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Women Leaders in Business: Sustainable style can help save people and the planet

Thunder Bay's Bree and Hailey Hollinsworth bring their brand of green entrepreneurship to the apparel industry

What do Bree and Hailey Hollinsworth of Thunder Bay have in common with David Suzuki?

They are passionate about the environment and sustainability, and were speakers at the “Be Inspired” conference in Gaspé, Quebec, in 2017.

The Hollinsworths have come a long way down the entrepreneurship road since running childhood lemonade stands with friends and shining boots and saddles at horse shows.

Two years after launching their sustainable clothing company in 2013, the sisters were named to the Top 30 under 30 by Corporate Knights for Sustainability Leadership in 2015. The same year they were awarded the Quest Climate Grant from Canadian Geographic Magazine.

Their company, Ungalli Clothing Co., was named after a fictional tree from a book their mother read to them as girls, called The Name of the Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge.

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“The story is about working together and using everyone’s strengths to reach common goals,” said Bree. “It became our namesake when the author gave us permission to use the name, but it works for us on so many levels, including that we, as sisters, work together on our business; and we all have to work together to preserve the planet.”

Bree is the creative director and runs the store. Hailey, the company director, is in charge of business development, wholesale sales, product development, and finances. 

Wholesale operations are their current focus, offering custom screen printing on their sustainably and ethically made clothing products. 

Some of their more noteworthy wholesale partnerships include providing shirts for Experiences Canada and an Absolut Vodka promotion across Ontario where 25,000 T-shirts were gifted along with product sales in LCBOs.

“We were thrilled to get a call from Absolut Vodka for their Christmas changemakers campaign,” said Hailey. “I almost didn’t answer the telephone because I was at a family gathering and didn’t recognize the number. It’s exciting to give other brands the ability to be more socially and environmentally conscious by getting their brand and logo out on our custom sewn apparel.

“More and more organizations are seeing the value in sustainable clothing as opposed to fast fashion,” said Hailey. “Sustainable clothing lasts longer, is higher quality, uses natural resources responsibly and does not hurt anyone in the process. We’re proud to be one of the few in Canada offering custom screening on a sustainable product.”

Due to the growth in custom screening, Ungalli is moving into an expanded space this summer with renovations to the former Cumberland Cinema in Thunder Bay’s north-end waterfront district. There, they are sharing room with Superior Screen Printing, their partner for the past six years, to create an 8,000-square-foot retail, production and warehouse space.

Their father’s construction company is doing the design and build at the location. Their mother volunteers in the retail store. 

“Our parents have been amazing role models and mentors as entrepreneurs,” Bree continued. “We basically grew up out at my mom’s farm with equestrian training, and didn’t even know that was her job. She created a pretty amazing space with something she absolutely loved – horses. We wanted purpose like that as well.”

The journey wasn’t always easy, nor straightforward. Originally, they wanted to be potters or botanists, then both went into post-secondary education in the health field. The sisters worked a number of jobs, including a uniform factory and in the service industry. 

While working at a pizza shop, Hailey and Bree were sketching out a logo for Ungalli on their break when they heard an ad for the accelerator program at the Northwestern Innovation Centre. It got them started with $15,000 in seed funding, office space, and access to business advisors. They kept their jobs while growing the business until they could afford to pay themselves, which took three years.

“We wanted to be passionate about our work and have a positive impact on the environment,” said Bree. “We also wanted to help others with their entrepreneurship journeys, and be involved in the community.”

To that end, Ungalli will feature other local companies’ products in their collective space.

“The new retail space will be four times the size of our current site,” said Bree. “We’re excited to offer more space for local artisans now. When we started Ungalli eight years ago, there was nowhere to sell our products locally that suited our brand, so we had a kiosk in the mall. When we opened the retail store, we wanted to give other entrepreneurs the opportunity we didn’t have starting out.”

With the outbreak of the pandemic, the online sales end of the business jumped from 25 percent to 100 percent. They switched to mask production, exclusively, for several months. 

The Hollinsworths are proud that their unique website experience, showing how many water bottles are diverted from landfill when purchasing 50 per cent recycled T-shirts, as well as how many days of drinking water and bulb hours of energy are saved compared to buying non-recycled products.

“It may just seem like a fashionable T-shirt,” said Bree, “but it is our way of trying to make a positive impact.”

While working in a uniform factory, Bree saw firsthand how unsustainable the industry is, and the massive waste.

The fashion industry is the second most wasteful industry, so we wanted to help to change that with the fabrics we chose, and with Canadian labour.” 

“Our products are all ethically manufactured in Canada,” add Hailey, “with knitting done in Quebec, and our cut-and-sew factories in southern Ontario. Then they are shipped to Thunder Bay where we screen them.

“Unfortunately, Canada does not have recycled plastic thread and organic cotton, so those are sourced from the United States and India.”

When asked for their advice to hopeful and current entrepreneurs, Bree answered: “Trust your gut and find people who you can trust. Work really hard, probably 10 times harder than you think you need to,” said Bree. “You will question yourself and want to give up. You will make mistakes.

"You’re going to feel defeated, but you have to pick yourself back up, and believe in what you’re doing.”

Hailey added: “Be open to learning, changing, and adapting. You have to be flexible in the ideas of what you think things are going to be. Believe in collaboration over competition. Work with other local businesses, and continue to give back to the community.”

Women Leaders in Business is a series of monthly articles profiling women entrepreneurs and leaders who are making their mark in Northern Ontario and are contributing to the betterment of their community's and this region's economy.