The Lounge Lunghi + Mountain Spirit from Matter

Eco-friendly fashion, once a niche segment, has emerged from the sidelines.

Major international brands, such as high-street label Zara, launched green collections recently, with clothing made from materials such as recycled wool, organic cotton and tencel, a sustainably grown fabric made from wood pulp.

These big names join eco stalwarts such as shoe label Toms, a decade-old brand that sells shoes made with vegan materials, and British luxury brand Stella McCartney, which monitors the environmental impact of its textile mills.

The trend is catching on in Singapore, with more shoppers going green and stores eager to meet the rising demand.

At home-grown label Matter, which sells printed clothing made by artisans in India, business has surged threefold since it opened two years ago.

Singapore multi-label store Touch The Toes, which sells sustainably made yoga apparel and accessories, has seen demand jump by 350 per cent over the past three years.

Other ethical brands, such as bamboo fibre fashion brand Zhai and organic cotton clothing label Etrican, have also ramped up production in recent years.

Retail experts are not surprised at this trend.

Mr Samuel Tan, course manager of retail management at Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Business, says: “Consumers are generally becoming more eco-conscious and aware of how their lifestyles can impact the natural environment.”

He points to several reasons, including campaigning by overseas activists, as well as eco-friendly apparel becoming more readily available on the market.

Activist groups such as international environmental group Greenpeace have actively campaigned for clothing companies to stop releasing hazardous chemicals during the manufacturing process.

According to a Forbes report in December last year, the apparel industry accounts for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and remains the second-largest industrial polluter, after oil.

The production of synthetic fibres also emits gasses such as nitrous oxide, known to be 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide – a contributor to global warming. Other chilling facts include how polyester fibre takes more than 200 years to decompose.

This aside, eco-fashion is also taking off here because, well, it is becoming more fashionable.

With major fashion retailers such as Italian fashion company Benetton Group and H&M promoting sustainability, eco-friendly fashion has evolved past its association with frumpiness to become stylish and desirable.

More players in the market also meant more competition and a possible decrease in price, says Mr Tan, who predicts the trend is here to stay. “With more variety and competitive pricing, consumers are likely to buy more of such products,” he adds.

“Ever-prevalent climate changes will also be a big push for many people to reflect on the human impact on the environment.”

Yoga instructor and owner of online wellness magazine True Living, Mrs Katy Koyich-Pourrat, 27, has been buying gear from Touch The Toes since 2014.

The British Canadian, who lives in Singapore, now buys only sustainable and eco-friendly fashion – a decision she made after watching the documentary film, The True Cost (2015), that detailed the impact of fashion on the planet.

“It makes me feel good about what I’m wearing and my choices as a consumer,” she says.

However, shoppers such as Ms Amanda Ang, 28, were not drawn to green fashion for eco reasons. The counsellor buys dresses from H&M’s conscious collection because they look good.

She says: “It’s more important that I’ll wear the clothes and that they fit my style. The clothes being more eco-friendly is a good bonus, but not a strong incentive.”

TOUCH THE TOES

Ms Eliza Inoue is one of three founders of home-grown multi-label store Touch The Toes, which stocks yoga attire sourced from sustainable brands. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The eco-friendly tag helps yoga wear company Touch The Toes keep its customers, says co-founder Eliza Inoue, 30. Close to half of the home-grown multi-label store’s customers are returning shoppers.

Ms Inoue, a Singapore permanent resident who has been living here since she was eight, says people are initially attracted to Touch The Toes’ vibrant designs and wide variety of yoga wear.

“But after they realise our apparel is eco-friendly… that is the key reason they keep coming back,” she says. “Customers feel good when they do good for the environment.

“It’s a positive feeling knowing you’re making an impact… Plus, if the designs are nice, why not keep supporting the brand?”

The store, which sells yoga attire from 21 labels worldwide, opened in Arab Street in 2011 with a space that was about 600 sq ft. It recently moved to a unit in Haji Lane that is about twice as large.

It saw a 350 per cent jump in sales from 2012 to last year.

The brand was founded by Ms Inoue, a Japanese-Brazilian who works at the company full-time; Japanese-Burmese Kelly Hotta; and Singaporean Tan Wuen Lin. Ms Hotta and Ms Tan have full-time jobs.

All three founders are yoga practitioners and personally curate the items, ranging from yoga wear such as leggings and tank tops to accessories such as mats and towels.

The labels the store carries are made from organic cotton, bamboo blends and recycled materials – all sustainably produced.

Ms Inoue, who is engaged to a creative director at a Singapore furniture company, says: “We also check that the brands we bring in know the working conditions of the factories that produce their clothes and have socially responsible practices.”

Prices of yoga bottoms, such as shorts and leggings, range from $60 to $150 each. And prices of tops, including sports bras and tank tops, range from $35 to $110.

The former advertising designer predicts more growth “as more shoppers learn about eco-friendly fashion” and realise that their choices have an impact on the earth and the welfare of workers.

“Our purchases can come from good sources that actually help nature and also provide fair trade… And sustainable clothing can be more stylish than regular brands. It’s no longer just a hippie thing.”

Melissa Heng

MATTER

Travel wear label Matter, co-founded by Ms Ho Renyung, works with artisan communities in India to create the clothes. PHOTO: MACKEREL

The signature traditional block prints that adorn the garments produced by home-grown travel wear label Matter do not come easy.

Its co-founder Ho Renyung, who set up the company with her friend Yvonne Suner in 2014, searched for craftsmen in Rajasthan, India, to produce her designs made from fabrics including hand-loomed cotton and natural materials such as silk and linen.

The pair met six years ago while working in Mexico in hotel operations.

Each pattern on her designs is hand-printed by a craftsman using a block made of wood, with the grooves carved by hand.

Matter works with more than seven artisan communities in India to create the clothes.

Each community is made up of 30 to 50 people who are involved in various aspects of the production process, including colour-making, block-carving and block-printing.

Matter’s garments – scarves, jumpers, pants, shorts and boxy tops – are biodegradable, which means they will break down over time as opposed to taking up space in a landfill for decades, says Ms Ho, 30.

Azo-free dyes, which are non- toxic and better for the environment, are used.

Matter also cuts down on fabric wastage by using offcuts from its clothes to make smaller items such as pouches.

There are nine styles of pants, known for their zipless designs, and prices range from $159 for a pair of long cotton linen pants to $279 for a pair of long wrap pants made of silk. Scarves retail for $110 to $200 and shorts are about $110.

Ms Ho – whose parents are Mr Ho Kwon Ping and Ms Claire Chiang, founders of resort group Banyan Tree Holdings – chose to make her label in India after “falling in love” with the country’s artisans and textiles during a fund-raising road trip along the western coast of India in 2014.

Since Matter’s launch, sales have increased by 15 per cent month on month.

Its customers are mostly women aged 25 to 50, who are “less brand- conscious and more mindful about where their clothes come from and how they are made”, says Ms Ho, who is married and has no children.

It is a segment she thinks will grow.

She says part of the reason for the brand’s growth has been its bold designs which have made eco-friendly wear alluring and stylish.

“For a long time, the public perception was that sustainable good and goods made by social enterprises are either brown or made of hemp and for hippies only. We have debunked the myth.”

The label, which can be found at stores such as department store Tangs and multi-label boutique Kapok, ships to more than 40 countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

It also has an online store matterprints.com.

Though the Singapore retail scene has been a challenging one this year, Ms Ho, who declines to disclose exact figures, says sales for the label are still expected to grow because of a niche and loyal customer base and overseas sales.

She says: “What is important for us as consumers to remember is that everything we buy makes an impact and is a vote in that direction. Buying from companies with values that we respect means those companies will continue to grow.”

Melissa Heng

ETRICAN

Etrican, whose clothes are made from organic cotton, was founded by Mr Dragos Necula and Ms Yumiko Uno. ST PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

Singapore-based fashion label Etrican considers ethical practices such a selling point, its name is a combination of the words “ethical” and “intricate”.

Its clothes are made from only organic cotton, grown without chemical fertilisers and pesticides which can kill small animals nearby such as bugs, birds and squirrels.

Such cotton takes less energy and water to produce than non-organic cotton, and growing it also produces about 94 per cent less greenhouse gas.

The clothes are made in a small factory in India, which ensures fair pay and working hours, as well as safe working conditions for its workers.

Used print dye is not discarded into rivers or disposed of, but sent to a facility to be recycled.

The brand was started here in 2009 by Mr Dragos Necula, a Romanian, and Ms Yumiko Uno, who is Japanese.

Its clothes are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard organisation, which lays out rules for ecological and socially responsible textile production.

Ms Uno, 35, who is also the brand’s designer, says: “We started this label because we didn’t like what much of the fashion industry stands for today – with its compulsion to maximise profit at the expense of factory workers and the environment.

“We want to look good and also feel comfortable doing so.”

The two met while studying at Leeds University in Britain in 2004. Ms Uno, who has a master’s in development studies, moved to Tokyo after graduation to work for People Tree, a Britain-based ethical and organic fashion brand.

She says: “There, I learnt there is so much pollution caused by the fashion industry. I wanted to contribute towards a positive change within the industry.”

In 2009, the business partners moved here to start the company, to reduce the brand’s carbon footprint, since many eco-friendly fabrics such as organic cotton are produced in Asia.

Their clothes are sold at the Time After Time shop in Haji Lane and online at www.etrican.com, with a V-necked dress going for $42 and a blue striped flower dress for $69. They also launched a line for babies six months ago.

Over the years, sales have increased steadily by 20 per cent year on year.

Most of their customers are women in their mid-20s to mid- 30s. Etrican’s products are also available at shops in the United States, Japan and Australia.

One challenge the brand faces is that organic cotton is 20 to 30 per cent more expensive than regular cotton.

Mr Necula, 34, who is in charge of business development, says: “Basically, this means we have less of a profit margin, but we are fine with this because we are contributing to positive change and protecting the environment.”

Benson Ang

HEADS OF STATE MILLINERY

Hatter Chee Sau Fen makes hats by hand from natural fibres sourced from the Philippines. PHOTO: HER WORLD

Milliners typically use steamers that run on electricity to loosen fibres, making them malleable enough to shape into hats.

But all home-grown hatter Chee Sau Fen, 42, needs is the warmth of her hands.

Most of the entrepreneur’s hats, under her Heads of State Millinery label, are made from abaca fibre, peeled by hand from the upper trunk of the abaca tree – a relative of the banana plant – native to the Philippines.

The fibres are collected and handwoven on traditional looms by women from the Daraghuyan community of the Bukidnon tribe in southern Philippines.

This creates a lightweight, breathable material, which is then crafted into hats using needle and thread.

The sewing is done by 10 to 14 housewives in Cebu, as well as by Ms Chee and two assistants here.

Says Ms Chee, whose hat-making skills are self-taught: “You don’t need steam. The heat from our hands is enough to soften the fabric, allowing us to shape it.

“The women in Cebu don’t have easy access to electricity, so I planned it such that everything can be done by hand or with rudimentary tools such as looms.”

She chanced upon the abaca fibre during a 2012 work trip to Cebu, after experimenting with various re-usable materials for more than six months.

“The local craftswomen used it to make clothes and bags. But I thought, it can also be used to make hats. That it could create employment opportunities for marginalised communities was also a plus.”

The dyes used for colouring are extracted by the craftswomen from natural objects such as flowers and plants.

No stiffening chemical sprays are involved.

Ms Chee says: “Anyway, I don’t think such processes are suitable to make hats worn in this part of the world because it is hot and humid here.”

The sociology and linguistics graduate from the National University of Singapore used to be an arts manager, working at museums.

In 2011, she won Singapore’s first sustainable fashion competition – organised by the Workforce Development Agency and the Textile and Fashion Federation to groom budding designers – despite having no formal training in design.

She entered dresses made from recycled nylon stockings woven on canvas mesh.

She says: “Back then, I just wanted to discover more ways to re-use waste materials. At art events, I often saw a lot of waste when the event wrapped up.”

Her business might be green, but the hats are colourful and beautiful.

Many are inspired by natural objects, such as jellyfish and stingrays. She also uses materials such as Japanese washi paper.

Her ready-to-wear hats are priced between $158 and $358, and are sold at multi-label store The Emporium at Tanglin Mall.

Some of her customers – from all ages and walks of life – ask for customised hats, which start from $500.

Some even fly here from Australia and India to order the hats.

While she declines to provide sales figures, she says she is making just as much as she used to as an arts manager.

“Some lifestyle brands have approached me to design special headgear for their events or campaigns and it feels good to be able to bring eco-friendly fashion into the mainstream.”

Benson Ang

ZHAI

Ms Danielle Champagne is the creative and managing director of Zhai, which produces bamboo fibre clothing such as this cowl-neck dress. PHOTO: ZHAI

Known for making clothes from bamboo fibre, home-grown eco- clothing brand Zhai is an extension of its eco-conscious team.

The seven-man group regularly use recycled paper bags and energy-saving light bulbs at the company’s office in Ubi Avenue 3. They prefer to use computer tablets instead of printing documents, and have cut their paper usage by 70 per cent over the past two years.

The brand was founded in 2009 by Ms Kim Rose Allen, an Australian, and her business partner Eric Polfliet, a Belgian.

In 2013, Zhai was sold to the current owner, Ms Danielle Champagne, a former primary school teacher from Canada who moved to Singapore nine years ago and is now a permanent resident.

Zhai, which means “presence” in Chinese, makescardigans, dresses, skirts, pants, tops and socks from organically grown bamboo fibre certified by organisations including the United States National Organic Program, which certifies only fibres that, among other criteria, conserve biodiversity.

Ms Champagne is the brand’s creative and managing director, while her husband, Mr Daniel Cossette, is its chief finance officer. They are both in their 40s.

She says: “I have eczema and being from cold Canada, I used to suffer from skin issues.”

In 2011, she turned to bamboo clothes because they were soft and ideal for sensitive skin. She recalls: “One day, I chanced upon Kim’s store, decided to buy something and immediately got hooked on the concept of using bamboo fibre to make clothes. Eventually, I bought the shop itself.”

Bamboo, she says, is a sustainable resource. It is fast-growing and can be harvested multiple times without causing environmental degradation.

“It also has no natural pests, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides. Bamboo apparel is also biodegradable.”

Zhai started with one store and now has three in Singapore – in Haji Lane, Tanglin Mall and United Square. It also has a store in Malaysia.

It is focusing on expanding online and aims to triple Internet sales before the end of the year.

Among its most popular items is a $109 cowl-neck dress made from 95 per cent organic bamboo fibre and 5 per cent spandex, available in rhubarb and black. Its customers are mostly women aged 27 to 45.

One challenge, however, is reaching out to the masses, says Ms Champagne, a vegan and avid cyclist: “The green conscience is only starting to reach Asia. Not many people prioritise eco-friendliness. But I think people here are becoming more curious and informed about eco-friendly practices, which is a good start.”

Benson Ang

What is eco-fashion?

Eco-fashion is a broad term used to define fashion products that have been made in a way that takes into account not only the environment, but also the working conditions of those involved in making them.

It typically encompasses:

•Clothes made with fabrics such as organic cotton and linen which are produced without the use of pesticides or fertilisers;

•Labels that substitute hazardous chemicals used in the manufacturing processes with safer alternatives;

•Clothes that do not use environmentally harmful dyes or bleaches. Dyes can damage water bodies and the people living near them when untreated wastewater is dumped into streams and rivers;

•Clothes made under conditions where workers are treated and paid fairly for their skills and labour.

Her World's sustainability issue

A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on October 6, 2016. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.