By Mike Foster
January sales offer cheap clothes, but many of us don’t know who made them or where they were made. That’s where University of Ottawa student Kim Kirton comes in. Her quest to find ethically-sourced and eco-friendly clothing led her to set up the Balance Project, a student-run business.
Kirton, a third-year student in international development and global studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, said she felt a moral duty to become more socially responsible following news reports about deaths of garment workers in fires in Bangladeshi clothing factories.
“I wanted to make a difference. Being adopted from China, I have always asked myself what life would be like if I had remained in an orphanage. Would I have worked in a sweatshop? What would life be like as a garment worker? So, I started researching who was making my clothes,” said Kirton.
Early last year, Kirton and a group of University of Ottawa students from across all faculties began a Kick-starter campaign for the Balance Project, raising nearly $8,000 by the end of March 2015. The funds were used to buy a first order of T-shirts and crewneck sweaters, which they began to sell at events that promote small businesses, like the Ottawa Makers Market.
Initially, the idea was to donate some profits to micro-finance projects that help organic cotton farmers in India. Then, last summer, through uOttawa’s International Office and a cultural exchange program offered by the government of Ontario and the Indian state of Maharashtra, Kirton visited Pune, India, and worked with the NGO Chaitanya to learn more about the farmers and the supply chain.
She realized, though, that without the Balance Project having a presence in India, it simply would not be possible to be absolutely certain that materials were ethically sourced. Also, supporting micro-finance projects was not financially viable. NGOs were better placed to do this, she says. So the business model was changed. Now, the Balance Project uses materials sourced from a Canadian supplier, says Kirton, adding that the principle of knowing exactly where your clothes come from remains the same.
In early December, the Balance Project launched its winter collection. It held a pre-launch event at HUB Ottawa to thank mentors such as Luc Lalande, executive director of uOttawa’s Entrepreneurship Hub, and Stephen Daze, Telfer School of Management’s Dom Herrick Entrepreneur in Residence. To date, the business has sold 200 items and earned $8,200 in sales.
The company also provides a platform for Canadian artists. Kirton launched a photo contest using social media and the hashtag #canadianartist to find artists to design their shirts.
Kirton believes in what she’s doing: “Despite the challenges we may face in terms of funding and demand, I am helping to teach consumers about the impact their purchases have around the world and how they can achieve a more balanced, socially responsible lifestyle by making more informed choices.”