When Gillian Thomson set out to re-invent the traditional shower cap, she knew she wanted it to offer a better fit, more appealing design, and be reusable. Working with a manufacturer in Canada was also on her wish list.
"I was basically trying to avoid making it overseas and having to ship these goods on boats, and cutting back the emissions that way," said Thomson, who launched Skipper's shower cap at the end of 2021. Her motivation was also fuelled by a desire to support the local economy, and make a product that would stand the test of time.
"I get very tired of seeing so many low-quality goods made and sold in our Canadian stores. So many things now are just made to be destroyed or aren't made to last. I don't want to contribute to the waste consumer goods that are out there, and by manufacturing closer to home, it helps with that."
But Thomson quickly learned that finding a Canadian manufacturer to make the shower caps would not be easy, or cheap. Her first hurdle was finding a factory that had the right experience and offered the kinds of fabric she was hoping to use. Thomson also couldn't reveal her design because she was pursuing patents, which made it even harder to get anyone to call or email her back.
"It was just figuring out everything as I went," she explained, adding that it took more than 18 months to develop the elastic-free cap and find a manufacturing partner. Eventually, Thomson went back to a Canadian factory that she had talked with earlier in the process about waterproof breathable fabrics. She'd since worked with a pattern-maker and finalized her design, so the factory was more willing to consider taking on her product.
The challenge of navigating textile and textile-adjacent manufacturing in Canada is one that Claire Theaker-Brown, founder of Unbelts, knows well. She's been trying how to figure out how best to manufacture both sustainably and responsibly for years.
Theaker-Brown said the assumption that made-in-Canada is automatically better can be problematic because it doesn't take into account that workers might not be earning a living wage for their region.
"Is it more ethical to have the products expensively produced in Canada, ending up with a product that is economically out of reach for the average Canadian? And how do the ethics on that choice compare to the ethics of paying a living wage in a part of the world where the cost of living is lower and ending up with a product that is accessible to average income Canadians," said Theaker-Brown, who said that's exactly what her own company has been trying to figure out.
Unbelts currently has half of its manufacturing in Canada and half in China, with an emphasis on paying a living wage. Theaker-Brown said she's aiming to move all the company's belt sewing to Edmonton this year, but she's also aware that it will impact their factory in China, so it's a gradual move to ensure it remains viable. And it's a constant balancing act of determining how to make sure products stay affordable when more of the manufacturing is done locally, as well.
Thomson also had to grapple with the fact that the cost of making the shower cap in Canada versus overseas was substantially more expensive (she estimates it's three times higher). It is currently priced at $68.50, and Thomson pointed out that even though that's more than what people are likely used to paying for a shower cap, it still doesn't offer great margins for retail partners to come in. But she decided to go ahead, hoping that customers would believe in her vision.
"I didn't want to sacrifice the quality, the materials, and the function right from the get-go just to be able to make more money in the beginning. It's really an investment in this product because the profit will come a bit later on as I order more and more at a time," Thomson said.
But there are still many reasons why companies like Unbelts and Skipper might consider making their products locally, including the ability to prototype in real-time and make adjustments to the final design. Both allow for more flexibility with inventory, which Theaker-Brown said is helpful for cash flow.
"When you're working with a factory that's overseas, typically you have to submit your order a month in advance. So you're guessing what the market uptake will be," she added.
These are challenges that both Theaker-Brown and Thomson will continue to wrestle with as they navigate the best ways to grow their respective businesses.
For Thomson, she knows her buying power will increase as Skipper grows. She's working on the company full-time and hopes to eventually make her shower caps in more custom fabrics, perhaps with recycled fibres. Manufacturing is just part of the puzzle; she also wants people to believe it is worth investing in sustainability and the local economy.
"I'm trying to shape the way people are thinking about their common household goods, like the shower cap. It's about higher quality, technical fabrics, and a made-in-Canada product that is supporting a small business. That's worth changing the way you spend money."