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  • Daniele Pieroni

Connection and Sustainability in Troubling Times: A Conversation with Kaleco

Photo by Natasha Savalieva

This summer was a scolding reminder of how far we push our environment. Provincial statistics have shown that from April 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2021, 1,610 wildfires ripped through British Columbia. Fires devoured approximately 8,700 square kilometres of land, almost a 100% increase from 2003’s fire season. Unfortunately, the fires damaged much more than our precious ecosystems; lives have been irreversibly affected. This wildfire season, families faced the brunt of destruction. Two cities have completely burnt down, thousands evacuated from their homes.

For decades warnings have rung on deaf ears. Avoiding the realities of our impacts isn’t new. Whether it’s accidental fires or the compounding effect of increased temperatures, we cannot ignore the hand we have in this equation. Sadly, conversations surrounding this topic have been difficult.

Failures in Fire Management Policy are evident, the lack of joint Federal-Provincial programs leaves British Columbia unable to address the presence of fire fuel. Negative outcomes are unavoidable if we continue down this path. A lack of awareness and understanding makes these conversations challenging, resulting in a disconnected public. This past year has exposed our lack of awareness in what affects our environments and communities. Decreased visibility, worsening air quality, loss of biodiversity are the tip of the iceberg.

Luckily, we didn’t bear this alone. Across 2021, firefighters were more than willing to step up to the challenge. Brave men and women guided us through these tragedies. Canadian armed forces, thousands of volunteers, our firefighters aided by hundreds of Mexican firefighters figuratively and literally stepped through flames for our collective safety. I was privileged enough to learn about how these fires affected communities in the Okanagan firsthand. I got to speak with an associate and the founder of Kaleco.

Kaleco, formerly Shambala, is a shop based out of Vernon, British Columbia. The store drew my attention for how passionate it is about pushing industry standards; sustainability and fair-trade aren’t just trends at Kaleco.

Amanda Homeniuk, founder of Kaleco, spoke about her struggles adapting to her flame infested reality. From the store’s inception, Amanda set her eyes on understanding the industry and planning the utmost sustainable path by educating herself, but this year’s challenges weren’t something she’d expected. Her hopes for the business’s readjustment and success were evident, but I was impressed by how vehemently she spoke about community, self improvement and questioning the current realities of our chains of production.

What does Kaleco personally represent to you?

AMANDA: That’s an interesting question. It was an opportunity mostly, for me. Bringing my values and aesthetics to the community. It was a chance to talk about eco-friendly ethical things. Making it available to people. Bringing awareness to my community, while aligning my values in a way I can make an income.

What is the end-goal for Kaleco as a brand?

A: It’s funny when people ask you that. Normally, in terms of business it’s never ending growth. “What are your plans for world domination?” But that’s the opposite to what I want to do, and sustainability. So I think as a brand I hope it becomes inspirational to others. I’m happy to help people in small businesses figure things out, inspiring people in making better choices. Money, money, money. That’s what I think many people’s mindsets are. But I don’t think that’s important. It shouldn’t be your only goal

Why make sustainability and fair-trade key components of your business?

A: Well for me it’s just the right thing to do. I think those two elements aren’t what people carry on with their days and forget about. I was personally taught to try to help others. It carries through. I help others, that helps others. I make sure workers aren’t being exploited, so it carries over.

How did you start learning about sustainability?

A: When I bought the business - the owners were originally interested in fair trade and brought a world aesthetic to Vernon. Yet, it had developed into a mainly hippy-aesthetic overall. So, when I took over I knew I wanted to bring more awareness. I did a ton of research, I asked a lot of questions. I bought the store in January 2020, around that time of the year there’s a lot of trade shows in Toronto. It felt like a good opportunity. I ran from booth to booth. I learned that I didn’t know much about fashion and the supply chain. A lot of people were gracious with sharing their information. Because of COVID I couldn’t open, so I prioritized the online store. I gradually worked up to a soft reopen when the time came. This allowed me to reinvest the money I was making back into my inventory, slowly building on the pieces I had. I was trying to make friends; TenTree didn’t respond to my first 4 emails, it took having a good online image that showed off my inventory. Then they responded. “Hey! You have a nice Eco-Boutique and we want to work with more Eco-Boutiques”. Then you get to the point where brands actually contact you. I’m at a point where I’m full. I’m refining and dialling into the kinds of products I want. I’m lucky to work with a few brands that produce their products here in Canada, making the prices somewhat steep. Some customers may be willing to spend 95$ on a sweater, which is a lot for many people, because they understand the impact it has on the supply chain. Price isn't something we talk about a lot in the eco-world. But this is another aspect of something I wanted to focus on. For the most part I want to bring in products that are under the 100$ threshold as much as possible. That’s what people are willing to pay. In terms of running a successful business, I need to keep in mind what my customers can spend and feel comfortable spending. I encourage customers to spend less sometimes I’ll tell them to hold off on an item. I may direct them to an alternative in store. I try to coach my customers in what to look for. Maybe don’t buy 4 t-shirts at Walmart but buy one great t-shirt with me. But it’s a t-shirt you’ll love. In terms of learning, I’m constantly learning.

Why aren't these standards widely adopted if they can be long standing?

A: Because our whole economic system is focused on never ending growth. That means exploiting resources and people. That’s the way it’s done. Many businesses don’t understand that a customer isn’t aware that a 20 dollar t-shirt was made by someone paid 20 cents for it. They don’t know that customers haven’t been made aware, they’ve never met that person. Business can play with that lack of knowledge, falsely equating it to customers not caring. Big corporations don’t analyze that line of thinking. Why not continue? To them the consumer doesn’t care.

What widely accepted industry standard would you change if it were up to you?

A: There’s so many things. For me the use of polyester in general: a resource that’s non renewable. A resource that we’re starting to understand. It causes a lot of destruction. The fibers that fall off garments as we wash them go into the water cycle. This was never expected. It’s not only made of oil, we’re responsible for that oil going back into the environment in a way that can’t be recovered. You’re wearing plastic. Standards exploiting workers as well. It’s changing and there are a lot of consumers pushing back. There seems to be more standards for states to uphold better practices, with legislation springing up top down. But states like China haven’t developed policies that confront these problems. Much of the world’s production of organic cotton comes from factories that exploit Uygher labour. I spoke to TenTree about how they acquire organic cotton after realizing this. Luckily, they made sure to reassure me that they’ve been aware of it since 2019 and have actively rejected anything involved with those practices.

If you could change anything about Kaleco what would you change?

A: I’d like to be idealistic about finding more garments that check more sustainability boxes. I always try to explain to customers that sustainability is a scale: it isn’t always perfect. There may be polyester in some of the products but it was made by a women’s collective in India escaping domestic violence. Some people ask why some products may be made overseas and not here? Because it could be more economically viable for the producers I work with, ensuring there’s less transportation costs. Clothing is an enormous industry. So, it’s tough. It can feel like I’m part of this industry, that is polluting on a whole. But I’m trying to find a solution to these challenges. I guess, I’d better the supply chain. What I can do as a buyer for the store is look for brands that are making better choices and stick with them.

You’re pushing a holistic approach. It seems that community is a great concern to you. So, when ecological disasters happen, it can be a great jumping board to have conversations on the interconnectedness of labour and production.

When did you notice things changing around you this summer? Were you safe?

A: I think it started with the heat dome. It just felt wrong. It was 50 degrees in my car. When Lytton burned down - and as fires burned around me I watched from my house. I was scared, seeing fire jumping off of trees. But the White Rock Lake fire was what impacted us most this summer. It was close to the city. Many were evacuated and it made the sky and the air unbearable. You couldn’t walk outside. The ash and smoke made it hard to breathe. Economically, it was scary. Personally it was scary.

How was your personal life and Kaleco affected?

A: You felt a lot of anxiety. Fire is so unpredictable. You feel helpless. I was anxious, everyone was made to pack their things; and you never know. There could be a fire nearby, I would be personally impacted. If I had to evacuate, how would it affect my business? Usually, the summer is good for business. But tourism couldn’t happen since tourism was discouraged. It impacted Kaleco. Residents couldn’t even come in. Some had lost homes - you want to hug them but you can’t, because COVID.

It seems so unnerving. It’s surreal. Here in Alberta it seemed we had minimal coverage. Trees don’t stop growing because of borders. On a national scale there seemed to be very little awareness. Outside of firefighting efforts, who’s responsible for keeping people safe?

A: There’s the community in general. Well, there’s obviously several layers of engagement but it wasn’t too bad, considering the circumstances. Evacuated people had hotels to go to. There were food vouchers available so people could eat. Animals had to be taken care of. Imagine cattle being moved. There were also many people that came to assist us from Mexico. They came to help us and slept in tents. You can’t help but feel in awe. On top of everything, COVID exists. I’m sure there were hiccups, but I didn’t experience the worst of it.

Is human influence discussed as a factor of the fires?

A: As soon as it’s warm there’s some emphasis on minimizing our influence. So, fire bans can be imposed. There’s some intense messaging on personal responsibility. But there isn’t a holistic discussion. There aren’t discussions on how these fires have been increasing in intensity. I’ve also read about how fires always happened. Certain practices carried by Indigenous populations were looked down upon. Communities used to control-burn certain areas, but we stopped because some communities spoke against it due to the smoke. It seems silly now since we lived through smoke for so long

Have you experienced any degree of increased climate change anxiety?

A: I have kids, I think about how this will impact their future. I spoke about it with Natasha as well. It must be hard for young people; it’s palpable. Will what we do be enough? There’s so many factors that go into it.

Natasha Savalieva, associate at Kaleco, spoke on her experiences dealing with what took place in the Okanagan. Much of the conversation revolved around the unease of being a new resident of Vernon. Her anxieties in recounting the Okanagan’s multiple evacuation alerts were palpable; just as much as her determination in preparing for worst case scenarios.

When did you move to the Okanagan Region? How was the state of the Okanagan, were there fires?

NATASHA: I moved at the end of May 2020, in the heart of COVID, I walked into the summer. I didn’t really notice, there wasn’t much talk about it. It was my first time in such a humid environment, moving from a dry environment like in Calgary.

What was your first cultural shock?

N: The closeness of the community. Even during COVID, I just haven't been used to seeing the same people day in and day out. Around the same times across town. It’s a small town, you may not even know their name but you see them and recognize everyone.

What drew you to Kaleco?

N: If you’re going to spend money, look at what’s around you. Support local business. And it’s a similar idea with working. I was particularly looking at local opportunities. I came across Kaleco and had insight on what their goals were. I try to be informed in how my money is spent, so working for a sustainable business was a big factor.

In your time working for Kaleco, have you met anyone affected by the fires?

N: I have. Especially at the beginning of the fire season. Clients would come in and as I would ask them about their day I’d learn about their conditions. Some were evacuated, worried and living out of suitcases. You could hear and see their stress. They’re coming into the store to talk to someone, see a friendly face. It was the first impact I saw within my community.

Do you feel safe? If not, what would make you feel safe?

N: That’s something that’s been in the back of my mind. The neighborhood I lived in Vernon was under evacuation alert for some time. There were moments where the sky was completely dark. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon and you could barely see the sky. There were fears for ember fires. That was my biggest fear. Fuel surrounds where I live. We didn’t get much rain in the spring and the heat dome made it worse. Anything around could start a fire. I didn’t feel safe, but more so for Vernon. Relatively, I felt safe. My house may not burn down but houses across the street may.

Who do people turn to if affected by the fires?

N: All the guides that the government push urge us to contact family or friends. In most cases, that might be easy. But it’s just my parents and I don’t have anyone I can reach. I would have to reach out to people I know from work. Something that was a shock to me was the Lytton fires. To my surprise, people in Vernon were offering rooms and any helping hand. But it’s almost a case by case basis. Whatever position you’re in is what you work with.

How has your personal life been affected?

N: In my bubble, during the heat of the fires everyone was stressed and worried. It became the only thing to talk about. I put a lot aside. I kept thinking of my car. I needed a full tank at all times; just in case. My belongings - well my most important belongings - had to be packed. I was constantly on alert, taking into consideration a slew of factors. What if the winds changed, what if the fires started jumping from house to house. It affected my personal life, and everybody around me, by being at risk. It changed the attitude everyone had. You put a friendly face on, but in the back of my mind I was very stressed.

Have you experienced any increased levels of climate anxiety?

N: That’s a good question. I need to take more action and responsibility. How do I affect the environment? I need to work on my ecological footprint. I need to be more conscious of the water I use. I need to use less plastic. I need to keep water outside of my house. I need to keep any dry foliage away from the house. It goes from the most abstract to the specific, who knows what’ll happen in the next decade. What if we go into a drought as the fires continue.

Do you tie most of this to the fires?

N: Yes. The heat dome kicked off the wildfires. That’s a clear sign of climate change. We’re all in this together you know? Ecological disasters aren’t exclusive to British Columbia. Some places are less equipped than we are, we need to keep this in mind.

How would you describe the fires to someone that hasn’t experienced them?

N: Learning to deal with this experience is relatively new to me. I hadn’t always understood. You begin to see more and more people talk about the fires and how they may be pushing back, but you’re living in the aftermath. You live through smoke, you wake up to it. You see it in the sky, you lose sunlight. It’s ironic to say, but it’s a literal dark cloud that follows you around. Once you see it’s surreal. It’s frightening to see the thick black smoke that emanates from the flames; it’s apocalyptic. I don’t really know how to describe how it feel, that’s just the best way I could put it.

Following our conversations, the picture had been painted clear. This wasn’t just a news story. British Columbians endured conditions foreign to many. Unfortunately, their experiences aren’t exclusive to the province. Wildfire suppression and prevention is a collective responsibility. If we don’t demand higher standards in policy and overall sustainable frameworks, we’ll learn just how damaging natural disasters are and can be. There are clear signs of our influence on the environment and there’s a lot to learn from Kaleco. Both Amanda and Natasha extend the business’ wishes and standards to their own lives. Kaleco, and the people behind it, embody a responsibility to our environments and communities; this isn’t something we can face alone.


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