In my second article titled "Singapore, we need to talk about sustainability in fashion beyond face value", I was upfront about how local fashion businesses need to challenge the capitalistic system with a greater purpose — one that actively prioritises sustainability over profit. In the coming months, I'll be exploring what it means to be resistant to the system in Singapore. It is essential first to identify that the start of any conversation around sustainable fashion has to acknowledge that the system produces dangerous conditions that are near impossible to negate.
How are some local fashion brands resisting? You might ask. According to Tansy Hoskins, in her book 'Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion', "the current cycle of (fast) fashion replaces clothes long before it is necessary". Traditional fashion retailers are kept in business purely from clothes going in and out of trend. Running Big Fashion the way it is now, means the people making your clothes are concealed (though not very well anymore, we see you) behind digital facades of picture-perfect campaigns. Sustainable fashion brands are transparent with their supply chain practices and are unafraid to reveal the real cost of labour and production.
As the rhetoric of sustainability in fashion grows to become more nuanced and inclusive of various caveats, it is invigorating to see sustainable fashion brands honour a spectrum of social issues. These matters include class, race and economic mobility, which are tied intrinsically to fashion as a form of social products. It is crucial to recognise that sustainable fashion brands are not perfect. Entrepreneurship in any capacity is taxing and laborious. And, to take a step further and aspire to achieve an equilibrium between purpose, profit and growth —is— to renounce the very system that organises and rewards the fashion industry for growing infinitely and exponentially with no limit. Standing up against a system that's benefitted a handful of individuals for the longest time, is demanding. The long time winners, as we are accustomed to patronising and associate with, operate on high volumes and thrive from the never-ending push for more.
Resistance is straightforward. To resist is to prioritise Earth before profits. However, the real challenge lies in its execution. Starting a business with regenerative and socially responsible values is refusing to regard clothing as commodities that can be replaced week after week. Sustainable fashion brands often begin with the vision of an individual.
The vision of a business is that of the founder's
"[It] is a one-woman show, a lot of my values are intrinsic in the brand", says Janice Tee, founder of Mind the Label, a 5-month old sustainable fashion brand that commits to a fully transparent supply chain. Janice goes on to add that, "there is a clear distinction in what I want and do not want to include in my brand identity and principles." Her determination to do better translates decidedly through her insistence to source for production facilities differently. She spent over a year looking for a compatible and trustworthy partner in Indonesia whom she liaises with at least once a week. With the majority of the business's production done in various parts of Indonesia, i.e. fabric production (Tencel) in Java and construction of garments done in Denpasar City, Bali, it was essential for Janice to partner with someone who shares the same values as she does.
Establishing mutual respect and diluting hierarchy between factory and brand, are common characteristics amongst sustainable fashion brands. For Vincent Ooi, founder of SOURCE Collections, sustainability means producing within capabilities and ensuring that ethics remains to be his top priority. When asked what the most significant obstacle is, Vincent points to the inevitable (given the current circumstance). "The biggest challenge is that I cannot be at the factories as and when I want to." Since the conception of his brand, Vincent makes it a point to be personally involved in the entire production process of his products. Does it ever get tiring? Or too, demanding? I incited. To which, he replied, "sometimes I ask myself - why do I need to custom-make our fabrics and go through tedious tests and lab dips...[this process] is so much more complex than placing an order with a factory and have them handle the rest".
I attribute Vincent's perseverance to his desire to recalibrate how the production of clothes in a traditional business model. Like Vincent, Janice also shuns away from the tried-and-tested. Faced with competitors that launch a new collection as frequently as twice a week, these businesses don't have it easy to survive and not to mention, thrive. It is tough pushing a new way to shop - when there are countless ongoing discounts and sale promotions. Frankly, there are close to zero financial incentives for a fashion business to miss out on creating false needs. And instead, encourage slow and considered consumption, and done only when necessary.
It's purpose over profit, always.
As ambiguity clouds the movement, how can success in education look like for Singapore's sustainable fashion activation? "It is an infinite game," says Raye Padit, founder of The Fashion Pulpit, a clothes swapping platform and brick-and-mortar store. Swapping is a fashion activity that falls out of the traditional boundaries of consumerism. It is an experience where swappers act beyond the narrow confinements of what it means to participate in fashion as a consumer. Swapping is a process where consumers become users of clothing, as they actively redirect pre-loved clothing away from the incinerators. Even as a business operating with principles of sustainability at its core, Raye expresses his concern about how The Fashion Pulpit should arrive at the intersection of fashion and social justice, equitably.
It did once seem like brands that were seemingly "sustainable" could err no wrong. However, with the most recent Oatly controversy, it is unsurprising that consumers and activists hold sustainable fashion brands on a pedestal higher than before. In her book, Hoskins writes, "clothes must to turned into money otherwise they are useless". Meaning that fashion-as-commerce, as we like to call it here at Shop Bettr, produce clothing exponentially purely for monetary exchange and revenue generation.
Therefore, the dichotomy between advocating for sustainability and selling new products becomes hard to neutralise. In an attempt to address this, I asked Janice if the scale of her business is a priority. "I see clothing as a medium to start conversations and money is [only] a by-product", she says. "Mind The Label's priority moving forward would be to build a strong sense of community, and to continue to use beautiful clothing as a medium to spark insightful, respectful, and thought-provoking conversations around topics that matter." This, folks, is the power of a sustainable fashion brand that is genuinely people-centric.
What lies ahead of us?
It is always a good time to question the parameters of growth. What if growth, and scale, came at the expense of forfeiting and diluting a brand's intrinsic values? How would a brand justify giving in to the never-ending demand of wants and gratification - without further exploitation of the Earth's resources and dignity of garment workers? This dilemma sticks with me, but I am beginning to think that maybe this is yet another living question that isn't attached to solutions.
I am optimistic — this is the best time to witness local sustainable fashion brands set free from the dominant structures of retail and manufacture. I am eager — I cannot wait to see the creativity, liveliness and vitality that they can inject into our local industry. Nevertheless, I am also cautious — and sitting on the edge of my seat, ready to call out any blatant attempts at greenwashing. Though this article sets out to characterise the challenges and opportunities that various sustainable fashion brands face in Singapore, it is imperative to remember that sustainability lives beyond sustainable business practices.
My main takeaway from this article is that both can happen concurrently: questioning the system and supporting independent makers and brands (who are, in this case, individuals) resisting the same system. Perhaps you would check out the brands I mentioned in this article, and decide to buy a white tee from SOURCE, or an adjustable evening dress from Mind The Label, or better yet, give clothes swapping a shot. However, I wish you don't stop here. Resisting The System looks like doing all of that, and actively holding your favourite fashion brands accountable for what they preach because you have the privilege to.
Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.