Has Roots lost its roots?

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By J. Hanan Ibanez

Waiting in line at the used bookroom, Veronica Pam is a walking dream come true for the founders of Roots clothing.

Decked out in a Roots jacket, sweatshirt and red school bag, the second-year nutrition student could blend in flawlessly at a Canadian Olympic village.

“I always wear their clothes — the quality is good and they’re very comfortable,” said Pam, who received another Roots sports jacket for Christmas. Pam’s been wearing Rootapparel for several years but was surprised to learn that the made in Canada success story was created by two Americans from Detroit.

The Roots saga began at a summer camp in Algonquin Park when Michael Budman, 13, met Don Green, 10. They enjoyed the northern outdoors so much that they decided to move here a few years later. It was the late 1960s when they arrived in Canada — driven by a love of the scenic beauty and a laidback lifestyle — not as draft dodgers of the Vietnam War, as many of their countrymen did.

In 1973, the pair introduced their first product — a leather shoe called the negative heel. Originally, the plan was to start a business that required only six months of work a year, and provided six months of rest in cottage country. But the success of the show paved the way for the beaver-emblazoned sweatshirt mania of the 1980s.

After a lull in the early ‘90s, Roots burst onto the international scene with its Team Canada jackets at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. They repeated that golden performance in the 2000 Sydney Games and follow up that fad with Team USA berets at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Rumors have circulated after each Olympic frenzy that the company might be going public. But Budman isn’t planning on loosening the control of his company anytime soon. “We’re focused on improving the products, and being an independent, privately-owned company means we report to our customers first — not to shareholders.”

Budman and Green continue to personally test out each new product design before it hits the stores.

Another rumor had the official beaver logo being dropped in the spring collection. “Absolutely not, that’s our trademark — it’s the symbol of a hardworking, industrious Canadiana,” declared Budman, calling 2002 the greatest year in the company’s history.

As the success continues, some critics wonder if the Canadian icon has expanded too quickly and lost its humble roots. The quick demise of Roots Air — which lasted just over a month — and the decision not to start selling multivitamins — may be signals that Roots is changing its direction.

At the height of its popularity last year, the Globe and Mail reported sales of 100,000 berets a day during the Winter Olympics. The Roots factories in Toronto were put on around-the-clock production as the hats became the fashion trend of the moment. The Olympics once again proved to be a marketing bonanza, resulting in both worldwide recognition and millions in sales.

When Roots celebrates its 30th anniversary on Aug. 15 it will be celebrating in 4 countries with more than 200 stores — including 68 in Korea and 12 in Taiwan. There are plans to re-introduce the original negative heel shoe and the company is on the verge of announcing another licensing agreement — most likely with athletes from Great Britain (in addition to Canadian and American athletes) at the next Olympics.

However, not all of the publicity for Roots has been positive. Last year several dozen students demonstrated in front of its Eaton Centre store, claiming the company supports sweatshops because they refused to reveal the details of their overseas operations.

But a lack of information is nothing new for Roots — about the only information the clothing company releases is a total sales estimate of around $300 million — double what was reported just a few years ago. Estimating their grasp of the Canadian retail market is even murkier, as the industry tracks only domestic sales; much of Roots success lies with its global appeal, especially with visiting tourists.

You won’t spot Ian Thomson wearing Roots — or any other big-name labels — because as an anti-sweatshop activist, he doesn’t want to pay for someone else’s misery. Thomson was at the protest last year, but says relations between Roots and human rights groups have improved since the retailer wrote a letter to Alan Rock, the Minister of Industry, in support of tougher manufacturing regulations.

“As a consumer, I don’t know if the label that says ‘made in Canada’ really means that or does it mean made in China?” said Thomson, a spokesperson for the Maquila Solidarity Network. “We wanted them to go on the record and say where they make all of their clothes. While Roots may have certain standards, it’s not clear what standards they hold their sub-contractors to.”

Without a right to unionize, some workers in China earn as little as 20 cents an hour, and may be confined to hot, windowless rooms, deprived of washroom breaks and even chained to their desks.

A Roots spokesperson denies any such conditions ever existed for any of its 2,000 employees. He says most of the manufacturing is done in the two Toronto factories and that overseas conditions are strictly monitored.

Thomson admits that Roots definitely isn’t the dirtiest player in the garment business. “They’ve come further than a lot of other Canadian companies. But (without new regulation) shoppers are still left in the dark as to where the clothes are being made.”

The sweatshop activists have instead begun campaigning against the Hudson’s Bay Company and Wal Mart, nominating both for the 2002 Sweatshop Retailer of the Year Award.

What started out with one simple leather product has spawned golf wear, eye wear, pet wear, swim wear and even equestrian wear. In the process Roots has become more than just comfortable clothes — it’s now branding itself as a peddler of lifestyles. It also sells luggage, linens, custom jewelry and school supplies.

“They’re a mainstream, slightly upscale clothing retailer. In Canada they occupy the same sort of position that the Gap has in the United States,” said Sridhar Moorthy, a professor of retail economics at the University of Toronto.

“A danger they may be facing is overexposure. They may have reached their saturation point here in Canada. Over the years a brand can get stale and start going downhill,” said Moorthy, comparing their situation to the recent decline in earnings posted by Gap in America.

The economic fallout of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks certainly didn’t help the upstart airline, but Budman says the company wanted to concentrate on continuing to make the best possible athletic gear.

Moorthy thinks that the company may be more selective as they attempt to penetrate the southern market, opting for upscale department stores over local gas stations giveaways.

The Roots corporate motto is “Quality, Integrity and Longevity” — and after 30 years they’ve proved they are, if nothing else, extremely durable.

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