Taking the highway to Singapore’s runways

Behind the glam of fashion’s runways, pressing social issues are an ongoing stem from fast fashion. Brands are taking the highway into being more conscious and are committing to sustainable, green practices and actively championing for living wages for those in the production lines. We chat with local brands August Society, Purnama Outreach, Source Collections and Woonhung on their views of pushing for the greater good in fashion, and how Singapore has been a core part of that journey.

By SGN | 13 July 2020

(Source Collections uses natural and/or eco-friendly materials for their products.)

With the sustainable movement on the rise across cities, it is no doubt that fashion would soon follow its trails. Many more consumers are making the conscious choice to purchase from eco or sustainable brands today. Being “sustainable” today is now overused and easily misunderstood, often coined for fast appeals to the growing green market.

For Source Collections, a Singapore-based clothing brand that uses natural and/or eco-friendly materials for their products with plastic-free packaging, “sustainability is more about one’s personal and/or company value.” Building on this belief, founder Vincent Ooi shares that the brand has committed to creating quality and timeless designs that can last more than just a season using natural or eco-friendly materials.

Vincent, a returning Singaporean, left behind an illustrious career in design and manufacturing in Hong Kong to settle down back home and start a business venture. “Singapore has proven to be one of the few first-world countries where one can easily set up a company, have and offers numerous grants that help start-ups and SMEs, and an attractive tax regime,” he explains.

A slow down on fast fashion

Having lived in Singapore for over 12 years, Toni Chan, the founder of August Society who makes sustainable swimwear, had also tapped into government grants to explore new market expansion for the business. The brand also gained the support of local organisations and movements to build its customer base.

At the core of its business, Toni believes that sustainability is not just being better to the environment but to also ensure that the people who produce products are treated fairly and can make a living wage.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of who actually makes their clothes, and don’t understand that for a T-shirt to be priced at $5, the cost savings have to come from somewhere. Many fast fashion brands manufacture in developing countries and often don’t take the effort to check their full supply chain so it’s easy for low-wage workers to be exploited,” Toni stresses.

Under her direction, the brand is committed to the fair treatment of its workers and their family, even going so far as to double the minimum wage, and are committed to

(Purnama Outreach upcycles waste into materials for fashion and accessories.)

Rae Indah-Purnama and Charles Pitts, co-founders of Singapore-based sustainable brand Purnama Outreach, shares that the business always pushed for a lean supply chain and the use of environmentally preferred choices. “We work with our makers to use organic, natural, vegan materials, aiming for zero waste. Then we went further by creating our upcycling project turning waste into bold fashion and accessories.”

Purnama Outreach was formed after the couple’s relocation to Singapore in 2008 and were among the first members of the Singaporean Social Enterprise Association which is now known as raiSE. “They were instrumental in creating a real community among social enterprises with various concerns, stakeholders, and business models. We have been fortunate to partner with several forward-thinking local companies,” the founders share.

The brand had recently worked with partners at the NUS Business School (National University of Singapore) under its Social Enterprise Internships Project and found that 43% (3 in 5 APAC) of consumers purchased at least one product because it was manufactured by a company committed to a social cause. 86% of those surveyed were willing to pay more for socially conscious brands – showing that the industry is evolving from tradition.

Championing consciousness in consumerism

(Woonhung is a sustainable accessories line that uses natural materials and supports cottage industries in Asia.)

Yvonne Chia, the founder of Woonhung, a sustainable accessories line, recalls that at the start of the business, there were many challenges in convincing Singaporeans to pay premium prices for products made by cottage industries using sustainably sourced materials. Being in the fashion industry also called for a need to work on everlasting designs that could become a staple piece in the wardrobe.

“Back in 2012, the challenge was to convince Singaporeans to pay for jewellery made from sustainable wood at $49 onwards. Back then and even right now, you can travel to Bangkok, Bali, Indonesia, China (made easy with budget airlines) to get wooden jewellery at $5 to $10 – I was selling at a premium,” she says.

As a result, it was tough to push for sustainability in an industry driven by an audience which has “become obsessed with fast fashion and cheap ubiquitous commodities and knock-offs from China, India and goods from other third world countries.”

However, Yvonne notes that customers are generally more receptive today and that tourists and foreigners residing in Singapore have been especially supportive of the brand. She is heartened as more in the country embark on a more sustainable way of living but notes that “the uncomfortable truth about sustainable lifestyle is that it is really about buying less, owning less, sharing the fruits of the harvest evenly and reaching out to those behind and cheering them on.”

“I generally feel that Singaporeans are caring, but we need more leaders who can steer and educate us towards sustainable living,” Yvonne stresses.

Still leaps and bounds for sustainability on a global scale

While many fashion brands have taken steps to be more sustainable today, Vincent still believes that there is much more to be done. He shares that many brands continue to practice weekly product launches, monthly discount campaigns, offering higher discounts when one purchase more that often leads to impulsive buying on products that are often unnecessary.

“There’s an increasing demand for brands to be more transparent and to adopt sustainable practices from consumers today,” Vincent stresses. He reckons that sustainable fashion businesses will find themselves with new and emerging opportunities moving forward.

(August Society is committed to the fair treatment of its workers and their family.)

Brands can embrace sustainability in many ways, according to Toni. “To put it broadly, it’s to practice business in a way to prioritise environmental or social benefits. Examples could be by creating less waste, being less harmful to the environment, or ensuring workers are treated and paid fairly.”

Getting started with the right network and having the right amount of support is also key. Toni shares that Singapore has been very supportive of start-ups and that there are many resources to help new entrepreneurs. “I’ve tapped into a government grant to explore new market expansion. There are also lots of organisations and movements for supporting local brands, so we’ve had a great reception from consumers here.”

Rae and Charles share that as the circular economy model takes hold in the macro, there are shifts in the way diversity and audit are upheld in the supply chain. “Large corporations are eager to look for ways, even if incrementally, to find ways to replace materials in utility and other products with sustainable choices. We also see a great new focus not only on the eco-friendly concerns but social responsibility and uplifting social message as well.”

Yvonne suggests that this positive change could be due to how connected we are today. She shares that strong individuals are spurring ground-up movements, garnering enough masses and public sentiments, and forcing big corporations and governments to sit up and listen. “The noise on sustainability is getting louder. It is very interesting.”

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