Sustainability in fashion is more than just about clothes

Chu Wong from Fashion Revolution Singapore shares why sustainability in fashion is a collective effort of everyone to challenge the negative effects of the fast fashion industry.

Sarah Chan

Likes museum trips and is sometimes artsy. Can be found in pattern prints.

Published: 15 December 2020, 10:00 AM

From 11.11 to month-long Christmas sales, the end of year signals the start of many attractive deals from retailers.

Admittedly, these sales are hard to ignore. With clothes being a staple that we simply cannot live without, you might already be shopping for your next outfit and finding yourself buying more than you intended to.

But have you ever wondered about what goes on behind the scenes for every purchase you make? How were your clothes made and what impact do your shopping choices have on the environment and people around you?

We spoke to 29-year-old Chu Wong, country coordinator of Fashion Revolution Singapore and founder of sustainable fashion platform Shop Bettr, to find out what is sustainability in fashion and how the issue extends to consumers like us in an era of fast fashion.

Getting involved with sustainable fashion

Chu’s journey in sustainable fashion began when she first learnt of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that happened in Savar, Bangladesh. The building housed garment factories for global fashion brands and the collapse was one of the worst industrial accidents on record.

The disaster exposed the poor labour conditions of garment workers and highlighted issues of transparency in the fashion supply chain that companies were often unaware or negligent of.

Learning about the disaster prompted Chu to look into her own consumption habits and she has been helping to raise awareness about sustainability in fashion ever since.

“We as consumers need to start making our voices heard and letting brands know that we do not stand for this and we will not buy from brands who choose to manufacture their clothes in such a manner,” she said, adding that consumers often assume incidents like Rana Plaza are an anomaly when it is not.

“Every human being wears clothes… All of us have the opportunity to do better through our clothing. Just because you may not look at yourself as a fashionable person, that does not mean that you do not contribute to the fashion industry.”


Fashion Revolution Week 2019: Models dressed in swapped, rented, and pre-loved clothes to encourage alternative forms of fashion consumption. PHOTO CREDIT: FRANÇOIS LE NGUYEN


In the aftermath of the disaster, Fashion Revolution was established within the same year to champion for a more sustainable, ethical and transparent fashion industry.

The non-profit organisation and global movement is headquartered in London, with the Singapore chapter having started in 2014.

Chu joined the team in 2015 and is the current country coordinator for the Singapore team that consists of an average of 10 volunteers yearly, mostly strangers with day jobs, who come together for the same cause.

Every year, Fashion Revolution Week is held to coincide with the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24. Aside from workshops, various activities are conducted to reach out to consumers on different parts of their sustainability journey, Chu shared.


‘Guilt-free Retail Therapy’ during Fashion Revolution Week 2020 invited guests from sustainable fashion brands to discuss alternatives to fast fashion consumption. PICTURE CREDITS: FASHION REVOLUTION SINGAPORE


The theme for 2020 focused on four key areas: Consumption, Conditions, Composition and Collective Action.

Transparency in fashion begins with curiosity

One of the ways that Fashion Revolution has been championing sustainability in fashion is through the #WhoMadeMyClothes movement on social media.

Participants post a selfie of themselves with the label of their clothes to demand greater transparency on what goes on behind the manufacturing of their clothes.

“When consumers start questioning, brands realise that this is a serious issue to look into. Brands that previously did not care about transparency are now looking into their supply chain and starting to publish where their clothes are being made,” said Chu.


#WhoMadeMyClothes also demands fashion brands for the protection of workers’ rights and fair treatment in the supply chain. PHOTO CREDITS: INSTAGRAM/@FASH_REV_SG


To support the movement outside of social media, Chu recommends consumers to first look beyond the face value of their clothes.

Most often, consumers consider the aesthetics, budget or size, yet overlook the composition of their clothes that is vital in instructing users on how to best care for and get the maximum wear out of an item.

“Being more curious helps you extend the lifespan of your clothes, understand what goes into your clothes and who is making your clothes under what conditions,” she said, adding that these factors can help decide if an intended purchase decision aligns with your personal values.

“If the brand does not align with your values, ask the brand why their clothes are made under such conditions and why they are choosing to make it with this material to another. If they can’t provide you with an answer that you are satisfied with, start looking for an alternative,” she said.

Although one might assume that sustainable fashion is expensive, hard to find and not aesthetically pleasing, Chu believes this is an assumption that is “a relic from ten years ago”.

With a bit of research, finding an affordable sustainable fashion brand in Singapore is possible. The experience, as Chu described, will be satisfying when you find clothes that not only last longer but also align with your values.


Resisting mindless consumption in fast fashion

The prevalence of fast fashion has led to mindless consumption: Consumers are spending more on what they want instead of what they actually need.

Chu explained: “The fast fashion industry is known to churn out almost 52 micro collections every week. This is [in comparison to the past] when the fashion world had only two main collections – Spring, summer and autumn, winter.”

“We wear 20 per cent of our clothing 80 per cent of the time… Fast fashion thrives on this model where we buy and spend money on something that we didn’t want which now sits stagnant in our wardrobe and becomes very wasteful.”

When asked about the role of consumers in impacting change, Chu said that the behaviour of being more considerate and slowing our consumption is one way that consumers can influence the industry towards sustainability.

“We need to shop less and look at our wardrobe to fall in love with our clothes again. Remember that feeling of excitement when you first bought the item and wanted to wear them, instead of letting it go to waste which is really a pity,” she said.


Chu recommends the “Buyerachy of Needs” for consumers to assess and make an alternative consumption decision aside from buying something new. PHOTO CREDITS: SARAH LAZAROVIC


In a time of the global pandemic, our consumption of fast fashion has a detrimental effect on not only the environment, but garment workers and manufacturers.

Fashion brands often place large orders with manufacturers to meet the demands of consumers, said Chu. With lockdowns this year, however, retail stores are forced to shut, which led brands to cancel their orders despite them being completed and ready to ship.

Manufacturers were left in limbo as the stocks were not needed and workers were not being paid.

The silver lining of the pandemic? Brands are realising that the fast fashion model is not sustainable because of shifting mindsets as consumers purchase less clothing while working from home.

“Brands are forced to consider what the consumers need instead of what the brand thinks they need,” said Chu, adding that more are exploring pre-order systems where they only create the product quantity needed to reduce the amount of waste generated from excess orders.

“The power dynamics have changed, which is really exciting. I think it’s quite sobering.”

The role of youths in championing sustainability in fashion

Although the topic of sustainability is still far from being mainstream, Chu felt that overall awareness towards sustainability in fashion has improved tremendously in the past five years.

The growing interest among millennials and generation Z in joining the cause at Fashion Revolution is something she finds “very heartening”.

“I think it’s quite exciting because it shows that people are not just complaining about things that are not changing but are actively searching for a non-profit and volunteering your time to do something to change the industry for the better,” she said.

Chu believes that activities like youths picking up thrifting can be a catalyst for change towards sustainable fashion, but only if it is treated as a habit instead of a fleeting trend.

She said: “Don’t thrift just because it is sustainable but thrift because you love thrifting and it is inherently sustainable in the long run.

“That excitement and social validation you get out of thrifting, swapping or renting clothes makes the activity cool and something that others aspire towards. Don’t just tell others to do something but do it yourself and convince others to make the switch.”


Extending the lifespan of your clothes and building a long term relationship with each piece is the most important step in sustainability. PHOTO CREDITS: ZUI HOANG VIA UNSPLASH


The topic of sustainability is large and complex, and is not limited to the fashion industry. And while no person or business can ever be 100 per cent sustainable, it’s still important for us to make small changes in our lifestyle and demand for positive change as a collective.

Chu said: “When we talk about sustainability, it is no longer something that is nice to have but a business imperative. We know that the climate crisis is happening. A dying planet or dead planet means that there is no business to be done.”

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