Sage Community Series: It's Only Natural

Welcome to the Sage Community Series, featuring Vancouver's local community of mindful businesses that are purpose-driven in creating positive change in the world with the products and services they provide.

Aligned with Nature

I recently sat down with Lorna Knowles, VP/Production of It's Only Natural at their new Granville Island location to discuss their story. It is one of commitment to keeping synthetic particles out of the ecosystems and oceans by providing natural fibre clothing, body care and accessories to the people of today and the planet's future generations. 

Soon to be celebrating 20 years in business, It’s Only Natural has been around long enough to experience the ebbs and flows of eco-conscious retail. Originally opening in 1999 in New Denver, BC, Hemp and Company began selling their eco-conscious natural fibre clothing line. The first retail shop opened in the heart of Victoria’s tourist area, and has been long-standing as the oldest eco-friendly shop in North America, with the most recent expansion located in Vancouver's favourite marketplace, Granville Island.

"Back in 2007, it was the height of the Green Wave" claims Lorna. It was a time where consumers were aware of the impact their purchase decisions had on the environment and were willing to do more to make a difference. "Then the financial crisis hit and that changed everything."

But according to Lorna, things are back on the up-swing for eco-consciousness, especially in Vancouver. No matter what the tide brings, It's Only Natural operates business with a clear vision. Their tagline is, “Aligned with Nature", a true statement from a business dedicated to creating the change they want to see in the world.

The following is excerpts from a conversation between Lorna and me while at their Granville Island location on January 30, 2019.

It’s Only Natural on Granville Island

It’s Only Natural on Granville Island

Purpose-Driven

You don’t have to compromise your whole vision in order to accomplish your purpose.

Your business is a purpose-driven business, one that operates with clear guidance from your vision and mission statements. Why did you get into this type of business?

Because it is aligned with my personal values. I have always been into natural fibres and aligned with the idea of eating organic foods. It’s not just for the health of the body, but more importantly, it is about the impact non-organic materials have on the environment. When Silent Spring, a book written by Rachel Carson, came out, it was a huge source of inspiration for me.

Some people are a fundamentalist, while others make compromises along the way. You don’t have to compromise your whole vision in order to accomplish your purpose.

People will argue for instance that wool may not be the most environmentally friendly material due to farming practices or the methane gases the animals' release. It is a factor in climate change and global warming. However, I feel it is the lesser of two evils between polyester or synthetic fibre. Natural fibres do less harm to the environment over time then synthetics do.

Making an Impact

There are a lot of committed, environmentally educated people in Vancouver.

Being that your vision is, “A world where we are all able to consider the impact of our purchases.” What are some of the positive impacts on the environment when purchasing natural fibre clothing materials and the other lifestyle products you sell?

When purchasing natural fibres, you are reducing the number of microfibres going into the environment.

When it comes to hemp, the fabric is likely the most natural pH balance with your body. It's breathable and has a natural SPF protection to it. There is a reduction in the need for excessive laundering and chemical wastage into the sewage system. Whatever we can do, makes a difference.

We need a model for people that are receptive to have an alternative to the mainstream. Coming over from Victoria I see a difference in Vancouver, where environmentalism is mainstream. There are a lot of committed, environmentally educated people in Vancouver.

What I am most passionate about at this time is the research about synthetic materials and its effect on sea mammals. We can’t ignore it.

What are some of the implications of purchasing non-natural fibre clothing materials?

We know fast fashion wears out too quickly and ends up in landfills. Even though there are options for recycling clothing, it still creates issues around distribution and transportation.

Some business models rotate their stock every two weeks and in some countries, discard the clothing into landfills to put the next fashionable thing on the rack. This may be a business model that works for dollars and cents, but not one that works for the planet.

Big steps towards small footprints

Plastics might be one of the most serious environmental problems facing us.

I see that you have won an Ecostaraward for greenest retailer. What are some of the challenges you face in keeping up with being an eco-friendly and sustainable retail business?

One of the biggest challenges is plastic. Plastic is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere. All down the supply chain, the suppliers want to protect their product by creating plastic packaging. Unfortunately, there is not a viable alternative nor has it been explored sufficiently enough for alternatives to plastic for packaging.

Some of our packagings come handmade in recycled paper from Nepal. It's great when a company thinks of their product right through to the very end. However, some companies that make organic clothing are a part of a big distribution system that insists packaging happen in a certain way.

The solution is to buy locally but it can be a challenge to find enough product locally to diminish the use of plastics in packaging from other places.

We recycle every bit of plastic to a recycling depot. Taking every piece of plastic that comes into our store and turning it into a second, third or fourth would be ideal. Plastics might be one of the most serious environmental problems facing us, it just happens our clothing is a part of the solution.

Photo credits: Kevin Uy

Hemp vs Marijuana

Does the recent attention of the legalization of Marijuana raise awareness of your hemp products? Or, does it hinder the perception of your products?

We made a choice to make a distinction between industrial Hemp and Marijuana. The ways in which they intersect are not that important to us, not as important as the environmental aspect. We would like to feel more supported by the Marijuana industry. We would like them to see the environmental value of choosing Hemp products over other choices when they are making products related to what they are selling.

Giving Back

What are some ways you choose to give back or participate within your community?

We support The Ancient Forest Alliance, Raincoast Conservation, and donations to the likes of The Land Conservancy, which we helped in saving a farm on Vancouver Island. The Land Conservancy now operates it as an organic farm.

We are now looking for ways to inspire young local designers to make products that we can sell on their behalf to help support them.

Getting the message out there

Making natural fibre clothing is out of a sense of commitment to the environment, not profit.

Are your customers aware of what they are partaking in when shopping at your store? What is the story they are telling themselves?

Our locations are within tourist destinations. Most do not have the appetite for the product before they come to the store. They have to be informed of the difference they are making. Also, because we don’t have logos on our clothing, there is low recognition. However, some local people do come searching for natural products. 

We need to create an appetite for environmentally friendly clothing and find a way to create that added value similar to a brand name because there is one basic fact about natural fibre clothing, the fabric cost more. However, the cost difference between finished goods is only 20% higher between natural and non-natural fibres due to the large markup of conventional brand labelled clothing. Making natural fibre clothing is out of a sense of commitment to the environment, not profit.

Sage advice for social entrepreneurs

As a small business owner, what are the top three things you would pass on as advice to a budding social entrepreneur?

  1. Your passion is your purpose. Your purpose is your passion. Find something that will keep you going when times are hard.

  2. Create a network, form alliances, and collaborate with like-minded people.

  3. Don’t let money take the love out of your heart.

If you had a chance to share one simple message that millions of people would see, what would it be?

"We’re all in this together"

See in the present, keep an eye on the future. The future belongs to someone else, why rob them?


About Lorna Knowles

Lorna Knowles, VP/Production

Lorna Knowles, VP/Production

A child in the '60s and coming of age in the '70s, always gravitating to organic, whole foods and sustainable living with a strong entrepreneurial streak.  I opened my first business at 29. After 12 years, wanting to be more nurturing of my 2 young daughters, I turned to a simpler life of cooking and catering for a number of years.

I joined Hemp & Company in 2007 ( renamed iT's ONLY NATURAL in 2017)  for love of my partner and his passion for the most sustainable super fibre Hemp. Fitting my love of natural fibre clothing and a strong desire to make a difference through our business for the benefit of our beautiful earth, this purpose has given us the strength to persist through many obstacles to celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2019.

The most satisfying aspect of promoting natural sustainable fibres is witnessing my two daughters forge their careers, Zoe as an inclusive clothing designer and Maya as a photographer who incorporates sustainable fashion awareness into her work.

As a visual artist associated with SPACE Colab on Clark Drive, Zoe partnered with Patrick Christie and other members to create the entity that is iT'S ONLY NATURAL on Granville Island. We're proud to contribute to the movement of sustainable fashion there.

If you want to find It's Only Natural, you may do so here:

Retail locations:

  1. 1312 Government St , Victoria, BC V8W 1Y8

  2. 109-1535 Johnston St, Vancouver, BC V6H 3R9

Website: Hemp and Company

Phone: 604 620 6267

Instagram: @hemp_and_company

Facebook: @IONClothing

Pinterest: @hempandco