariss Grutter, co-owner of Awl Together, holds a leather jacket in their East Vancouver studio. Aside from leather clothes and shoes, Awl Together also repairs denim and knits. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

“You can buy new shoes every six months to a year, but when you choose to repair it, you’re making a choice that these are my boots, and I want to keep wearing them,” said Gobeil, who co-founded the studio.

“It’s just a commitment to deciding that’s what you’re going to do and taking it seriously and personally.”

Textiles are one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of waste. According to the UN, the clothing and textile industry contributes up to eight per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In Metro Vancouver, residents throw out about eight kilograms of clothes — the weight of around 44 T-shirts — per person annually. The closure of Return-It textile recycling bins earlier this year has also meant fewer ways to deal with old or damaged clothes.

All this is why young businesses like Awl Together say they want to make repairs easier and more accessible.

‘A memory piece’

About a 15-minute drive south, a Richmond studio is taking on another type of clothing: outdoor gear, including down jackets, waterproof pants and ski attire.

“I want to use my … knowledge in technical apparel to repair as much as possible,” said Vincent Guo, who founded Renewt Technical Apparel in 2020.

A man in a black toque and grey jacket is pictured indoors. Behind him are rows of sewing thread.
Vince Guo, founder of Renewt, is pictured in his Richmond, B.C., shop. Renewt offers clothing repairs services for down jackets, ski gear and other outdoor apparel. (Nicholas Allen/CBC News)

The manufacturing engineer, who has worked for brands like Arc’teryx, says waste management teams used to tell him how some waterproof materials, including those made of plastic, would be incinerated because they couldn’t be recycled.

“If this material cannot be fully recycled,” he said, “the best way is to make the use-life longer.”

Costs range from $15 for simple fixes — small rips that need to be stitched, for example — to about $200 for more complex repairs requiring specialized techniques.

But Guo says some customers are willing to spend more if an item means something to them. 

“Like my mother bought it for me, or I’ve been wearing it for 10 years,” he said. “It’s a memory piece.”

Making repairs more accessible

According to one Vancouver-based consultant, the demand for clothing repairs is growing among shoppers.

More than half of consumers, for example, say brands need to play a greater role in reducing fashion’s environmental impact, online consignment store ThredUp notes.

“There’s … this bubbling up of awareness, but we still have an utter lack of accessibility or understanding about how to actually take the tangible steps to access these [repairs] services,” said Devon de Balasi Brown.

While seamstresses and cobblers have always been around — Metro Vancouver has more than a dozen alteration and shoe repair shops — some say they want these services to be easier to access.

A bunch of discarded clothes of various shapes and colours.
Discarded clothes and textiles are pictured. In Metro Vancouver, residents throw out an average of eight kilograms of clothes per person annually. (infiksjurnal/Shutterstock)

“The whole repair economy is the next thing … in the circular economy,” said Jiaying Zhao, an associate professor in psychology, referencing the framework wherein items are reused, refurbished, repurposed, repaired or recycled, so nothing goes to waste.

“I just think that the services, repairs are not prevalent.”

Zhao, who researches behavioural changes toward sustainability at the University of British Columbia, says people would be likelier to repair their clothes if services were more widely available and accessible.

It’s a problem de Balasi Brown says he wants to solve — by teaming up directly with retailers.

This month, he founded Spruce Circularity, a subscription program for brands that offer clothing repairs and refurbishment, offloading the need for them to build and operate those services in-house.

Hands belonging to someone in a striped shirt stitch a red garment.
A person is pictured stitching a fabric. Consultant Devon de Balasi Brown says he founded Spruce Circularity to help make it easier for brands to offer repairs to customers. (leungchopan/Shutterstock)

“It all comes down to making it convenient,” he said.

“There’s just no way we can keep going the way we are in terms of the amount of waste that we’re creating as a society.”

Repairs as a hobby

Even as they help others, the founders of Awl Together say it’s just as important to learn to repair our own clothes.

A person in a workshop sits behind a sewing machine, repairing a garment.
Ariss Grutter, one of the co-owners of Awl Together Leather, is pictured by a sewing machine in their East Vancouver studio. They say repairing clothes is not only a service but a skill everyone can learn. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

“It’s something that you can do yourself if you’re looking for a new career or even just a fun new hobby at home,” said co-founder Ariss Grutter.

“People who repair at home, their own garments, who darn their own socks … that’s important too. That’s a part of the repair economy that keeps stuff out of the landfill.”

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