How Can Canada Remain Competitive?
Canada once was a large player in the cut and sew industry. When there was only the Free Trade Agreement Canada had the combined advantages of a low-valued dollar (encourages purchases) and unfettered access to the large American market. Globalization is rapidly constricting Canada’s role in the textile industry. Canada now must compete with workers with very low wages. Not surprisingly, much of our clothing is imported from China. Canadian retailers are connecting with Chinese manufacturers directly and leaving Canadian businesses outside of the supply chain. A nice summary of Canadian textile’s position in the global marketplace can be found in the Federal Government’s Report: A Canadian Approach to the Apparel Global Value Chain.
In 2008, the Canadian Government commissioned a report on Canada’s Textile Industry. It was called the Technology Roadmap for the Canadian Textile Industry. In summary, it states that Canada was losing its competitive advantage to foreign competition. It needed to innovate and explore specialized markets if it was to survive. A specific recommendation in the Roadmap was to re-evaluate Canada’s competitiveness at regular intervals. The last re-evaluation report was to occur in 2018. That has yet to be done, however. So, what is Canada’s private and public sectors doing to develop new textile technologies? Here is a rough outline.
Does Canada invest in innovation?
Unfortunately, the Canadian private sector is heavily criticized for insufficient investment in research and development. The Canadian public sector is criticized for not tying their R&D projects to those that can be monetized. This criticism is well explained by the OECD Report called: “Economy: Canada Needs to Boost Innovation and Human Capital to Sustain Living Standards. The OECD’s updated assessment is found in their Economic Survey of Canada (July 2018)
The Canadian government’s assessment of the private sector’s investment in R&D is not so dire, however. In its report entitled Product Design, Research and Development, a Canadian Manufacturing Perspective, it states that Canadian business do invest in R&D. They either have their research facilities in house or retain other Canadian businesses. Canadian Researchers in textiles have a voluntary organization called the Institute for Textile Science. The resources are for members only, however. The majority of public funding is federal and goes through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Innovative Technical Textiles (what a mouthful!). This Chair was both founded and organized by a private business called the CTT Group. The CTT Group is Canada’s largest “player” in this field.
That is not the only fusion between government and corporations, however. The not-for-profit intelliFLEX now administers the Smart Textile and Wearables Innovation Alliance on behalf of the National Research Council. The focus is on printable and flexible electronics. Similarly, Myant Inc. focuses on unifying advanced textiles with computer design to create flexible circuitry and complex knitting patterns. Research Councils are not the only way Canadian governments get involved. Universities are also a nexus between public and private funding.
The Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia offers Wilson School of Design’s Bachelor of Design, Fashion Design & Technology program (another mouthful). It is not only a teaching university, however. They are currently doing research on designing functional clothing for feeding tubes, tracheotomy tubes, wheelchair dependency, and sensory processing disorders.
Manitoba has the Composite Innovation Centre. This not-for-profit helps businesses assess whether a new business venture in composite materials will be profitable. It helps create protype composites and machine parts necessary to manufacture new clothes. It also assists in CAD and has an extensive textile database. A similar organization helps businesses create prototypes, software and dyes for innovative textile ventures. It is in Alberta and is called the Apparel Innovation Centre. Vestechpro, in Montreal, focuses in on fusing apparel with electronics. It provides training, consulting, testing and industry information to businesses. Concordia University has SubTela. The focus is to combine textile technology with the arts. Specifically, it develops intelligent cloth structures.
There are also University testing laboratories. Brock University has the Environmental Ergonomics Laboratory. It has facilities that can test a fabric’s resistance to extreme temperatures, humidity, oxygen level and water. Alberta has two facilities. One is University of Alberta’s Protective Clothing and Equipment Research Facility. The other is Apparel Innovation Centre discussed above. They provide testing for both flame and steam. These institutions are also noteworthy because they not only focus on making environment suits resilient to adverse environments but they also focus on managing the user’s body heat so that the suit will be comfortable after hours of use.
Is it enough?
In 2017 the United States has just opened its Advanced Functional Fabrics of America facility at M.I.T. It works in collaboration with the Fashion Institute of Technology and the U.S. Department of Defence. Collectively, the United States has invested $325 million dollars in developing advanced fabrics.
Why Does it Matter?
The strength of Canada’s cut and sew is of great interest to Canadians. But there is more at stake than simple self-interest. Canadian workers have better working conditions and more stringent environmental standards than those in developing countries. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia: “industrial standards legislation in Canada’s producing provinces establishes minimum wages, maximum hours and fringe benefits that are 2-10 times higher than standards in low-wage countries.“
Clothing made in Canada avoids subjecting workers to harsh working conditions and neglect of Human Rights. Canada has a formal policy of stopping the human rights abuses connected with Fast Fashion. It has allocated some government resources to ensure enforcement of government regulations. Canada has made a position contribution to clothing innovation that has benefitted the world. Hopefully, Canada can continue this tradition