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Why is Fashion Sustainability Not Gaining Traction in Singapore?

By Guan Tan

Fashion Revolution Singapore

Fashion Revolution day falls on the 24th April every year — a commitment to remember the fatal collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, a five-storey garment factory in Bangladesh that claimed a reported 1,135 lives and injured over 2,000 individuals. The collapse swept the global media by storm and propelled the fashion sustainability conversation, formerly shrouded in the corners of the industry, into global spotlight. 

The conversation has been long-lived and arguably successful. It has coerced brands to reconsider some of their ecological footprints. For one, the luxury giant, Kering, announced that it aims to cut its carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2025. Brands like Gucci, Stella McCartney, Burberry and Diane von Furstenberg have zeroed in on the use of raw materials such as fur and textiles. While brands often dive into the environmental standpoint, fashion sustainability is much broader than that. Laura Francois, the country coordinator for Fashion Revolution Singapore, considers human rights issue the biggest and most pressing implication of the fashion industry's linear economy. Human rights underscore the majority of steps taken to make the fashion industry a more sustainable one. 

Fashion Revolution Singapore

Yet, this conversation is very much bounded by geography. "I know, for example, the conversation is strongest in Europe — hands down. Second is Australia... Another strong country is India," Laura Francois, the country coordinator of Fashion Revolution Singapore quips. 

"In Singapore?" I blurted.

She throws a knowing glance, acknowledging what I was trying to drive at. Like a white elephant in the room or the shadows of a ghost, the conversation of fashion sustainability has been hovering above the local industry for years now. Consumers are aware of it. Yet, the city has not witnessed an extensive, far-reaching conviction and change. The acquaintances that I meet often ask, "Do you think people care?" The fashion consumer landscape here remains largely about cashing into timely fashion trends and regularly buying new clothes from affordable online outlets to update their wardrobes. While there are thrift stores speckled around the city, the majority of patrons are arguably expatriates. The locals stand by the conservative Asian societal stronghold of newness.

Francois compares the fashion sustainability action plans that worked in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam to Singapore. While there are various reasons that contribute to this problem, the disconnect between Singaporeans and fashion sustainability, perhaps, boils down to a gaping hole in fashion manufacturing activities. "The difference in Malaysia is that there are producer groups. At least in Malaysia, there is production, there are many artisans. If you get away from the big cities, there are so many artisan groups that are doing traditional crafts. The conversation is already there, you know. They know someone who is contributing to the fashion conversation. In Singapore, the production is so removed. People don't feel connected to the producers. It's geographical. It's no longer a cultural thing to do." 

Francois might just be right. In other Asian countries, it is easy to bump into someone who knows of a friend or family member who works in a textiles or garment manufacturing facility. In a recent conversation with New Delhi-based fashion designer, Nikasha Tawadey, she revealed that there are innumerous fashion-related factories strewn across the state. In Thailand, it is the same. It is easy to find a village that weaves traditional fabrics and straw accessories. People from all walks of lives work in these facilities. When you know of someone who actually works in the fashion manufacturing supply chain, it is easier to feel a responsibility for sustainable fashion. Yet, not here in Singapore. 

With Singapore, a society that concentrates on consuming fashion, the sustainability action plans that worked for consumers and manufacturers in Cambodia or Thailand will not hold equal weight.

Fashion Revolution Singapore

The question to have is, "How do you get Singaporeans to feel for the production and manufacturing communities, and therefore feel personally responsible for sustainability in fashion?" Francois has an answer — a curious, critical and examining consumer. "This isn't the only reason why sustainability isn't gaining as much traction as it should, but one of the reasons. I always turn to the 'Farm to Fork' food revolution from years back as a great example. People were encouraged to be curious about where their food came [from] and make an effort to support local farmers. Feeling more connected to the food and understanding the negative effects of a complicated supply chain started firstly with curiosity. Singapore needs to start asking questions about where the clothing we all buy comes from. Knowledge is power." 

What used to be only a slab of salmon fillet from Cold Storage, consumers now read the packaging to find out where the fish was farmed or caught from. The same has to happen for fashion. 

"What I personally believe is most effective in helping these factories, is putting pressure on the consumers, and not coming to have conversations about bigger policy changes," Francois continues. "The curiosity that comes from Singapore, it will have a trickle effect that will go to the Cambodian factories. That link is so powerful. That's the effect. The curiosity of people is actually changing governmental policies that haven't been able to be changed in decades."

Francois is referring to the taciturn nature of the fashion supply chain — brands may outsource their orders to a third-party fixer, who relays the orders to another agent in manufacturing countries, who then makes direct contact with the garment factory itself. The factory's owner then drops the order on its workers. "The nature of the fashion supply chain is very secretive. It tries to really hide what is happening, how and where it is happening. Even the brands themselves, if I were to ask them, "Can I visit your factory?" It could be that they don't know where their factories are. It's a very disjointed process, and a little bit scattered in terms of information — how to link one thing to the next." 

While Francois does not directly contact nor work with these factories — the garment manufacturing industry may be shielded by the local authorities from prying eyes, since it is a source of income — she has visited abandoned factories. 

"I don't particularly work one-on-one with the factories themselves. We have gone to factories that have gone bankrupt. I work in the circular economy — creating waste that is left from the garment factories. In Cambodia, when the wages get too expensive, they shut down and move or rebrand themselves in another name." 

Fashion Revolution Singapore

Five years ago, the media may have been ablaze with the cheap cost of garment manufacturing in countries such as China and India. Yet, the industry has moved on from there to countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and now Myanmar. "Myanmar is now the cheaper one. Cambodia is not that expensive, which is sad. The little increment in living wages that has gone up has made the general manufacturing move to other countries. It is really difficult." 

The rapid relocations of manufacturing hubs is a problem. It is difficult for brands and watchdogs such as Fashion Revolution to track the fashion brands' movements. "One of the things that Fashion Revolution works on is — we have a transparency index that documents all of the brands that are participating." The annual document rates high street and luxury brands on the transparency of their supply chain. It, however, bets on the fashion brands' willingness to come forth and come clean. And all these will not be possible without pressure from the local consumers.

"There is so much potential here in Singapore, being one of the higher buying countries, situated in a sphere where all the problems are happening," Francois considers. She visualises an ideal fashion landscape in Singapore, "The government would implement regulations to ensure that all companies are responsible for the impact they have on the lives of the people working in their supply chains, at home and abroad." 

Yet, on an individual level, why should Singaporeans care about fashion sustainability? To Francois, it is being concerned in global issues. "I'm not a designer. I have never had any formal interest in fashion... I'm working in fashion because it is one of the biggest human rights issue of our time, and most pollutant industries. People are lacking in human rights because of the fashion industry, and that's why I am in the industry."