Our local fashion industry cannot resolve its inherent conflict with the concept of sustainability in fashion, before asking all its stakeholders the tough questions.

Street art of 3 animals; 1 dog throwing away rubbish, 1 bird with a shirt reading "Listen to the people not the polluters", 1 rabbit with a shirt reading "People over profit"


Last week, we began this series with a broad definition of sustainability and what it means in the context of fashion-as-culture and the fashion industry. As we move on to explore various themes and cover more aspects of sustainable fashion, it bothers me that I struggle to envision what a sustainable future looks like for fashion in Singapore.

I sometimes look back on how I perceived clothing as a child and would remember how I always wore my favourite striped top on every special occasion. I never switched it out for anything else, until I grew out of it. It was a very sad day. Even as a kid, I remember feeling good about myself with the stylistic freedom that my mum had relinquished to me pretty early on in my childhood.

It is funny how things changed when fast fashion landed on our shoresto me, that moment happened when H&M opened its first outlet on 1 Grange Road. Then, clothes became just clothes and they never represented anything beyond their purpose of clothing me temporarily. Despite not knowing where they came from and who made them, I sat comfortably with the fact that I could express myself through my choice of clothing. I had no concept of what went into making them and why they cost the way they do. For a 17-year-old, ignorance was bliss.

Years on, when I started to grasp how severely garment workers were exploited and how environmental pollution and degradation are perpetrated by the very brands I so desired to align myself with, I developed a very conflicting relationship with my clothes. It has taken me time to reconcile my love and appreciation for them. Undeniably, I am still in the process of doing that. This opportunity of reconciliation, to even have a choice of what I choose to buy and put my money towards, is a privilege granted by financial and social mobility. I need to acknowledge this before anything else.

Which is why I am not writing this to guilt, anyone, into feeling bad about their fast fashion purchases. Feeling uncomfortable is part of unlearning, and I hope we can learn and unlearn together.

The relevance of sustainability in our local fashion industry

As I always do before I begin writing, I agonise over the accuracy of my definition of sustainability. Particularly so in this case, as we contextualise “sustainability” to a rather elusive local fashion industry.

Maybe it is our persistent pursuit for speed and efficiency. Or maybe it is our relentless chase for the adrenaline of novelty. But Singaporeans, like city people globally, buy and throw away a lot of clothes. A YouGov survey, done 3 years ago, reveals that a third of us throw away clothing that we have only worn once. 3 years on, I refuse to believe that these numbers would remain the same. With increasing talk around the awareness of fashion consumption and activism on social media—and the recent hit of a pandemic—I would like to believe that we are rethinking our practices.

Articles on the local fashion industry that are made available to the public most commonly speak about fashion as commerce. Critical commentary of local practices to educate and spread awareness on sustainability in fashion come close to none. Sustainable fashion seems to remain as a niche area of interest, even when it should be a fundamental consideration for all fashion practices. Sustainability in fashion should be prioritised across the board—from fashion as art and culture, to fashion as entertainment and business. To consider sustainability is to be aware of the damning consequences of running business-as-usual that reinforces unsustainable practices in the industry. Any mention of sustainable practices is spoken about with a pre-packaged narrative determined by institutions and held back by the lack of accountability across mainstream media. This results in a chronology that hardly ever encourages local fashion designers and makers to tell stories beyond what's been pre-supposed, less they provoke this neoliberal narrative that only amplify the voices of the already famous and successful. 

In my pursuit for clarity, I reached out to Chu Wong, founder of Shop Bettr, for answers and a clearer idea of how she envisions a shift in production and consumption behaviour in the foreseeable future. “Activism isn't something that we can cut-and-paste across geographies because every country deals with different issues, is on a different sustainability journey and has a different demographic…”, she explains, when asked about how advocating for sustainable fashion should look like in Singapore. 

Collaboration could be the magic word

I question if the currently available infrastructure and resources can be mobilised, to make conscious shifts away from outdated business models that perpetuate the antithesis of sustainability in fashion.

In terms of safeguarding ethics, social sustainability and environmental stewardship, the key to moving forward is collaboration. “We can only make that leap forward if we understand how interconnected we all are,” states Chu. She believes that it is important to harness our interconnectedness through collaboration and developing the capacity of existing infrastructure and resources owned by various stakeholders of the local fashion industry. “From policymakers to businesses, NGOs and individuals,” Chu mentions that these stakeholders (ourselves included), are a lot more interconnected than we think we are.

When asked about whether Singapore has its own garment manufacturing industry, Chu states that “Singapore's garment manufacturing industry is small, but not non-existent.’ She taps into her experience working with them and says, “they tend to be small-scale, mostly catering to smaller premium brands, who can afford the manpower cost of a local workforce, and they treat their employees responsibly.” Could it be a stretch to ask fashion businesses to consider the possibilities of bringing textile manufacture and produce inshore? This goes against common business practice not just in Singapore but worldwide, where offshoring clothing production and relying on wholesale distribution often makes the most economic sense. Often due to the lack of a more accessible garment manufacture industry locally.

However, I do think it is a fair ask for local fashion businesses to produce more mindfully (perhaps less, perhaps slower), and seek alternative revenue streams besides infinite production. There is no fashion on a dead planet. This is where local fashion businesses need to seriously reconsider their responsibilities for product lifecycles beyond marketing and making the sale. Specifically, Chu mentions that there are alternative methods of regulating more sustainable fashion practices and should be integrated into the way clothes are produced and consumed. For example,  some alternatives to the status quo could look like: Policymakers creating the infrastructure that facilitates fashion businesses to explore business models that move away from infinite growth; mandatory requirements for brands importing above a certain volume or quantity of clothing to be held accountable for their supply chain practices inside-out; empower NGOs and not-for-profit organisations to better address the concept of sustainability in fashion through community building and grassroots activation.

These are examples that are only the tip of the iceberg. Yet, they set the tone for what should be expected from all the stakeholders who are involved in profiting from fashion as an industry. As individuals, there is so much we can do to reevaluate our relationship with clothes. From investing in buying once and buying right from local independent fashion labels and designers, to exploring secondhand options, and perhaps the most affordable way of all methods—to exercise our agency as conscious citizens and reconnect with clothes we already own. Only when we realise that we are all in this together in the long run, can we “realise the full potential of us as a community, a society, instead of fragmented movements,” emphasises Chu.

Critiquing our one-dimensional obsession with “catered to the masses”

It is crucial to recognise that any efforts to push for sustainability will only be lacklustre and purely cosmetic if we do so before confronting and addressing the issue of representation in local fashion. The lack of diversity and inclusion of minority faces and voices have been called out in the past, and are still today, by activists, academics and consumers alike. Before our local fashion industry takes long-overdue accountability for the racial deficit in representation across its supply chain, any talk on achieving sustainability becomes secondary.

According to AWARE Singapore, intersectionality refers to the many issues and overlapping identities (not exhaustive or limited to) across race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, citizenship, health status and ability that determines the configuration and intensity of discrimination faced. Look, if your favourite fashion brand only looks to empower women that look like them, therefore choosing to address a singular issue and remain silent about other overlapping matters, then they are actively opting out of challenging themselves to the difficult questions.

To begin productive conversations on how the industry can be sustainable, we need to be okay with asking ourselves these questions. What are we not doing enough? What have we tolerated and perpetuated for far too long as individuals, business owners and industry insiders? Why are we still insistent on pandering to the masses, claiming that any alternative messages would turn them against your brand? And who are the marginalised voices and communities that we have yet to offer stakeholdership and equity to?

Recognising the importance of asking these questions is the first step of acknowledging that we are all part of the problem. But changing our habits alone to fulfil a moral obligation, is never enough to champion systemic change. Change is not happening overnight, and it will take the collaborative effort of all stakeholders to confront the concept of sustainability in fashion beyond face value. Businesses need to step up and question their capitalistic intent of shaping “sustainability” into a concept that is only possible if we buy more clothes. Most importantly, we have to speak up about the need for legislation to implement steps towards a more responsible fashion system.

If a confession is necessary at this point, I will be the first person to say that it is daunting to be navigating through this seemingly impossible task of shifting the mindsets of various stakeholders locally. I still struggle to put a pin on what the common denominator is, for our fashion industry. I don’t have all the right answers, but I believe that every actionable effort of the community matters. Meanwhile, I hope to figure this out with you, one article at a time.


About Xingyun

Xingyun Shen

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.