It sounds like a nightmare for any entrepreneur: you launch a new business, and soon thereafter, the world is thrown into disarray due to a global pandemic.

That is what happened to Brandy Dallas, the Singapore-based Canadian founder of Sans Faff, a minimalist fashion label using bamboo fabric from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified sustainable plantations that do not contribute to deforestation and natural habitat loss.

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The former luxury marketer recalls, “We launched in Feb 2020, days before the world, including myself, fully understood what was about to happen.” Rather than set back the fledgling company, the pandemic accelerated its establishment.

Dallas continues, “Although the pandemic wasn’t a factor in the timing of our launch, it accelerated our share of voice in the market. Suddenly, everyone was using social media to shop, connect and pass the time while in lockdown.”

“As a new online label that would have traditionally struggled to build a presence among all the online clutter, we suddenly had a captive audience looking to us for new content and inspiration. It helped us to build our community.”

Green is good business

Sans Faff is not the only local green fashion business that has grown steadily despite Covid-19’s challenges. At sustainable fashion digital platform Zerrin (“golden” in Turkish), founder Susannah Jaffer reports that sales last year were up by 97 per cent from 2020 and also higher than pre- pandemic levels.

The platform went live at the end of 2017 and sells 55 brands including mostly fashion labels, but also beauty, jewellery and lifestyle brands.

One such brand is Dorsu, a Cambodian label that makes basics using remnant cotton jersey fabric from factories producing for big brands. Zerrin chooses its brands according to its Better Brands Framework, which focuses on five key areas: people, planet, product, packaging and principles.

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According to Jaffer, a Singapore-based Briton, the site’s expansion of its offerings during the same period was the primary reason for this growth in sales. However, she also believes that there has been a growing interest in sustainability, as traffic to the content-heavy website has steadily risen since the pandemic.

She says: “Since mid- 2020, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people discovering us through online searches or word of mouth. Many people land on our website through searching with phrases such as ‘sustainable brands Singapore’ or ‘greenwashing in fashion’.”

When asked why the topic has taken on greater importance, she offers, “For many of us, having to sit at home during the pandemic made us realise what’s important to us. Over the last two years, I believe many people have realised we don’t need as much stuff as we have. In addition, people are becoming increasingly aware of the climate crisis, which is in the news almost every other day.”

Indeed, sustainability has become impossible to ignore in the fashion industry. Last December, the Textile and Fashion Federation (Taff ) launched its fashion sustainability programme that benefits the local fashion industry as a whole, as well as Taff members, which include manufacturers, designers and brands, and retailers.

According to the trade association, “This is a timely programme as in Singapore alone, fashion and textile products account for 137,000 tonnes of waste, of which only four per cent is recycled”.

“We want to develop a roadmap for the industry,” says Wilson Teo, president of Taff. “Sustainability has such a broad scope that this will help us figure out where to focus on at the start, and to consequently develop a strategic plan for the industry.”

Teo is also the executive director of Teo Holdings, which engages in apparel manufacturing, trading and outsourcing, as well as brand development for wholesale, retail and distribution for children’s clothes and babywear.

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As a manufacturer, he explains: “Having a transparent supply chain is a priority for us and also for our brand partners, because that’s what consumers want. In the past, all that we needed to know, as a garment manufacturer, was where our fabrics were from. Now, we need to know where the yarns for the fabrics come from. And before that, we need to know where the fibres used to make the yarns originated.”

According to him, adopting socially and environmentally responsible business practices has become fundamental for business owners. He shares, “Keeping up with sustainability requirements has become table stakes for us as suppliers to work with these brands.”

Sustainability as a standard

It’s not just overtly green labels that adopt responsible practices or try to do so. While the brand does not explicitly bill itself as an eco-friendly brand, the founders of In Good Company have regarded sustainability as a core principle since 2012.

According to co- founder and marketing director Jaclyn Teo, the clothing is produced in small batches at a “family-run cottage production” facility in Jiangsu province in China, whereas its accessories are handcrafted by Singaporean and Indonesian women working from home.

Since last year, the local fashion label has used organic hemp, a linen-denim blend and an organic cotton with Lycra T400 fibre made largely from recycled materials. It also recently introduced accessories made of recycled metal.

In addition to customer feedback, Teo explains that the decision to use these materials was based on their increasing availability over the last few years. “As sustainability has gained prominence, some of the fabric mills we work with have adopted more innovative, eco-friendly practices and introduced fabrics that are greener.”

As online shopping increases because of Covid-19, the brand is also exploring greener alternatives for its packaging. Says Teo, “There are customers who request for less packaging. Our bags are resealable and can be used for returns or repackaging personal items. But there is space for improvement in reducing our use of plastic, and we are looking into alternatives.”

Elsewhere, some green practices have indirectly resulted from other constraints caused by the pandemic. Designer Shannon Lee, who started Shirt Number White in 2019, says, “We don’t claim to be sustainable, but we try to be responsible in how we source our fabrics, our production processes, and who we work with.”

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The majority of his designs are women’s shirts, for which he drafts and sews samples. Currently, the pieces are produced in small batches in Singapore, but this was not due to a desire to reduce his carbon footprint. Lee candidly reveals that producing locally was not his first choice, as higher labour costs here can make production 40 to 50 per cent more expensive compared to working with a factory in the region.

However, Lee turned to small local sewing houses after an unsatisfactory experience with a factory overseas, exacerbated by the fact that Covid travel restrictions meant he could not visit the facility to keep tabs on the manufacturing process. In working with local seamstresses, he can easily request adjustments to pieces where necessary, and he hopes to continue this practice after the pandemic ends.

Navigating muddied waters

Sustainability has gained momentum over the course of the pandemic, but many challenges remain.

The founder of eco- friendly brand Esse the Label, Alicia Tsi, shares, “When we started in 2017, only a handful of our customers were eco- conscious and understood the brand’s philosophy. Over the years, we have found that a bigger proportion of our customers now care more about the choice of fabrics and provenance of their garments.”

Unfortunately, this growing eco- consciousness has led some brands to inflate their claims of sustainability to boost their marketing. According to Tsi, many fashion brands, notably fast-fashion brands, still have opaque supply chains. “The rise of greenwashing has also muddied the waters, making it difficult for even the most discerning customers to figure out if what they are buying is genuinely made in a sustainable and responsible way.”

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Of course, it does not help that ethically produced garments are often more expensive than mass-produced, cheap clothing. The use of materials or practices certified by a third party can serve as a way to demonstrate one’s green credentials, but obtaining such certification can be prohibitively expensive.

Jaffer notes: “There are nuances and grey areas, especially when you work with small businesses. For example, one of our brands, Sui, uses Kala cotton, which is indigenous to Kutch, a region in India. Its growth and production processes are organic, but it would be too expensive for these small producers to get their factories certified.”

For eco-minded fashion business owners, there is another big dilemma: At what point does encouraging consumption, no matter how green the goods in question are, become irresponsible? Jaffer says, “Balancing sustainability messaging with growth is a funny situation to be in. Even though we want to generate revenue for ourselves and our brands, we still say, ‘Shop responsibly’.”

(Related: For Kia Jiehui, business development at Ichi Seiki goes hand in hand with sustainability)