Anisa Johnny is a senior lecturer in Marketing and Fashion Management at Raffles College of Higher Education Singapore. She is also the co-founder of social enterprise Boheme Style Nomads, has made it her goal to give back through teaching and clue up the next generation about sustainability. We chatted with the multi-hyphenate about what it really takes to set up a socially responsible retail business, and about the simple steps, we can take as consumers to #ShopMeaningfully.
Tell us how you got started in the fashion industry.
If I count my first part-time job at Miss Selfridge and working as Christmas staff at Harvey Nichols, I’ve been working in the industry for over twenty years. My first fashion memory was from when I was four: I would demand to match my mother’s clothes. She gave up on buying me anything without getting my opinion first soon after that!
I was actually not encouraged to study fashion or anything creative as a youngster. As Singaporeans here might identify with, the three ‘parent-approved’ careers in our household were doctor, lawyer, or accountant, in that order! I went on to study at an acclaimed university, and after graduating I was finally allowed to live my dream when I landed my first job at none other than Marks & Spencer. In those days, it was the first UK brand to reach a billion pounds in revenue. Those numbers are probably taken for granted today, but it was quite a big deal back then. It made the company somewhat more acceptable to my parents because of its great pension scheme!
Although it wasn’t the pinnacle of glamour, working there taught me a lot about retail management, quality control and the importance of listening to your customer. M&S actually buys some of the best fabrics in the world, and it was one of the first high street stores to commercialise many textiles taken for granted today. I could bore you for hours on that topic alone!
So coming from a background in the retail industry, what ignited your interest in sustainability?
The turning point for me came in 2005. I was supplying fast fashion brands like Topshop, making high volumes in factories in China and experiencing first hand how companies squeeze margins to get the lowest price possible. Around this time, a friend invited me to a talk at the Ethical Fashion Forum in London, and my blood ran cold when the opening speaker stated that 150,000 people die annually from pesticide exposure during cotton farming, largely in Sub-Saharan Africa.
That moment really changed my mind about the garment trade. I had been feeling more and more uncomfortable with the factory system. I had just made one of my biggest orders too, and although I had inspected the factory, the overwhelming smell of chemicals from the stock and the faces of the poor young girls who were probably pulling fifteen to twenty-hour shifts to fulfil my order haunted me. The social and environmental impact that fashion was having became clear. I left the industry for about five years not too long after.
What exactly does the term ‘sustainable’ mean to you?
Being a teacher, I’d have to give you the academic definition of sustainability. It is the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. The fashion industry has to take into consideration its impact on society and the environment. Starting from looking into the type of materials used to production processes, carbon footprint and of course, fair wages and suitable working conditions.
Sustainable fashion itself could be anything from clothing that uses organic materials or fabric that uses up less water during production, recycled or upcycled products and of course designs made through a social enterprise. Some would also argue that merchandise of good quality and locally made products are more sustainable than the current fast retail model.
Asia is the home of fast fashion production. How can we bring about meaningful change in this region?
Brands have to be more mindful about their practices in general. Companies in every industry need to think about sustainability as a priority, not a nice mission statement that gathers dust. Also, we as consumers need to demand sustainable goods for real change to happen. Our money motivates brands like nothing else does!
To add to that, organisations and individuals who are passionate about conscious living have to keep on reminding society about our duty to the planet. That’s why I’m a passionate supporter of individuals and organisations that put CSR at the heart of what they do. It’s exciting to see local startups like Green is the New Black, ZERRIN and many others do well. It shows that there really is a market for products that literally don’t cost the earth.
“In general, brands have to be more mindful about their practices. Companies in every industry need to think about sustainability as a priority, not a nice mission statement that gathers dust. Also, we as consumers need to demand sustainable goods for real change to happen. Our money motivates brands like nothing else does!”
So, how can we do our part?
Although sustainability can be a complex topic, we can play a part by doing our research. Start off by doing just one thing towards shopping ethically. For example, I had a wardrobe that was full to bursting because I love clothes, so I set myself a goal of limiting my purchases every year and only buying items that supported communities. I’ve now discovered amazing products by social enterprises, all of which I wear regularly because I love the designs and the story behind them.
As a lecturer at Raffles College of Higher Education, have you noticed a change in mindset among Singaporean youth when it comes to the topic of sustainability?
We cover the topic in many of our classes as it’s a future concern for the industry. Students are definitely more engaged now than they were six years ago. I think food scares and visible supply chain issues have highlighted the topic, as have scandals in neighbouring countries and documentaries like The True Cost.
You’re passionate about social entrepreneurship and also co-founded Boheme Style Nomads (formally Design Up Asia). Tell us more about the project.
I’ve always been taught to give back by my parents, so volunteering is somehow ingrained in my psyche. I had moved back into fashion via education, and that was my way of giving back. It started to dawn on me after a few years of teaching outside of the fashion sector that educators need to do their part to influence their industries too. We all need to work together to foster new ways of thinking.
The opportunity to start a social enterprise came about when I attended a weekend hackathon organised by Newton Circus and The Arthur Guinness Fund. The topic was to help marginalised women find meaningful work and the prize money would be start-up capital. I knew if I ever created products again they would have to help people, not hinder them. So, I pitched the idea of handmade jewellery sold online so women could easily make these products without much capital investment. Additionally, they’d be able to stay home and look after their children too. Our idea was developed over a weekend and it won first prize out of 6 to 10 other ideas. As of today, Boheme Style Nomads has equipped over fifty single mums with jewellery making skills and we work with about five single mums on a regular basis.
What does setting up a socially conscious business really involve?
Setting up any business is hard work, and setting up a socially conscious business has additional challenges. Myself and my co-founder Kim Ong work on a volunteer basis and all the profits going back into the company. There’s a lot involved in the day to day running of things. Also, there were problems that arose we didn’t expect.
On the flip side, the rewards are amazing and are something you cannot quantify. There was one time a social worker offered a lady a new job while at one of our sessions, but she was adamant she wanted to stay with us because she said our jewellery making sessions are what she looks forward to the most in her week because of the camaraderie. There was also a lady who always believed she had fat fingers who didn’t think she could achieve much. She is now one of our most dexterous and skilled workers and has started her own jewellery stall.
If I hadn’t started this, I wouldn’t have heard so many incredible stories and understand that something as simple as giving my time can help someone with self-esteem issues. Those moments are worth the late nights and weekends. A social business needs tenacity, creativity and a positive attitude, plus lots of supporters around you when the going gets tough.
“A social business needs tenacity, creativity and a positive attitude, plus lots of supporters around you when the going gets tough.”
Finally, what tips would you have for women who want to shop more meaningfully?
- Do your research. The internet is a mine of information, as is the library. The Singapore library system is amazing. My favourite is the one in Orchard!
- Check out organisations like Ethical Fashion Forum or local organisations like Connected Threads Asia who have online resources and meetups. Find out what the issues are and start with one thing you could change or address. You’ll find something that resonates with you.
- I shop more meaningfully by selecting products that help people. In Singapore, there are quite a few brands that fall under this category, like Twin Within jewellery, Bettr Barista Coffee Academy (a local cafe) and many more. Take some time to find out what is out there. Of course, through platforms like ZERRIN, you can discover many mindful brands under one roof. So all the hard work has been done for you!
Susannah is a fan of prints, sunshine and dogs. The founder of ZERRIN, she's passionate about making sustainable style accessible, inclusive and empowering for all.