A local social enterprise is hoping to broaden its capacity while better serving the community through a brand new boutique.
For twelve years, EcoEquitable has provided employment and skills training to immigrant and underemployed women through small-scale textile recycling. While participants develop valuable skills to achieve financial independence, a huge amount of what would have been waste gets repurposed through the program.
Last Thursday, the organization opened the doors of its new space to show off a new boutique that will feature creations generated by the program.
I had the opportunity to chat with Anouk Bertner, EcoEquitable’s Interim Executive Director, to get the scoop on all the exciting developments.
So, how did your launch event go on Thursday?
It was a great night with a great mix of people and lots of positive energy. Over 200 people dropped by to tour our new space and enjoy a party with local entertainment and refreshments.
Immigrant & marginalized women, home sewers, hipsters, community economic developers, sustainability experts, fashionistas, designers, students, and more – that’s who came out to support us.
We had a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Watson, Councillor Diane Deans, Councillor Mathieu Fleury, and our founder, Lucile Champagne. Melissa Richardson from Totem Bags described why she’s partnering with EcoEquitable and how it adds to what she’s doing with her conscientious company. And Lucille shared the story of starting EcoEquitable.
How has EcoEquitable grown over the years?
It began with one sewing machine at the Bronson Centre used by a small group of women on a drop-in basis. Over time, increasing interest led to us formalizing a lot of our systems. Recognizing how participants were gaining a sense of community while expanding their skills, we began offering courses.
We are incredibly proud of our growth and impact. In 2013, EcoEquitable recycled over 300 pounds of fabric and achieved a social return on investment of $5.12 for every dollar it took in (up from $1.57 in 2012). Having the numbers shows that we are not only creating social value, we are returning huge economic value to the community.
What kind of learning do you offer?
Our beginner course teaches basic skills like how to read a pattern, how to use the machine, and how to measure. The intermediate course imparts skills for industrial production, helping participants find jobs in the textile industry, open their own business, etc.
Can anyone take the courses? What are the fees?
Yes. But they are a real investment of time. Our participants are predominantly immigrant and marginalized women. We charge $150 per month for the intermediate course (over five months). Participants often come through programs like Ontario Works where they have access to specific training funds.
How did the boutique come about?
The new boutique is a strategic bet we are making that there is enough interest in Ottawa for buying local and for our kind of product.
We’ve been accepting donations of fabrics for some time. Eventually, we were receiving more than we could use in classes and production. So we decided to re-sell some of the donated fabric to our former participants and the general public. Our former boutique was merely a closet in the basement. So when we moved to our current location, it was a great opportunity to have a dedicated space for sales of fabric and fashion items produced by our alumni. We now have four distinct rooms : a boutique, a classroom, production space, and office space. We are so lucky that Heartwood House worked with us to retrofit our new space in a way that will allow EcoEquitable to blossom.
What’s your partnership with Totem Bags all about?
We are going to be sewing all the bags for the Ottawa area for this exciting company! Totem is a Toronto-based venture that produces “quality bags with a conscience” – it transforms the vinyl from street pole banners, truck tarps, bicycle inner tubes, and seat belts into gorgeous fashionable bags.
That’s mighty creative. What else do you plan to make and sell?
Well, our initial feature product is an infinity scarf made out of recycled materials. Now, we’re hoping to expand through input from the local community. We want people to tell us what they want to buy, what can we create that they’d be interested in?
How is EcoEquitable funded?
We are a social enterprise, which means we try to generate our own revenue through our boutique, tuition, and contract sewing (i.e. conference bags). A large part of our funding comes from community support such as the United Way, Trillium Foundation, Community Foundation of Ottawa, the Cooperators, and Crabtree Foundation.
What makes EcoEquitable so unique?
Stories about new Canadians are often about how difficult and isolating the experience can be. I feel the story of EcoEquitable is the opposite of that – warm, inviting, friendly, supportive, and inclusive of a huge diversity of people from different backgrounds. We have the objective of getting people working by teaching them skills and financial literacy, but there’s an underlying feeling of caring – both between participants and from the organization.
Some of the Causeway programs are close to what we do, but nothing else in Ottawa offers what EcoEquitable does. It’s a really neat initiative because of the intersection of fashion.
In addition to visiting the boutique, how can Ottawa support you?
We take donations of fabrics (preferably larger pieces) as well as notions like scissors, thread, and buttons from home sewers and manufacturers who may have end-of-roll remnants.
As for merchandise, drop by the boutique and check out what we have (we don’t yet have an online shop). We also do repair and alterations – everything from hemming to garment modifications.
If you need contract sewing like trade show or conference bags, we will put logos onto the material and stitch-in an EcoEquitable label.
Our Sewing for Jobs program will be offering classes for kids in the lead-up to Mother’s and Father’s Day so they can learn how to create cool and durable gifts for their parents.
And of course, if people want to make a donation, they can visit our Canada Helps page.
EcoEquitable is located at 404 McArthur Avenue, Suite 200.