Buy, wear, dump: How Singapore can stop drowning in clothes

Sustainable living was front and center last year at The Green Is The New Black festival at South Beach. Photo: Green Is The New Black/Facebook
Sustainable living was front and center last year at The Green Is The New Black festival at South Beach. Photo: Green Is The New Black/Facebook

Singaporeans are blindly consuming and in turn generating more fashion waste than ever, according to recent surveys. Coconuts Singapore talked to a wardrobe expert, an avid supporter and owners of second-hand businesses to shed light on why we consume so much and how to start looking for alternatives.

Seven in 10 Singaporeans buy new clothes at least once every six months, a 2019 survey found, even though most are aware it contributes to pollution of the environment. 

Know thyself better, suggests Jeann Ng, a certified style coach and founder of an online personal styling boutique. Ng, who has worked with companies such as BHG, BellaMarieFrance, and Civil Service Club Singapore, believes the main reason for cluttered wardrobes is people’s lack of knowledge about what suits their style and where to shop for it. 

“With my years of experience with shoppers, most people make purchases as far as what they are exposed to. If you have a good knowledge of what works for you, shopping will be usually in a controlled manner with a well-balanced variety,” the 37-year-old said. 

Otherwise, people are likely to overload their closets with this and that.

“On the opposite end, not knowing how to fill the gaps in your wardrobe appropriately, may find yourself end up with purchases that have no fixed styles and the end result of a cluttered looking wardrobe,” she added.

To lower one’s fashion consumption, she suggests being a more discriminating consumer. That means learning how to shop for yourself, finding your personal style and working trends into that style to figure out what works and what does not. 

Also, Jeann encourages swapping clothing at swap shops, which are gaining popularity in sustainable fashion.

A “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” sign at a clothing shop. Photo: Charles Etoroma
A “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” sign at a clothing shop. Photo: Charles Etoroma

One of those is The Fashion Pulpit, located at Marine One. Owner Raye Padit said fast fashion has put so much clothing in reach of consumers that we’re suffering from the same tendency to overconsume which is the root cause of so many problems.

“Everyone has the capacity and the resources to take part in the industry as a consumer. It becomes more accessible, affordable and convenient as a shopper. You also can’t blame the brand or the consumer because it takes two to clap, they are fueling each other,” he said.

At Padit’s shop, customers can bring in their own clothing to swap with others, repair or transform it into something more fashionable and functional.

Though temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the shop normally receives about 50 items every weekday and double that on weekends.

Noel Low, who manages at a Catholic thrift store, thinks Singaporeans buy on impulse. 

“Singaporeans seem to display the ‘haste to make waste,’” said Low, who leads the Society of St. Vincent de Paul shop on Geylang Road. 

He said people are always dumping “their preloved items … to make room for newer and more substantial purchases, to the extent that the typical consumer never seems to stop buying.”

The thrift shop sells second-hand goods like clothing, accessories and household and novelty items. Low said it regularly gets a lot of donations.

He said that’s a tell-tale sign of “the typical, possibly compulsive buying” habits of the average Singaporean consumer.

Singapore’s wealth and love for shopping also factor in to the consuming frenzy, according to Nejla Matam-Finn, owner of luxury vintage online platform The Fifth Collection. 

“We live in a very rich country and shopping and food are national sports in Singapore and it has always been the case. Singaporean women love their trends, love their fashion and they do invest in it,” she said.

Her platform helps people sell unwanted luxury items and still receive daily collections mostly from Singaporean women who are either too busy or do not want the hassle to sell it themselves. 

“They also follow the trend so it’s not rare for Singaporeans to get two or three luxury bags a year where in Germany they will buy one bag and keep it for five or 10 years before purchasing another,” she added.

Photo: Image Mission/Facebook
Photo: Image Mission/Facebook

‘Finding one’s treasure’

Instead of tackling the production level and the supply chain, secondhand businesses fill the gap by prolonging the lifespan of already manufactured clothes to benefit sustainability.

“The most sustainable way of shopping is on the secondhand market because the resource has already been used, just making sure that they are being utilized until the end of their life span,” Nejla said.

Raye wants shoppers to think of alternatives first before buying new goods.

“We should at least ask ourselves before buying: How many times would we wear them and can I source it in another way like swap or shop secondhand or even rental?” he said. “There’s a lot of ways for you to express yourself through fashion and not just through the conventional way of buying.”

Wei Lee Yap, a 25-year-old freelance videographer and secondhand fanatic, is doing exactly that. She attributes a wave of new awareness to driving her to actively avoid fast fashion brands and has made secondhand goods her first choice for the past four years. She shops every two months at The Fashion Pulpit and occasionally at New2U and The Kint Story.

“It started out from a human rights point of view. I was learning from articles and watching documentaries,” she said, citing the case of Zara’s unpaid factory workers sewing pleas of help into their clothes and Indian factories prescribing illegal, harmful pills to female workers for their period pains.

“It opened a can of worms to realize how damaging the fashion industry is to the environment,” she added. “It’s very depressing but I’d rather know what’s going on.”

On top of contributing to a more sustainable environment, she also mentioned that thrifting can be a thrilling experience when you managed to find something amongst the pile of clothes.

Noel feels the same way and shared that part of the thrill in physically visiting a thrift shop “comes from expecting the unexpected, in finding one’s treasure.”

However, some disagree and feel uncomfortable shopping at secondhand shops they perceive as dusty, smelly or disorganized.

“At the time when I opened, most of the secondhand store brick and mortar were often in second- and third-tier malls,” Nejla said. “People didn’t feel comfortable being seen shopping secondhand and they were staring at each other.”

Some even believe the items carry the lingering souls of the dead, a common narrative that Wei Lee has heard from her peers.

“People around me were saying that you never really know what’s the history of the clothes, if they belong to the dead,” she said. 

Photo: The Fashion Pulpit/Facebook
Photo: The Fashion Pulpit/Facebook

Moving forward

Though most habits remain unchanged, Nejla is hopeful that sustainable brands are having a modest impact and bringing change to the industry, citing recent sustainable initiatives from brands such as H&M’s Conscious collection and Zalora’s newly launched “preloved” section.

“I think businesses like mine are giving a hard time for fast fashion right now, I think fast fashion has ignored us for a long time thinking that it was going to be a trend and going to fade,” Nejla said.

“I think it’s going to grow from here, the industry is not going to go anywhere. We’re going to have more players, specialists and I don’t think it’s going to stop at fashion, second hand is going to expand in other areas,” she added.

For newbies who want to start shopping secondhand, Wei Lee suggests organizing swap sessions with friends and family for those who might feel uncomfortable going to the stores at first and let go of expectations while thrifting.

“Go without expectations because you really never know what you’re going to find and that is the exciting part – be open to what you may find and what you allow yourself to try!” she said.

Other stories you should check out:
Make sustainable living ‘sexy’ at three-day virtual Conscious Festival
Look good, feel good with clothes from these homegrown slow-fashion brands
Meet Ava Gram, Singapore’s woke, fashionable and gender-fluid influencer
The Singapore personalities show support for #BlackLivesMatter
Film fans throw lifeline to struggling indie cinema The Projector

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