The Door Swings Both Ways

Words: Jill MacDonald

Manor Street is a small, quiet avenue in Burnaby, BC. Between cherry tree blossoms and fierce blackberry vines sits a nondescript converted warehouse. This was Arc’teryx until 2012; our factory floor, shipping department, warranties and time study engineers, all in one building.

Inside, the space was divided by a set of double doors. On one side, brand new product was assembled, brightly coloured and crisp. On the other side, abused, damaged and gear past its prime limped back home in small cardboard boxes. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Manor Street Location, 2003

Product lifecycle. Most people don’t know the first thing about it. We can’t see beyond the consumer experience: Is this a good deal? Am I getting fair value for my purchase; will it last; does it please me? Who can see beyond the item in hand to the idea behind it, much less the person, or teams of people, who made it happen.

North American culture does not place high value on careers in the garment industry, and at the same time, there is a common misperception that manufactured overseas equals inferior quality. We want well made apparel but made somewhere else. Contradictory messages. The reality is, many high value brands are made overseas, and those workers are in high demand for their apparel industry skills.

Warranties is the product lifecycle in reverse. At the Manor location, it was a small dingy room filled with the smell of unwashed GORE-TEX. Phones rang, angry people ranted and demanded free stuff. It was the trenches.

Take these examples. “Dear Arc’teryx, I don’t know what happened.” Attached to a jacket with a round burn hole in it. Or, “Please replace my pants. I’d like to have size medium, in the heron blue. I’ve lost weight.” Sent in with a dirty and delaminated pair of pants, well past their prime.

At the undoing point of the product lifecycle, the process of repairing technical outdoor products, all the work that has gone into this item is under the spotlight. A tear in a sleeve represents a complex operation of replacing that entire panel, to guarantee its original waterproofness, strength and durability. Renovations are always more complex than building with new materials.

To sit on one side of the doors and witness disrespect for my colleagues on the other side of the doors; “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,” to paraphrase Charles Dickens.

What I learned was respect. For press operators, who perform rapid, intricate operations that laminate materials together and form critical constructions. GORE-TEX stitched by industrial sewing machines that sound like small jets taking off. Hand manoeuvred and propelled at alarming speed, textiles were stitched and trimmed simultaneously by knife blades. Ribbons of seam allowance fell to the floor in colourful piles. It was a humbling and embarrassing experience, to witness all that I did not know, nor ever consider as a consumer. To create a better, more sustainable world, the door must swing both ways.

Arc’teryx has grown again; we need four buildings to house everyone. ARC’One is the new manufacturing facility, the size of three football fields, with an interior walking track and badminton courts for competitive lunch hour sessions. Shipping is there, but warranties needed more space and now occupies a large open office area, with four washing machines and an entire loading bay of newly returned items each week. It’s a never-ending pile that means people care about their Arc’teryx and want to make it last. We do too.

At ARC’One the operators are now grouped into teams, with the idea to consistently turn out finished products instead of creating bottlenecks of partially assembled units. This represents a large shift in how the floor is arranged and the pace of workflow. It’s taken time to adjust. Change is uncomfortable.

But the best part is how much has not changed from the Manor Street location. There is still the exchange of knowledge between the operators and the engineers who invent tools for them to use. Designers who come to ask for advice and sometimes receive feedback that they don’t want to hear. Every product is in constant evolution.

As a writer for this brand, to see images of our operations overseas struck a note that I had not expected. Pride is not the right word because we are strangers, but their evident pride in their skills and for Arc’teryx moved me. I am richer for having to think about why.

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