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Two businesses, one journey: how Unbelts' Canadian and Chinese studios survived COVID

It's the last day of Fashion Revolution Week 2021.

Our very favourite thing about the annual #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign has been its focus on the people, not the geography, behind the garments we buy. As a business that launched in Shanghai, grew in Edmonton, and now operates between two countries, we can’t think of a better capstone to Fashion Revolution 2021 than sharing the story of how two businesses around the globe from each other kept each other’s teams afloat during our wildest-ever year in business.

Earlier this month, I set a video date to check in with Ms. Ou, the manager of our partner sewing studio in south China. The dust had settled after a frenzied 2020, when we introduced cloth masks in anticipation of an unpredictable retail year (was anyone going to be buying stretch belts to go with their work-from-home pajamas?) and in effort to keep orders flowing to Ms. Ou and our suppliers. 

We invited Percy, our China production coordinator, to join us and fill any translation gaps. And  the 15-minute check-in we’d planned evolved into a nearly 90-minute conversation that ended with both of us learning that our two business’ fates in 2020 were more closely tied than we’d known.

 

Unbelts founder Claire, south China factory owner Ms. Ou, and production coordinator Percy smile and wave at each other in a video chat screenshot.

 

Claire: When we talked in February 2020, COVID had hit China. Can you tell me again what those first few months were like?

Ms. Ou: Everything changed after that Chinese New Year. [Note: Chinese New Year, a national public holiday coinciding with the lunar new year in late January or early February, is generally regarded as a China-wide homecoming holiday. Workers who have relocated for their jobs return to their hometowns in what has been called the largest human migration on Earth.]  

Some staff members decided to stay in their hometowns to stay close to family, even if it meant putting their jobs on hold. It is cheaper to live away from big cities like [here in] Zhongshan, so workers could use savings or find temporary jobs at home until the future became clearer.

At the same time, we were starting to lose domestic orders. It doesn’t sound like COVID was affecting your country or the West yet. But in China, businesses were starting to close or go into lockdown. It was a very uncertain time, and we lost a lot of business.

Claire: Canada locked down in mid-March 2020. We sent you our first Unbelts mask order in late April, once the CDC had finally reversed their recommendation on cloth masks. What was happening for you in those two months?

Ms. Ou: That mask order was the first order we’d had for awhile. In March and April, overseas orders slowed down for factories in China. Because we’re very small, and our client base is also quite small, it didn’t take long for the orders to disappear completely. I was really nervous at that time, because I knew we would get to a point where we would have to let staff go, and I didn’t know if we’d be able to find them again.

Claire: I know what you mean. We had to make some changes to our team, and it felt terrible. We had to cut our wholesale coordinator’s hours because our retailers closed, and let our trade show coordinator go because we knew we weren’t going to be travelling anywhere for a long time. You have to make brutal decisions without knowing if you’ll be able to un-make them later. 

 

Ms. Ou: Yes, and excellent sewing staff are extremely difficult to find. These days, in China, young people don’t want sewing work, and their parents’ generation is retiring. To keep the best people, I find offering very good pay isn’t enough. Our team doesn’t just want to earn well so they can save for the future - I need to offer a comfortable work life that shows I’m invested in them as people now. We need to offer time off, shorter workdays, work that’s not physically straining, little perks like take-out lemon iced tea every afternoon... these relationships take a long time to build.

Claire: Was that first mask order enough to keep your team intact?

Ms. Ou: Yes, but to be honest, just barely. It was a smaller order, as you know, but it was enough to keep everyone here. We didn’t know if you’d re-order, because we didn’t know what the economy in Canada was like or if your customers would like your design. But when we got your second order, and then the third and fourth… we really knew we were going to be okay.

Claire: It’s funny you say that, because it was a huge relief for us to find you were able to pivot that quickly to making a whole new product. Being able to place that first mask order with you gave us stability here. Our studio in Edmonton is way too small to make the volume we needed without major staff overtime or violating physical distancing rules. 

Ms. Ou: And here, COVID was getting under control. We have lots of space in the sewing section here, and our staff all had a lot of extra time to fill.

Claire: I honestly couldn’t believe how quickly we were able to finalize the design. I was prototyping here - literally at my kitchen table under lockdown, with my two little kids pulling at me - and I’d send napkin sketches and color swatches made with crayons. I’d go to sleep just crossing my fingers you wouldn’t think I was crazy… and I’d wake up to a photo of a finished prototype.

Ms. Ou: That was crazy, but it was fun! We were all so surprised to see the straps that went behind the head, but once we made some samples and tried them on, it made sense. It was such a relief to have a new project. Did you know that when your orders got bigger, we were actually able to share them with other factories in the neighbourhood?

Claire: No! What? 

Ms. Ou: Yes. I have friends who also run small sewing businesses, and we had all been facing the same hardship. Most of them had to lay off staff, and many of them closed completely. But the ones that were still open - I asked if they would like to help deliver your summer orders. It was a better way of doing business than hiring and training extra staff for myself. I was lucky, and shared the luck. We take care of each other.

Claire: It was exactly the same here. A few people thought we were crazy, because near the beginning of the pandemic when supply chains for mask supplies were straight-up broken, we imported elastic and nose wires for other businesses here who were making masks. But I want to live in a world where other businesses would do the same for us. It’s so neat to see the same philosophy playing out with your neighbours.

I did want to ask - I know our last mask order was in September 2020, which was also when we started kicking belt production back into gear for the holidays. Were you seeing orders coming in from other clients then, too?

Ms. Ou: Yes and no. The overseas economy was still poor, and we weren’t getting orders for export. But by September, the domestic economy had recovered here, so we had work to do for our Chinese customers. Our overseas orders have started to pick up again this year, so I can finally say that we’ve made it across the gap. But I really want you to know - we would have been out of business by last June without your masks. 

Claire: I had no idea. I knew we needed to keep orders flowing if we wanted to have a working supply chain after COVID. I didn’t know that we were your sole customer. 

Ms. Ou: I didn’t know that you relied on those masks so much. Two businesses, one journey.

Claire: So - what kind of support do you need now? What would you like us to think about as we plan our next year of orders?

Ms. Ou: I learned this past year how important continuity is. We *have* to make sure we’re protected year-round from interruptions in orders. A lot of our customers will place very large orders on a very short lead time, and we always appreciate orders, but it creates a lot more stability for us to have smaller orders spaced out across seasons. If you have the flexibility, it’s great to have orders in the summer, because that’s our slow season.

Claire: On it. I’ll let our production planning team know. Can I ask - has this past year created any long-term changes for you? We’ve made a big switch from mainly wholesale to mainly e-commerce, and I know a lot of our staff will continue to work remotely sometimes. I’m curious about your side.

Ms. Ou: Under COVID, a lot of people experienced a shift in priorities. People want to be around their families, even if it means living in smaller towns and earning less. That’s a big change from wanting to go out to a big city, make and save a lot of money, and move back later in life to relax. I understand that… and I want it too. I’m really considering moving this studio from Zhongshan [city] to my hometown, where a lot of our staff come from, too. I would keep an office in the city and commute once or twice a week to bring materials and finished orders back and forth, but the sewing would all happen closer to home.

Claire: Wow - I’d never considered how the work-from-home movement could translate into working-from-hometown in China. That’s a huge change! How long is the commute for you?

Ms. Ou: It’s a five-hour drive, but only 2.5 hours on the train. That’s doable for me if it means a more relaxed pace of life the rest of the week, and to hold onto staff long-term.

Claire: Thanks so much for taking time to catch up, Ms. Ou. And thanks for being so patient with my Mandarin!

Ms. Ou: I don’t speak English! We do the best we can, and rely on Mr. Li [Percy] for the rest. Let’s chat again soon. 

 

The masks sewn by Ms. Ou's team are Buy One, Give One all Earth Month long.

We're on a mission to replace 10,000 schoolkiddos' disposable and well-worn cloth masks this spring. Does your own household need a mask refresh? View our adult masks, masks for kids, mask value packs, and cloth mask accessories here.

For more information on Fashion Revolution, visit www.fashionrevolution.org

Unbelts is a Certified B Corporation, operating with a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit and third-party verified to be conducting business at the highest standard of social and environmental responsibility. To learn more about B Corps, visit www.bcorporation.net.