Sunday, December 12, 2010

10 Dec 10: The Business Times

I'm personally extremely chuffed by the "greening" of the consumer lifestyle movement in Singapore. We're being quoted in Melissa Lwee's article.
    Sustainable bling: Sustainable jewellery designer Choo Yilin whose designs (above) include jade bangles, jade rings and organic coral cocktail rings, says design and cost are the two primary factors for the majority of her customers. Sustainability comes in a distant third in their decision-making to purchase

THE West may have traditionally been perceived as the leaders in the eco movement while Singapore lags apathetically behind, but things look set to change, at least, in the fashion aspect.

Local retail stores, for example, have started to stock up on eco-friendly labels in recent years, and it looks like more local designers are jumping on the 'green' bandwagon as well.

Take the eco-friendly fashion label Etrican that was started last December by Dragos Necula and Yumiko Uno because they felt that this was a niche in the local fashion industry which could be filled.

The label uses only eco fabrics such as organic cotton and recycled materials and the company tries to be environmentally responsible in every step of the supply and production chain.

'The two of us have a passion for fashion and we believe strongly in responsible business so it made perfect sense to combine the two. This is how Etrican was born,' reveals Mr Necula who is Etrican's head of business development.

'Singapore has a very strong fashion retail environment but over the past few years much of it has been plagued by throw-away fast fashion which is kept very cheap most often at the expense of the environment and the workers producing it. We felt there wasn't a clear alternative to this trend so we set out to provide one - eco friendly clothing that is chic yet still affordable for most people.'

Although only one year old, Etrican has already achieved promising results, acquiring six stockists including one in Melbourne. It recently expanded its women's range with a new collection and introduced a range of accessories made of recycled materials.

'The company is doing pretty well, and our business growth has been beyond our expectations,' says Mr Necula. 'I don't want to talk figures but let's just say we didn't expect to be able to put on a fashion show in an Orchard Road mall with about 100 VIP guests within a year nor did we expect to be able to introduce accessories in our product offering and expand abroad so quickly.'

One thing that eco-designers have found is that environmental issues not withstanding, people buy such products only if the designs appeal to them.

It's certainly the case for ex-architect Jujube Li who started her eco-friendly fashion label earlier this year which only uses 100 per cent ecological and biodegradable textiles.

'I would say that design still comes first for most of my consumers but while it would be nice to have more people actively seek out eco-brands like mine, being eco has helped in terms of repeat customers,' she says.

Perhaps, Ms Li muses, this is partly because they like the idea that her designs use a (soon-to-patented) G.R.O.W Modulated Clothing Design System System which allows each piece to be taken apart and put together (with the aid of zippers) to come up with interesting new combinations.

'As my designs can be mixed and matched, people can get greater mileage out of them, which means that they don't need to buy that many pieces,' she says. 'Enabling the consumer to create as many as 25 different styles with just five pieces within the same collection lets them keep up with the latest fashion while reducing wastage as well as lowering the cost of each new style they wear.'

Sustainable jewellery designer Choo Yilin agrees: 'Design and cost are the two primary factors for the majority of the consumers I meet. The sustainability factor comes in a distant third in their decision-making to purchase.'

That said, regardless of why the products get sold, local designers maintain that at the very least, each sale means greater awareness amongst consumers.

'It is true that we do have a fair amount of customers who buy just because they like our products, and not necessarily because of our eco credentials,' admits Mr Necula.

'At the same time though, we've learnt through studies that about 10 to 20 per cent of our customers hear about eco-fashion for the first time when buying Etrican so we believe that our products contribute to raising people's awareness about issues of sustainability.'

Ms Choo is on the same page: 'I am under no illusion that most people buy our jewellery because of our sustainability angle; however, if one more person is more environmentally aware or socially conscious after hearing about our label's work, I think that's good start. To us, the act of effectively communicating these messages through our designs is as important as the consumers' decision to purchase from us.'

To further boost the eco-fashion message, Ms Choo and Ms Li collaborated last month with sustainable footwear retailer Terra Plana Singapore and Green Drinks Singapore founder Olivia Choong on a workshop consisting of talks and a discussion panel titled the Sustainable Luxury Design Workshop to talk about the design in fashion and offer tips on shopping sustainably.

'There were two main things that we hoped to achieve with these sessions,' explains Ms Choong.
'Firstly, we were hoping to engage more consumers to learn more about shopping responsibly but we were also hoping that they would provide the media with a reason to discuss these issues in their publications. We hoped that the publicity would then drum up demand for ecologically friendly products and thus inspire more suppliers to jump on board.'

To which Terra Plana's marketing director Keith Lee adds: 'Consumers are a lot more influential than they think and through a simple act of purchasing, one can help set new standards for responsible products.'

Indeed, it is precisely because there is a growing consumer demand for green products that local fashion manufacturers are adopting sustainable practices.

One such company is Bodynits International, a supplier of garments which since last year has experimented with recycled polyester fabric.

'Obviously, we're still in the initial stages of the research and development and there are some concerns that the process may not be as green because of the chemicals used to recycle the polyester,' says its marketing and communications director Lynn Tan. 'But we feel that so long as we don't have to make new fabrics, we are still reducing the chemical usage which does make it ecologically friendlier.'

She adds, 'That said, some of our customers, and in particular the international ones whom we export to, are very supportive of such an initiative.'

That international fashion houses are actively procuring manufacturers who adopt ecological and sustainable practices is one of the main reasons why the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) is stepping up to roll out new initiatives to ensure that local designers, buyers, retailers and manufacturers are best prepared to meet this trend.

Last month, WDA got together with the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFf) to host the Sustainable Fashion Seminar at Marina Bay Sands where international leaders of the eco-fashion movement such as William Anderson of adidas Group and Iresha Somarathna of Brandix Lanka were invited to speak. WDA also launched three new Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) courses in sustainable fashion at the same time.

'The aim of the seminars was to raise awareness within the fashion and textile industry,' says Julia Ng, director of WDA's manufacturing and construction division. 'We not only hoped that the local participants would have been inspired by the speakers to go green, they will also send their employees for the new WSQ sustainable fashion courses so as to build a sustainable fashion business model.'

She adds that it has become increasingly important for local fashion and in particular textile manufacturers to go green.

'Our local apparel manufacturers export about 45 per cent of their output to the US and EU markets that are very ecologically conscious.' she says. 'Companies like Sing Lun Holdings, Ocean Sky International and Ghim Li Global for example are among the top 10 suppliers to major brands and department stores like Nike, GAP, Marks & Spencer and Macy's which have committed to going green. If the local players want to remain competitive, they have to align themselves to this global trend.'

This is precisely the vision and mission that dye and speciality chemical manufacturing and formulating experts Matex International Limited has had for at least the past five years.

The mainboard-listed company recycles by-products created during their manufacturing process for other applications. And their in-house technologies combined with minimal waste-water in their manufacturing plants has also helped the company save water resources and reduce operating costs.

'We supply through our customers to some of the biggest fashion houses in the world and they are leading players in their global green initiative driven programmes.' says Dro Tan, Matex's executive director. 'Our linked practices definitely give us some edge over our traditional competitors who have not yet come on the green bandwagon. I would estimate that compared to five years ago, there has been about a 70 per cent increase in overall interest in our greener dyeing processes and about 85 per cent increase if you're just looking at the local market.'

While still a relatively small start, the prognosis for the green fashion movement in Singapore seems positive. As the eco movement evolves from noble cause to global business trend, it's just a matter of time before ever pragmatic Singapore fashion companies find it worth their while to go green too.

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