Woman at Ladli, the vocational training arm of NGO I-India, sewing embellished details on a Baliza kaftan, ethical fashion available to shop at ZERRIN

Op-Ed | Why the story of our clothes matters

by Susannah Jaffer September 13, 2018

Over the last year sustainability in the retail industry has become a big talking point. Type the term ‘sustainable fashion’ into google and you’ll discover articles published nearly every day on the subject by authors from around the world.

It’s about time. As someone who has decided to build a business with eco-conscious values, it’s no secret that it’s something I’m passionate about. ZERRIN’s mission is not just to make it easier for women to shop and discover the stories behind thoughtfully-made brands, but to also share why we should care about sustainability in the first place.

You see, the fashion industry is one that touches all of our lives. Each of us has a wardrobe or rack full of clothes and accessories that, at various ages or stages, we’ve decided to purchase. That floral maxi dress for a friends wedding, or those tailored black pants for work;  the list goes on. I’ll hazard a guess that you’re wearing clothes right now while reading this article (if not, no judgement there!) Suffice to say that from the moment we are born to when we die, we are all fashion consumers, whether we’re trend-conscious or not.

 A busy shopping mall with fast-fashion brands


STAGGERING STATISTICS

What’s really fascinating is how much we’re buying. In Singapore, the apparel market has amounted to US$671 million so far this year. Just next door, in China, the market is worth $246,877 million. Globally, it’s said that we now consume some 80 billion pieces of clothing each year. That’s 400% more than what we consumed just two decades ago. Pause for a second and let that sink in. Isn’t that just a mind blowing statistic?

The sad thing is that we’re throwing our stuff away at a faster rate than ever. In Singapore, four in ten millennials have discarded unwanted clothes in the bin in the last year. That’s a big issue on an island where only a tiny proportion of textiles can be recycled, while the rest is burnt at a landfill which will run out of space (at the current rate of waste disposal) by 2035.

 

"Globally, it’s said that we now consume some 80 billion pieces of clothing each year. That’s 400% more than what we consumed just two decades ago. Pause for a second and let that sink in. Isn’t that just a mind blowing statistic?"

 

You may be wondering, in an age where we're clearly less financially stable than our parents, why we dispose of clothes much faster than previous generations. The reason could lie in the price tag. When you can pick up a dress from brands like H&M, Cotton On or New Look for less than $15 a pop — the same amount that you might spend on food consumption daily — it should come as no surprise. What a lot of us don’t realise while out on the latest shopping spree is the impact that our clothing addiction has on people and the planet. Spoiler alert: it’s not a pretty picture.

 

A COMPLEX INDUSTRY

Sadly, fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world (it’s not the second, as a lot of articles preach, but it’s definitely still up there.) Most people don’t know that fact — it’s not something we’re educated about in school — let alone how complicated the production of a piece of clothing actually is.

The lifecycle of a typical item of clothing looks something like this: Material — Production — Shipping — Use — Disposal. Let’s follow the story of a simple cotton t-shirt to break that down:

Woman wearing a plain t-shirt | Why sustainable fashion matters


Material:
Cotton seeds are planted, treated with synthetic pesticides and GMO’s to help them grow faster and ward of insects. These toxic chemicals, dispersed into the air or through local waterways, are harmful to farmers and local wildlife. A single cotton t-shirt also takes up a lot of water resources. Almost 650 gallons is needed to produce one single tee. That’s more than you or I will drink per year. The amount of water consumed by apparel production each year is the equivalent to 32 million Olympic swimming pools!

Production: Once the cotton has been harvested, it will spun, knitted, processed, bleached or dyed, cut and sewn, all processes that also use water and energy. Commercial dyes and bleaches can also contaminate local waterways.

Shipping: Once the t-shirt has passed all checks, it will be shipped by air, sea or land to various distribution centres and on to retail outlets. All of this transport and the use of petrol contributes to C02 emissions, which pollute our atmosphere daily.

Use: Someone purchases a t-shirt, and it starts being worn and used. Although it’s definitely not the most polluting phase of it’s cycle, your t-shirt will be washed multiple times while it’s in your possession, which uses up a significant amount of water.

Disposal: Eventually, you grow out of or get tired of said t-shirt, and choose to dispose of it. It’s either thrown away (and thus ends up in landfill, and eventually incinerated, releasing harmful emissions) or donated to a charity shop.

Eye-opening, right? Times this by a rate of a billion, and you can imagine how much fashion as an industry is polluting ecosystems and using up natural resources.

HIDDEN FIGURES

Another chapter of a garments story we’ve become increasingly disconnected from is who is making our clothes. One in six people work in the global fashion industry, and the majority of global production takes place in developing countries like India and China.

If you call yourself a feminist, you really need to be concerned about operations within the textile industry, because roughly 85% of all garment workers are women. Many are underpaid, working in unsanitary conditions, and treated poorly by factory owners who are squeezing margins to make clothing as cheaply as possible. Sometimes, scenarios like this put workers lives at risk. The most publicised example of this was the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed over 1,000 people back in 2013.

Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013 | Why sustainable fashion matters

Exploiting foreign labour is one of the biggest reasons why multi-million fashion conglomerates like Inditex, H&M, Primark and the like are able to make such huge profits and sell clothing to us at unbelievably cheap prices. It’s the reason why a t-shirt can retail in some stores for as little as $7.99.

The fact is, if fair procedures were followed, a t-shirt wouldn’t cost that price; big corporations have brainwashed us into thinking that is what we should expect.  Global fashion movement Fashion Revolution runs an ongoing campaign called #whomademyclothes to raise awareness of this, and if you haven’t watched the movie The True Cost, then put that on your bucket list.

 

HOW WE CAN DO BETTER

If you’ve taken anything away from this article, it’s that we’re incredibly disconnected from the story of where our clothing actually comes from. The supply chain in the fashion industry is far more complex than many people first imagine, plus there's a long way to go before making significant positive change.

The fact is, we all have a part to play in making the fashion industry kinder and more sustainable for people and the planet, and it begins with being more thoughtful and curious when you part with your hard earned cash. Here’s a few simple ways you can get started:


Support brands with conscious values

In contrast to mass brands that are producing products in a wasteful manner while disregarding their impact, there are small businesses out there producing beautiful designs that DO care about their ethics and business practices.

Designer Lorraine Lee, founder of Talee, working with women through the SWEPA organisation in Sabah

As consumers, when we choose to support brands that are producing more responsibly, we encourage more labels to step up and look into how they can be more sustainable in the future. Ultimately, the goal is that we no longer have to distinguish between ‘sustainable’ and ‘fast-fashion’ - the standard should be conscious production.

 

"As consumers, when we choose to support brands that are producing more responsibly, we encourage more labels to step up and look into how they can be more sustainable in the future."

 

We curate a number of these on ZERRIN, including brands that produce beautiful designs in small runs and use sustainable fabrics (like organic womenswear by Esse or bamboo basics by Zhai) to those that ensure fair trade practices are adhered throughout the production process or empower communities (check out resort wear by Baliza and statement necklaces by Twin Within).

In Singapore, also check out the offerings from our friends at The Social Space and The Green Collective, including fair trade and zero waste goods from passionate local businesses. 


Model wearing dress and tassel earrings from ZERRINConscious design can be beautiful. Dress by Baliza and earrings by Talee, available on ZERRIN

 

Buy second hand, swap or rent

You don’t need to only buy new to be a sustainable shopper. Check out your local thrift/second hand stores. You’ll often find incredible branded pieces that are like new. In Singapore, head to the Salvation Army or New2U Thrift Store (managed by SCWO - the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations). Proceeds from their store go towards their Star Shelter, which helps provide council and shelter for women and their families who suffer from domestic violence. If you’re into your designer brands, pre-loved online stories like StyleTribute, The Fifth Collection or Vestiaire Collective sell a curation of luxury labels in great condition at discounted prices.

Clothes swapping is a new concept that is starting to take the world by storm. Locally, check out The Fashion Pulpit, a concept space at Liang Court where you can bring in your old clothes and swap them for new ones.

If you’re looking for dress for a big occasion but aren’t sure how many times you’ll wear it again, renting is your best option. Businesses like Covetella or Rentadella allow you to choose and rent beautiful cocktail and ball gowns for a fraction of the price you’d pay if you bought new.

Tell your friends!

One of the biggest ways you can do your part is by enlightening others, and setting a positive example. Share posts like this one on social media, tell your friends and family about what you’ve learnt and what's really going on. Chat, debate, discuss. The fashion industry touches all of our lives, and together as a community we can make real change. It all starts with honest conversations about the story of our clothes, and how we can work together towards a better ending. 

 

Like this story? Then also check out: 

How to set up a sustainable fashion label

All you need to know about organic cotton

A handy guide to natural face oils

 

We hope you enjoyed the read! For a weekly dose of inspiration and to find out about our latest interviews, features and new arrivals delivered straight to your inbox, join our community here

 




Susannah Jaffer
Susannah Jaffer

Author

Founder of ZERRIN, Susannah is an avid lover of dogs and slowly made fashion. She is passionate about raising awareness of conscious brands who are doing their part to make the retail industry a better place.



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