Brands for Canada: Forming Solutions to Poverty Through Sustainability
We are currently in the Age of Amazon, where with the click of a button a brand-new item can be on your doorstep within 24 hours. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, online shopping has brought some a momentary sense of escape with the anticipation and excitement of a new belonging to add to the collection. It has also brought us the realization that for many, there is no escaping the harsh reality of their financial situation, and that even putting food on the table can be a struggle. And it goes beyond food. It is often overlooked that having appropriate clothing for a job interview is a privilege that not all Canadians can afford, and the cycle of poverty goes on.
Brands for Canada, a 29 year-old nationally registered charity has a unique way of mitigating the impacts of poverty. This amazing charity partners with more than 300 popular retail brands to deliver new clothing and personal care items to families living in poverty. We spoke with Helen Harakas, Executive Director of Brands for Canada about the organization and her incredible leadership. In total, Brands for Canada has provided basic-need items to over 1.2 million people living in need, with a retail value of more than $420 million. There are several key benefits we wish to highlight that demonstrate the profound impact of their model.
Basic Needs Come First
There is a theory in psychology called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which classifies human needs based on their importance to survival and places them in a hierarchy from the bottom upwards order within a pyramid. Being properly clothed, particularly in our unforgiving Canadian winters, falls within the bottom tier of basic needs. While working at a shelter, Helen interviewed clients to assess their needs for new programs and she would repeatedly hear:
“I'm going to leave your office, but I'm going to go outside now. And I don't have a proper coat and I'm going to freeze. And these boots that I'm wearing have holes in them, so my feet will become wet and frozen. You're telling me that it would be nice if I sat down with a counsellor and discussed all my childhood issues that I could work on so that I could go forward, but I'm freezing and I'm hungry. And I don't know if I'm going to sleep on the street tonight, or if I'm going to have a roof over my head.”
That’s when it clicked for her that in order to break the cycle of poverty, people’s basic needs must be covered, and proper clothing is one of those needs. When a family is given winter coats, and they don’t have to buy them, that is money that can now go towards rent, bills, childcare, and education.
Giving People What They Deserve
Another important benefit of the Brands for Canada model is the immeasurable impact that receiving new clothing has on one’s self esteem. Brands for Canada has partnerships with luxury brands, and some of their clients are even given $3,000 suits. While vintage finds are trendy, for someone who has only ever received hand-me-downs and used clothing throughout their life, it can make them feel less-than. Helen says that that a lot of the clothing donated to charity drives is in terrible condition, often torn and dirty. When people receive these clothes, they think to themselves, “Is this what I deserve?” Conversely, when they put something new on, it changes the way they think about themselves and the way others think about them. They now walk a bit taller with a newfound sense of confidence and belonging that resonates into other areas of their life, including job interviews, networking, work performance, and willingness to meet challenges head-on.
Research by Ontario Works has demonstrated that between two candidates competing for a job, the one that is well dressed and groomed will succeed. Their physical presentation gives them the edge they need. This inspired Brands for Canada to create the Suitable Impressions first impressions training program and the EDGE pre-employment skill training program. Suitable Impressions is a one-day workshop for those on Ontario Works. The EDGE is offered to people with disabilities, a segment of the population that faces many challenges in finding employment and this helps to level the playing field. Participants are offered professional development support for three years following graduation from the course. The program has been greatly successful, with 97% of program graduates reporting positive growth and enhanced self-confidence.
Encouraging Sustainability in the Fashion Industry
Lastly, Brands for Canada offers a solution to a major environmental problem that stems from current fashion industry practices. According to a UN Report, the clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world after oil and 93 billion cubic meters of water (enough for five million people) is used annually in production. Between 2000 and 2014, the amount of clothing production has doubled, with the average consumer buying 60% more. Many clothing retailers in Canada have been implementing the practice of destroying unsold or out-of-season clothes, by cutting slashes into them, and sending them to landfills to prevent “dumpster divers” from using these surplus goods. Brands for Canada solves this issue, by forming partnerships with these brands to re-route unsold clothing or clothing with minor manufacturing errors from landfills to the hands of people in need. They have also implemented a de-branding arm of the organization, which can remove logos from items such as uniforms and luxury brands that want to maintain exclusivity. Their sustainability impact has been huge, with 8.8 million pounds of new clothing items kept out of landfills and 8.4 million gallons of water saved.
Over the last 16 years under Helen Harakas’ leadership, Brands for Canada has grown from $4 million in annual donations to $40 million. The organization has also expanded their national network to include 160 organizations across Canada, including the City of Ottawa’s Social Work Department and the Vancouver School Board. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brands for Canada had an uptake of inventory due to stores closing, but difficulty with distributing these additional items. Many of their former distribution sites had closed throughout the lockdown, including shelters, schools, and partner agencies. In response, they have been developing a unique new system of distribution that will be launched soon.
If you felt inspired by this article, please consider getting involved in one of the following ways:
2. Volunteer by assisting them in de-branding clothing from home
3. If you run a business, provide hiring opportunities for the EDGE participants
4. Follow them on social media to hear about their ongoing work:
· Instagram: @brandsforcanada
· Facebook: @brandsforcanada
· Twitter: @BrandsforCanada
· Linkedin: BRANDS FOR CANADA