Blake of Seed Clothing
An interview with the founder of Seed, a progressive clothing manufacturer that focuses on creating truly local products, while simultaneously using locally grown materials.
Simply put, Blake started by making clothes that he needed but weren't being manufactured. After being concerned about the chemicals leaching from his clothing after yoga, Blake decided to make a product that he didn't have to worry about post-yoga and, in his approach, decided to redefine the term 'locally made'.
Blake began by learning to sew, making his products himself and selling them at local markets. From there, Seed has substantially grown in size to a manufacturing facility, but none of the growth has hindered the ethical and sustainable backbone of the company - the manufacturing facility is still in Calgary, ensuring everything is made local and the focus on high quality, toxic free materials has never weakened.
Blake is his own strongest critic and through his ambitious goals and high standards Seed is continuously working to reduce its impact even further; including sourcing his materials from locally grown hemp by 2020.
First, lets talk about the origin of Seed and what sparked the interest in starting a brand with such a strong ethical and environmental consideration.
I've been into yoga for years before I started Seed, and after coming home from practicing one night I sat down all sweaty at my kitchen table and started reading an article about how polyester clothing seeps toxic chemicals into your skin. Basically this happens in two different circumstances; first, when you get sweaty and second, when you get hot. So here I am, in my sweaty polyester lululemon pants and reading this article about how chemicals are essentially coming off the clothing and into my skin.
I go to yoga to detoxify my body and to become healthier. I’m eating organic food because I don’t want to absorb chemicals that way, but all the while I'm just sitting there absorbing chemicals through my clothing. So at that point I’m thinking that I either have to quit yoga, which I'm not going to do, or find natural yoga clothing that I don't have to worry about. After tapping away at my laptop I couldn’t find anything out there that wouldn’t have these issues, so I basically realized I had to create this product from scratch. I couldn't find it, so I had to make it.
Was starting a clothing company the intention from the beginning or did you intend to just make yourself a pair?
Actually, I had wanted a clothing brand for years before I started Seed and it just wasn’t coming around at the time. When I bought the sewing machine I initially intended to just make clothes for myself, but I couldn’t help but entertain the question “what if other people liked these?". So I took my first pairs of pants to a market, set up a table, and I was pretty giddy about the idea.
Was that Market Collective? I think you posted that they were one of the beginning stepping stones for Seed?
Yeah, that was one of the first market that I did. That is essentially where I started.
Right now, especially in the clothing industry, it’s so easy to get clothing manufactured overseas for a significantly reduced cost that could then potentially lower your costs and manufacturing times. You’re obviously no stranger to that world, but what made you go the opposite route and manufacture locally in Calgary, and specifically by starting by just making them yourself?
I chose Calgary to start Seed simply because that was where I was living and I have always been passionate about local makership. I knew that I wanted to make our clothing locally, empower our community, and reduce the terrible environmental costs of importing and exporting stuff all over the world. I knew that, by starting under our own roof here, I could then go and show people in Toronto how they can make their own clothing in Toronto, then in Bangladesh how they can make their own clothing in Bangledash. What we’re really creating with Seed is an underlying theme of re-localizing production of the goods that we use.
So, the goal is to use Seed as an inspiration to others? To show to other manufactures that it can be done, that they can still create their products but reduce the impact of shipping overseas, all while being successful?
Exactly, but there’s actually two things going on that we’re trying to combat. First, it’s all the shipping that happens. For example, for one garment in the fast fashion world, to go to a big box store and buy that five dollar t-shirt, that t-shirt might have parts of it from 13 different countries around the world. It’s touched that many different places before it actually gets to the big box store in North America. The big problem with that is all the fuel costs.
But then there’s also the costs that you don’t see unless you research or happen to watch some documentaries like The True Cost or River Blue, and that’s the additional environmental and labour costs. The impact that these practices have on the local countries that don't have the same regulations as North America is substantial. They’re dumping toxins into their rivers and harming their employees, which in some cases can be close to slave labour. In many cases they don't have an option and they have to go work in these terrible conditions that are extremely chemical intensive. You don’t see workers that are over 40 years old in these factories because they die from the conditions.
It's a shame that so many of these true costs are ignored to save some short-term dollars. Aside from the obvious benefits of creating locally, has there been any challenges or frustrations? Has there ever been a point where the challenges or hurdles have made you consider outsourcing at all?
We’ve always been proud to be local. I’m not naive about it, I know it could potentially be less challenging but I actually think what I’m doing is going to transform the entire fashion industry. A lot of people have suggested, from when I first started Seed and now 6 years in, that I could go to a third world country and get it for one quarter of the cost, but I just shake my head because that misses the entire point of what we’re doing here.
How have the responses been by having your costs slightly higher due to the products being made locally? How do you approach the conversation when a potential customer brings up the cost?
Cost is our bragging point at Seed. Anybody that says “oh, this pair of pants is 150 dollars?” I just respond with “absolutely, and this is why; A) they’re made natural, B) they’re made by your own community in healthy work environments and C) it's going to last you 10x longer than a garment that’s made in the fast-fashion industry”. If we are to talk about cost, on one hand the environmental cost of a fast-fashion garment is way bigger than the monetary cost and, on the other hand, if money is important to you as a consumer then you should quantify the length of time that you will own a Seed garment compared to a fast fashion garment. You’re actually making a way better monetary investment by purchasing our clothes. Same with brands like Patagonia; when you buy one of their jackets it's not gone in 3 months, it's going to last years.
It’s funny you mention Patagonia. I’m a huge advocate for their practices and I can definitely see the similarities between your brand's concerns and approaches to these topics.
Looking through your marketing it’s clear that Seed has a strong spiritual and environmental focus and that you use this to appeal to your audiences. Understanding that your market is likely already familiar with these topics, what approaches do you take to reach audiences outside of this world?
One of the most effective ways that we attract other audiences, or ways we cross that chasm, is by being active at local markets. When we set up a ten by ten booth with our clothing hung, people come in simply because they're interested in the product. They ask about the pants because they look interesting, and then usually comes that question about the price. At that point we’re able to cross that chasm with a potentially uneducated buyer by bringing up the reasons we spoke about. We can use our costs as a way to bring in someone that doesn’t know about third world labour, or toxic chemical clothing, and educate them right there. A lot of times they leave with a pair of pants and tell ten of their friends why these pants are so important.
It seems to be so much more than the pants themselves. Although the pants are a great investment they're actually, potentially more importantly, a tool to start a conversation and a means to educate potential buyers.
Knowing that your pants are made out of a blend of organic cotton and hemp, I read that your goal is to produce them out of 100% locally grown hemp by 2020.
Totally, so it’s an interesting challenge because nobody is doing it in North America and, to me, it’s the next level of “made local”. We currently bring all the raw materials and we sew it all locally, and yes, that is already 95% better than what’s happening in the industry, but what about that other 5%?
When I realize that we import our hemp fabric from a company in Colorado I ask “what if we re-localize that supply chain as well?”. We’re already growing hemp crops in Alberta for the seed, for the hemp hearts, for the food or oils, so we know we can grow hemp in Alberta; it’s just about growing the proper seed to grow a textile crop. Once we can turn that crop into clothing, then we’re basically going to go crop to top, right in our own community, by 2020.
That’s amazing. And everything's going well? Has there been any challenges?
It’s a big logistical challenge because nobody is doing it here. I’m actually flying out to Nova Scotia to meet with a company out there that is both a farm and an inventor of the machines that we can use to process the hemp on a community scale. There’s a lot of work to do.
And, excuse my ignorance on the topic, but does the future marijuana legalization affect this process at all?
We’ve been growing industrial hemp in Canada since the 1990’s but we just don’t hear about it. Industrial hemp means anything that’s going to turn into a building product, textile, or food, and then the marijuana is just the medical process.
So, considering hemp has been growing here since the 1990’s how have clothing manufactures not caught onto this?
I think it’s just because nobody thinks this way, because, like we talked about, it's cheaper to just manufacture overseas. So many clothing brands are ‘click designers’ and, by that, I mean that most brands go onto their laptops, they click a couple buttons and they end up with boxes of clothing at their doorstep.
So, put simply, these 'click designers' just blindly order clothing but with their logos on it?
Or they might add their logo locally, but there’s nothing local about that other than their business address.
We want to flip the whole industry on its head. We’re saying that we’re actually going to make everything, the whole supply chain, right under our own roof here within our own community, and then we’re going to teach communities all over the world how to do it. Permaculture is a growing industry, people want to have their own food growing in their backyard, people are starting to build their own homes so their mortgage free. We’re finding that people all over the world want to be independent, and what we’re going to do is teach them how to be even more independent by manufacturing their own clothing.
That’s amazing! Saying that, do you have any advice for people that might be looking to enter the fashion industry and have a similarly high environmental or ethical standard? Or to a clothing company that maybe wants to start manufacturing as local as possible?
I've given advice to a few clothing brands that want to begin manufacturing locally but unfortunately it's hard when the company has already been established. Once your company is established you already have your price points set, and your customers expect that. When you start manufacturing local it will potentially increase your prices and that’s sometimes hard to do when you’re already established. So, to any new company, I would say to make that decision early and start from the beginning. Build your company with your standards from the beginning so that you can develop your business around the practicalities of creating local.
Great, that definitely makes sense. And what about a person that's looking to start living in a more intentional or sustainable way? Perhaps from a consumer's perspective?
One of the coolest things that I like to entertain is direct trade. As an example, we get a lot of people that are living lifestyles that may not coincide with the monetary world in the way that most people do, and they love the product and want a pair of pants but can't afford it. In that situation I just start a conversation where we discuss direct trade. So, if this person makes awesome pocket knives, we’ll trade one of their knives for a pair of pants.
I used to have a sign when I went to markets and it said “We Accept: organic groceries, experiences, trade, and bitcoin”; basically all these alternatives to a credit card or federal reserve money. So we used to directly advertise that we will take direct trade. Actually, as an example, when I go and see my chiropractor I take a pair of pants with me and that’s usually good for two visits; he loves the pants!
And you find this works when you approach it with most people?
Yeah, because a lot of people are stoked on what we’re doing and we just cut out the middle man. So I would encourage people to do the same thing; use your skills and use them for various exchanges.
I think that really brings home the importance of the community around Seed. It seems that so many of your business practices and moral standings are based around strengthening community and keeping things close to home. It’s seemingly a simple concept, but the environmental and global impacts are substantial.
Thanks Blake, congrats on Seed! I can’t wait to watch it grow and specifically follow along with your journey into manufacturing with 100% local hemp. You seem to not only have built a successful company, but also a company that could act as a role-model for other businesses of all different sizes.
To learn more on Seed and/or pick up a pair of their pants, I encourage you to check out their website. Also, they recently released an awesome short doc on their natural dying processes and it's definitely worth a watch. See it here:
Next up is an in-depth look at ethical farming processes and an interview with one of the farmers of TK Ranch. Expect it soon!