For over a decade, EcoEquitable has been providing employment and skills training to immigrant and underemployed women through small-scale textile recycling. They’ve grown from a drop-in sewing centre to offering workshops ranging from learning to operate a sewing machine to pattern making and home decor. They operate a fabric boutique and now they’ve launched their newest brand, Flagbarer.
We caught up with Anouk Bertner to talk about EcoEquitable’s beginnings, this latest venture and her words of advice. The following interview has been edited for clarity:
Apt 613: Tell me a little about yourself!
Anouk Bertner: My name is Anouk Bertner, I am the Director of Business Operations at EcoEquitable. My role here now is to run the for-profit social enterprise projects at EcoEquitable, such as our contract sewing, our product and fabric boutique, and now our new line Flagbarer. I started here as a volunteer and I never expected to find an organization that married my interests: social justice, upcycling fabrics, design & fashion, and applying business concepts from my MBA – but somehow I did.
What were EcoEquitable’s beginnings?
EcoEquitable started as a workers’ co-op in 2002 and was founded by Lucile Champagne, a French nun working as a psychotherapist and a serial entrepreneur (before labels like that were used).
The organization was a drop-in center for new Canadians to sew costumes and other small projects while building a community in Ottawa. Since then, we’ve grown considerably. We now offer 5-month certificate programs for new Canadians and job placement in the textile industry. We offer courses for the public in sewing, as well as running a recycled fabric boutique that sells products made by our seamstresses, and offer contract sewing for small Ottawa-based designers. Finally, we just launched our first in-house line: Flagbarer.
What was the inspiration behind EcoEquitable?
We believe that there is dignity in work and we want to support new Canadians in finding meaningful employment while revitalizing the sewn manufacturing industry in Ottawa. Work such as childcare, elder care, home maintenance and sewing is frequently underappreciated, and we hope to be part of a movement to support women in developing and maintaining employment that is ethically paid and appreciated. Every product sold at EcoEquitable has the seamstress’ name written on the back of the label. It is part of our effort to show that a real person made the product that you are enjoying.
What has EcoEquitable’s mission been as a charity and as a social enterprise?
Our mission is to provide a bridge to economic independence for immigrant women. Our program participants are impressive women (and the odd men) who have amazing talent and work ethic. They just need some skills, experience, a community and some support to make it to the next step. EcoEquitable is proud to be that bridge and that support system. Our social enterprise activities have the same goal through the profitable activities.
How has EcoEquitable benefited the Ottawa community so far?
EcoEquitable is the major textile recycler in Ottawa. There are very few places where textiles can be recycled locally. In 2014, we recycled 7,000 lbs of fabric and for 2015, we are on track to recycling 10,000 lbs. That is quite a feat given our incredibly small physical size.
We have also been involved with a research team to determine our SROI – our social return on investment. This metric has demonstrated that for every $1 invested in our ‘Sewing for Jobs’ program, we return $5.12 to the community in tangible benefits such as: decreased reliance on social programs, better health outcomes, and providing a larger tax base for the city. You can read more here.
Finally, we are bringing local sewn manufacturing to Ottawa. In addition to our own products, we manufacture several small lines, helping local designers grow their businesses.
Tell us about the new line, Flagbarer!
Flagbarer offers unique Canadian-made products constructed from banners that represent our Canadian heritage. Following a beautiful, functional life displaying Canadian values and locales, banners from the Ottawa region are dry-cleaned and sent to EcoEquitable. The banners are cut to maximize their images, sewn onsite in Ottawa, and developed into beautiful, functional products.
Flagbarer reuses beautiful, durable materials, helping revitalize a sewn manufacturing industry in Ottawa, and helping those in the community by providing jobs and education to new immigrants to Canada. Our 2015 line includes two products: the Athabasca Travel Roll and the Robson Duffel, both unisex accessories that are perfect as host gifts for travellers, perfect for students or Ottawa-philes who want to wear their Ottawa-love over their shoulder.
They are available online and through our store at 404 McArthur Avenue.
What have been some of the challenges EcoEquitable has faced so far?
Marketing! We are the worst at marketing. We do great work and then we expect people to just know about us. We have partnered with a local industrial design firm, The Federal Design House, to help us with Flagbarer because of this. They have helped us with prototypes, branding, the website and so much more.
And what have been some of EcoEquitable’s biggest successes?
The fact that we’re still around is pretty impressive. We continue to grow and Flagbarer is a jump for us in terms of building a sophisticated, beautiful product that has the proper website and photography to build an online brand. I am so focused on production that the marketing and promotion side sometimes gets lost.
What has been the most rewarding thing about becoming involved in the community?
Being part of EcoEquitable is pretty magical. There are so many different people here with such diverse stories. I am humbled daily by the journeys of others, which is a good message to receive in the world of Instagram envy. Personally, being part of EE is an opportunity for me to marry several passions: social justice, fashion and meaningful work.
What are some ways that folks can get involved with EcoEquitable?
Shop our online store and take a sewing course with us. I meet so many people who deeply believe in what we do, but they don’t always put their dollars where their values are. We are really focusing on creating beautiful, functional products with a unique story. If Apt613 readers could make us their go-to location for gifts, even once or twice a year, it would make a HUGE difference for us! Our store is in Vanier, so it is off the beaten track, but we’d love to host you and show off our stuff! Also, shoppers can buy online which is always an easy option.
What is the best advice you could give to somebody wanting to start their own business or charity?
Starting a business is hard work! A lot of people think that successful businesses are about great ideas. You need a great idea to start off, but 97% of your success will be determined on how much work you put into it: your operations, supply chain, marketing, merchandizing and networking. This is all very time consuming and requires a lot of learning. If you like a slightly chaotic work environment where every day promises a lot of work and maybe some reward, go for it! Ottawa needs more local businesses, and we need Ottawans to patronize them, too.