The date 22 April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an annual celebration that highlights the achievements of environmental movements while raising awareness. This year’s Earth Day is quite unlike any other. For starters, a large part of the world is at home in unified isolation, and mourning a planet that is so heavily disrupted by COVID-19 that nothing seems normal now.
With deaths and infections on the rise each day, the global economy has been crippled, causing huge blows to many industries. Aviation and hospitality have taken severe hits, with others like F&B and retail following in their wake. While much of the world grapples with unemployment and survival, this pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of our world, and how humans’ actions are innately connected. Many of us are shaken by the devastating death toll, losses, and struggles.
This is a wake up call for us, the consumers, to reassess our spending habits, and for industries to slow down, reexamine, and reform their practices for a more sustainable future.
Earth Day is a timely and urgent reminder of our power to galvanise change, and that stark transformations are needed. While climate change is a long-term problem, the pandemic’s lockdowns have resulted in a greener reality of reported improved air pollution levels, flourishing wildlife, as well as cleaner water canals.
It’s widely known by now that fashion is one of the environment’s biggest polluters — it is, in fact, second to the oil industry — from water contamination to waste accumulation, greenhouse gas emission to rainforest destruction. And with consumers shopping less, and retailers scaling back or forced to shut their doors, we must not forget the consequences for those on the margins.
Many brands and retailers have already cancelled billions of orders, leaving millions of workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam out of work and without compensation. Brushing off such accountability is exactly why Susannah Jaffer, the founder of Zerrin, a Singapore-based e-commerce and media platform advocating sustainability, believes that transparency, not sustainability, is “the key word for 2020”.
Jaffer, a former magazine editor, started Zerrin in 2017 while on the hunt for “more depth”, noticing a gap between fast fashion’s low quality items and high-end goods. On her travels, she discovered brands that married quality, and creativity, while being intrinsically connected to their supply chains. “It made me feel inspired to know that this necklace was woven by a fair-trade cooperative,” quipped Jaffer.
Jaffer believes that sustainability as a concept has been “moulded and shaped to suit the agenda of many different people”. She expounded that transparency is now more needed than ever as “people want to know where they spend their hard-earned money”.
This call for transparency came about with the 2013 devastating collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that killed and injured thousands of workers. The gruesome tragedy not only highlighted the deadly cost of fashion but the dubious, complex web of the global supply chain.
According to reports, people dug through the rubble searching for clothing labels in an effort to find out the brands producing clothes in the plaza’s five garment factories. Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global movement, highlights in its Fashion Transparency Index 2020 that “it took weeks to determine what sort of purchasing agreements they had with those suppliers”. The reality, as underscored in the report is as such: “The vast majority of those today’s fashion brands and retailers do not own their manufacturing and supplier facilities, making it challenging to control and monitor building and fire safety, working conditions, and environmental management across a highly globalised and fragmented supply chain.”
Jaffer expands on the sentiment, calling for more traceability for brands’ supply chains. “It’s not just about telling, but knowing. The biggest supply chains often don’t know where their inventory comes from. Unknowingly, the factory they source from might outsource from three other places which could be sweatshops because they couldn’t take the demands.”
But what exactly does transparency entail? According to Fashion Revolution, this means public disclosure about challenges they face and actual honest results, as well as accountability, so brands can take responsibility for their human rights practices and environmental policies. It is this accountability that matters most in such pandemics, where the most vulnerable in now-disrupted supply chains, such as daily wage workers and a migrant workforce, are unable to secure wages, shelter, and even food.
In 2013, Fashion Revolution started the #whomademyclothes campaign for consumers to pressure brands and producers to share the makers behind the products. At the heart of it, this “reignites that sense of connection to the things we buy and making that mainstream and normalised,” said Jaffer.
Jacqui Hocking, Founding Partner, Vision Strategy Storytelling and co-founder of Singapore’s Eco Film Festival, as well as Prestige’s 40 under 40 lister in 2019, echoes that connection — or a lack thereof — is the pivotal reason for much of the world’s problems. “We are so disconnected from ourselves, and from nature that we don’t even care about climate change. We need to fix love, compassion and communities,” she lamented in an interview last year.
A slower, more thoughtful world
Shinji Yamasaki, CEO of RE:ERTH, believes that empathy is at the core of excellency. “We hope this time of self-isolation will spark creative and true solutions for a more socially responsible way of living and consuming. Consumers will increasingly consider broader health, environmental, and societal concerns when making decisions.” he said via an email interview.
Tired of the lack of transparency in the beauty industry, the local beauty brand, which has existing fair-trade practices and uses sustainable ingredients, sought a meaningful solution for packaging concerns. For the uninitiated, the beauty industry is one of the biggest culprits for waste production. It relies heavily on plastic for its packaging, and, according to Zero Waste Week’s study in 2018, more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the cosmetics industry every year. And while sustainable packaging is on the rise, not all of them are recyclable.
According to RE:ERTH, “each bottle [can] contain up to five or six different plastic materials, with some being difficult to open and clean without breaking them apart and others being made with materials that cannot be recycled”.
Yamasaki and his co-founders chose Environmental Solutions Asia as a collaborator as “it gave full transparency as to where exactly used bottles would go, and how every part can be made usable again.” Mixed plastic skincare bottles, dropped off by customers at three locations and without having to be dismantled, washed, or cleaned, would be turned into reusable fuel that is non-fossil derived. “Waste would become treasure, and will not be incinerated nor contribute to landfills,” he explained. Being locally-based would also mean a reduction in carbon footprint.
For local skincare brand Yours, reducing product waste starts with eliminating skincare trial-and-error. Founder and CEO Navneet Kaur believes that the crux of the issue is achieving the right skincare regimen. Her brand does so by using technology to assess your skin’s needs in order to personalise the right routine and products. Yours also only works with suppliers with a fully visible supply chain.
But Yamasaki cautions that, within the beauty industry, “having open conversations and simply acknowledging there is no perfect answer in the current exploration/progressive stage is important.”
Still, the changes in both industries are certainly encouraging. We’re now seeing more and more emerging labels that put sustainability first in the luxury scene. Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hearst believes that “luxury was sustainability. It meant a few objects in your life that you’d grow with. They were things that took time to do”, she said in an interview with Prestige in 2019.
Hearst prioritises sustainability on all fronts. For her Spring/Summer 2020 collection, a quick scan of the garments’ QR labels will provide you information about her supply chain, including materials used, country of origin, production process, and certifications. This dedication to sustainability extends to working with well-sourced natural fibres, biodegradable packaging, and her stores. Her New York outpost was built using natural, non-treated reclaimed oak, with 90 per cent of material waste from construction recycled.
Over at the Surrender store in Orchard Road, Swiss-based label Sottes only works with recycled materials procured, up-cycling them personally in their workshop alongside local seamstresses.
But we’re also seeing remarkable changes from big-name labels. Topping the ranks for luxury in Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020, which covers “how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts” is the now entirely carbon-neutral Gucci.
Burberry, has just launched its ReBurberry Edit, its Spring/Summer 2020 collection with 26 designs, made from innovative sustainable materials including econyl, which is a recycled nylon made from regenerated fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic, a new nylon made from renewable resources such as castor oil, as well as polyester yarn created from recycled plastic bottles. The launch coincides with the label’s new dedicated sustainability labels informing the customer of the item’s ‘positive attributes’ such as social initiatives and delivery against carbon emissions standards. Two thirds of the label’s products currently have one or more positive attribute, with a stretch goal for all products to be labelled as such by 2022.
On the other side of the spectrum, Swedish retailer H&M has encouragingly scored the highest — a marker for a more positive sign of the times, considering fast fashion’s notoriously wasteful practices and environmental costs.