Credit: TaFF

When I first moved here, I was told that Singaporeans had two hobbies: shopping and eating. While I’ve since discovered that this is a very one-dimensional and incorrect view of Singapore’s multifaceted society, we can’t deny that there’s a grain of truth in this old chestnut. 

In 2021, total retail sales revenue in Singapore fell short of $42.5 billion, not too far from the pre-Covid, pre-travel-restrictions numbers of 2019, which hit $44.85 billion. Singaporeans are shopping, and shopping a lot. 

But here’s another statistic to blow your mind: according to the National Environment Agency, only 4 per cent of the 137,000 tonnes of fashion and textile waste is recycled. This is a mind-boggling number, especially when placed within the context of the fashion industry’s overall carbon footprint. Estimates place fashion as the second most-polluting industry in the world, accounting for 10 per cent of overall carbon emissions. 

96 per cent of our clothes in Singapore end up in landfills

I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of your favourite brands talk about their sustainability efforts – either in terms of the textiles that they use (think Prada and Re-Nylon), or offering services that allow consumers to extend the lives of their products (think H&M’s Garment Collecting programme). 

But there are several harsh truths that we need to contend with: according to a Business of Fashion Sustainability Report, fashion sustainability is not regulated by an external governing body, neither are there standardised frameworks that set in place regulations. The jargon used varies from company to company, and without a standardised language, it becomes increasingly complex to implement must-haves versus good-to-haves – thus leading to greenwashing. 

Then – and this is one of the reasons why fashion has such a heavy environmental footprint – there is the fact that fashion production entails many steps in the process, including textile manufacturing (this involves growing crops like cotton or making petroleum-based products like polyester); design; transportation; and distribution. And let’s not forget the end of life of the item you’re wearing – most of it, as established before, ends up in a landfill.

The obstacles to achieving a green, fashionable future are plenty, but not impossible to surmount. We need to start somewhere, and that’s exactly what the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) of Singapore is doing. 

“Consumer demand is going to be an increasing motivating force to get companies on the green agenda.”

Carolyn Poon

Having announced the launch of the Fashion Sustainability Programme last November, the trade association is now launching its first, multi-pronged effort to reduce the collective environmental footprint of the fashion industry in Singapore, contextualised against the broader regional background. 

On July 6th, TaFF launched Be the Change, a season-long initiative that looks to galvanise sustainable action through all layers of the fashion chain: this includes enterprises who are producing, manufacturing and distributing fashion; all of us, consumers, who are purchasing garments and accessories; and lastly, the greater community whose daily choices have an impact on the planet. 

Be the Change is a reminder that reducing our environmental footprint is not an endeavour that can be undertaken only by the government or by a handful of deep-pocketed enterprises. It will take a concerted effort from each and everyone of us to play even a small part in collectively making even the tiniest dent in the objectives set at COP26 as well as by Singapore’s Green Plan. 

But in order to make change, we need to understand what we’re dealing with. At the Enable the Change Sustainability Summit, TaFF released the first-ever sector report highlighting the environmental impact of the fashion industry in Singapore, within the broader regional context.

On the same day, TaFF also launched two other initiatives: the first was Fashion the Change exhibition, a youth-led effort that showcases how the community can make a difference. 

Then, there’s Shop the Change, a retail activation at Design Orchard that motivates consumers to shop consciously. Shop the Change essentially highlights brands that have imbibed sustainable values in their production. 

Carolyn Poon (director of sustainability at TaFF), Semun Ho (CEO of TaFF), Bey Soo Khiang (vice chairperson of RGE Group), Grace Fu (Minister of the environment and sustainability), Wilson Teo (President of TaFF), Clarence Lee (COO of Lee Yin Group) and Dro Tan (director of Matex International Limited)

We chat with Carolyn Poon, director of sustainability at TaFF, and ask her everything we need to know about Be the Change: 

What galvanised TaFF to tackle the topic of fashion sustainability?

TaFF launched the Fashion Sustainability Programme last year with the support of our key partners, RGE and Enterprise Singapore. We wanted to set up a suite of initiatives to help the industry towards better and more eco-friendly practices. We recognised that no single organisation could deliver the change and we needed to work with the whole ecosystem, which is why we set up the sustainability steering committee to ensure that we brought in companies across the entire value chain. As we started with the initiatives, we found that it was important to deliver the sector report so that we understood the key levers of change needed as well as the landscape in our part of the world. 

Right at the beginning, even prior to setting up the programme, when we were recruiting the members for the committee, we had a lot of dialogues with many companies – big and small – across the fashion value chain. We recognised that there were many questions around fashion sustainability, like what is the benchmark, what are the standards, how do they gain knowledge, what are the trends. We realised that many companies have a real knowledge gap and that’s where we realised we need to have this sector report to bring about the clarity from an insight perspective that’s relevant to our region.

I believe the key word here is “region”, as many of the reports are focused in Europe and the west. Is this the first time that this is being done in Southeast Asia, or Asia itself?

I believe that this is the first one in the region, although the focus is Singapore-based companies. So it could be companies based out of Singapore, or even companies who have equity stakeholding in Singapore. From our understanding, it is probably the first report for Singapore. 

And how much of this is synergized with what’s coming from the west? Because if we want to make sure that fashion is sustainable across the world, then we need to have a standardised language, correct? 

The fashion industry – and in fact, other global industries as well – is coming up with standards that will provide customers with trusted benchmarks and also avoid the greenwashing image. In the very near future, the industry will be moving away from labelling ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘good for the environment’ unless companies can actually substantiate their claims with environmental performance then they will be allowed to be called as such. We see this happening soon, and this is coming out from Europe with the EU regulations passed in March 2022, and some discussions about the New York Act. 

The fashion industry is very interconnected – even though the regulations are only for EU countries, they will definitely affect many global brands operating out of those countries. So for the regional manufacturers, they will be affected and will have to toe the line.

Minister Grace Fu interacting with students at the Fashion the Change exhibition

You have been organising the Be the Change sustainability season for the past few months, which was launched on 6th July with the sustainability summit and the release of the sector report. What were some of the most surprising revelations that day? 

We were first surprised by the willingness of the different panel speakers to share their experiences during the summit. Their experiences and their sustainability journey really resonated with the audience. That gave us the affirmation that indeed the sustainability journey is one that has common elements, and therefore a trade association like ourselves can create a platform of knowledge. 

The second was the good response and good turnout. We were planning about 200 participants, both virtually and in person, and we ended up having about 400 registrations. So it is heartening, and signals to us that it is a much needed topic to talk about, and to start conversation to generate actions.

This conversation is not new, but the approach has been quite piecemeal with many companies, as you mentioned, having a knowledge gap. Now with this sector report in place, and now that TaFF has started this conversation, what do you think will be the repercussions if SMEs don’t get aboard the sustainability agenda?

In Singapore, there are no regulations on fashion sustainability. However, this doesn’t mean that companies have no or little incentive to get onto the green agenda. The reason is because in today’s world, if a brand is not seen to be sustainable, they actually lose a growing consumer base who are supporting sustainability. The consumer demand is going to be an increasing motivating force to get companies on the green agenda.

Can you briefly recap one of the initiatives that TaFF has established to help companies on their sustainability journey? 

Green financing is a very nascent aspect of the ecosystem for the fashion industry in singapore. So today, if a fashion business (irrespective of their size) wants to look for financing, they essentially have been evaluated or assessed on trade capabilities, working capital, financing. At the moment, if they want to be seen as a green company, they will need to pass through the criteria which is fairly generic, which is across all industries. So for instance, the adoption of EV vehicles, the adoption of renewable energy such as solar panels. There is nothing very specific to the fashion industry. So the purpose of starting this series of conversations is to really find the use cases where the banks and financiers recognise certain certifications that are globally recognised that classify a fashion company to be green.

What do you perceive will be the biggest obstacle?

The biggest obstacle for businesses is overcoming costs – it’s not easy to be a sustainable business because materials and fibres, for example, need to be at scale to drive costs down. 

With recent inflationary pressures, it’s going to be more difficult for companies to want to choose to walk the sustainability journey. It’s going to be a big barrier. 

Even for consumers, most of them will be concerned about rising prices of household items. If they have to pay a premium for sustainable products, because of inflationary pressures on top of the extra costs of the goods, it will be even more challenging. 

Given the times we’re in, this is a challenge we need to overcome. 

If the government can subsidise in some form, to provide that nudge, or provide some regulations or directions from a guideline perspective, it would help.

How can consumers make better choices?

I have three simple personal hacks that I share with friends, as they’re easy to remember. 

We need to start by being more discerning when washing clothes. I have active teenage boys, and there is a lot of washing; plus, the Singapore weather is very humid – so I understand that washing clothes is necessary, but we can take small steps. For example, not using the dryer as often; washing full loads. This is important not just in saving water, but also in reducing the microplastics that’s generated through washing and drying. With every active reduction of washing and drying, it reduces the amount of microplastics in the water. 

The second one is when we buy clothes, choose natural fibres or single blends. This is because natural fibres don’t generate microplastics, while single blends make recycling down the road easier. This is buying with the end in mind. 

And the third tip I have is to choose and support sustainable brands. These can be used, second-hand or vintage clothes. If we do not support these brands, they won’t have the base to thrive. It’s important as customers we need to choose responsibly with our wallets as well. 

To be more knowledgeable on how to be responsible consumers as well, TaFF has just launched a consumer education portal at bethechange.fashion. You can check out tips on responsible consumption.

What is your greatest desire?

That every actor within the ecosystem — whether it’s the government, businesses, or people ourselves as consumers — are able to contribute in small steps to collectively make a big difference to our planet.