My Journey as a Novice Ethical Clothing Consumer
By Maxine Chen Li San
The textile industry is one of Singapore’s pioneering industries. Our tailors who made clothing from scratch also shaped Singapore into a textile and apparel business sourcing hub. Today, Singapore is ranked second in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of lucrative trade. She is a dizzying swirl of items to be bought — an air-conditioned port of shops — a shopper’s paradise. But I think it is time to look behind the glitzy façade.
I am a twenty-year-old bumbling between being a pimply tot who still relies on her parents for pocket money, and being a full-fledged, property-owning consumer. It is an interesting place to be: as globalisation exposes the flipsides to mass consumerism, I have ample time to consider changing my consuming habits. Basically, the more information I pick up, the more I realise that the environmental and social costs of our shopping are huge.
Questions arise: How do I stop contributing to the problem? Who is making the clothes I wear? Am I really doing good by choosing “sustainable” clothing brands? Some of these questions are discussed in an upcoming documentary film, The True Cost, which highlights the impacts of the global clothing industry.
While I start to understand the impacts of global clothing, I also hope to explore what I can do in Singapore. Here is my journey as a novice ethical clothing consumer.
For a start, I decided to read up on my favourite brand, UNIQLO. UNIQLO is part of the Fast Retailing Group, and has implemented the All-Product Recycling Initiative, which aims to provide clothes for economically disadvantaged people including refugees, pregnant mothers, and infants. Customers may participate by going to any UNIQLO outlet and depositing unwanted UNIQLO garments. UNIQLO is also on board Greenpeace’s global Detox campaign, pledging to reduce dangerous emissions by disclosing emissions data from at least 80 percent of its global suppliers by the end of this year.
Another brand, Hennes&Mauritz (“H&M”), runs a similar recycling programme called Garment Collecting. Any old clothes brought to H&M stores in Singapore are sold as second-hand, reused, or recycled for use in another industry, with proceeds being invested in technology for recycling processes in textiles and social projects.
However, Greenpeace has recently reported that H&M, among companies like Converse, Nike, Puma and the Youngor Group, are sourcing clothing from the Youngor Textile Complex and Well Dyeing Factory Limited in China. These factories cause massive pollution by discharging harmful chemicals into China’s river deltas. H&M also sourced clothing from the Aswad Composite Mills factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh, which caught fire in October this year and killed 10 people.
Realising that the high-street fashion that I grew up supporting via weekend family outings to the mall is the leading cause of many social and environmental problems was like cold water to the face. It was time to outgrow old choices and find alternatives. Fortunately, a Blackle search for “sustainable fashion” threw out ample choices for me to spend time browsing the clothes designed and produced by environmentally-friendly fashion labels.
I began my search at Fashioning Change, an ingenious one-stop shop for leading eco labels. One name that crops up often in the online ethical fashion community is Singapore’s clothing brand Etrican. It is easy to see why: each of Etrican’s practices seems to be carefully executed with sustainability and environmental friendliness as the underlying purpose. The company uses biodegradable organic cotton in all its garments. Even its accessories are upcycled and made with materials such as used tyre tubes and waste fabric bits.
The company also deals exclusively with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified factories to reduce the possibility of abuse. Best of all, it makes ethical shopping accessible. It lives up to its tag-line “Change Is Simple”: even the skeptical user is put at ease scrolling through beautiful photographs of ethical clothing which they can purchase instantly.
Other cutting-edge eco brands include the London- and Japanese-based KOhZO, which makes denim products out of natural materials like pineapple, mud and cannabis; and Rapanui Clothing, which uses an ethical wind-powered factory to produce a select range of attractively soft tank tops, t-shirts, hoodies, socks, bags and underwear. Higher-end brands like Prairie Underground are also viable alternatives to conventional brands like Zara and Mexx.
However, there was a slight problem. Being conditioned to the relatively low prices offered by high street chains, it was immediately obvious that sustainable fashion costs more. As a penniless student, I had to come up with a backup plan: perhaps I could look for second-hand clothing too.
Virtually minutes after joining the Singapore Freecycle Facebook group, I was greeted by a welcome message from the administrator and an invitation to read the group rules. If there is something I want to give away, no strings attached, I post a picture and a description. If I see something that is being posted and I would like to have it, I make a comment and the owner will follow up on it.
In the group posts, there is a large variety of things reminiscent of a Cash Converters shop. Occasionally, clothing of decent condition is offered for free. With some effort, a creative look can be built with these threads. In the same vein, Carousell brands itself as a “mobile marketplace” and its website instructs me to “Snap, List, Sell. Create free listings to sell items you once loved in 30 seconds.” Unfortunately for the Nokia-carrying me, the Carousell app is only available in the App store and Google Play.
My favourite places to shop by far are still flea markets featuring both worn and new clothes. The easiest way to look for flea markets and shop listings is to visit For Flea Sake. Similarly, the Singapore Really Really Free Market is a periodical get-together where people trade and enjoy one another’s skills, clothes, food items, and knick-knacks.
I believe in the adage that a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members. And the choices we make as to where and how much to shop reflects how we treat people and our planet. I now take comfort in the fact that I have a myriad of choices that lies beyond the usual Orchard to Somerset Road shopping stretch. And I will make good choices as I become a full-fledged, property-owning consumer in a few years.
My journey as an ethical clothing consumer continues.