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The true cost of demand for cheap clothes, to you and the environment

It turns out that the fashion industry produces more carbon emissions than the airline and shipping industries combined. The programme Talking Point finds out if it is possible to dress affordably and more sustainably too.

The true cost of demand for cheap clothes, to you and the environment

Workers in Singapore sorting through second-hand clothing to be exported.

SINGAPORE: These are items Singaporeans can get more cheaply now than 10 years ago.

In fact, clothing prices have fallen to their lowest in a decade, according to the Consumer Price Index for last year — thanks to an explosion of retailers, including Zalora and Pomelo, competing on online platforms since 2010.

With prices going from as low as S$3 to S$15 for trendy clothes, Singapore’s e-commerce revenue from apparel and footwear jumped more than eightfold between 2016 and last year, from S$52 million to S$442 million.

But fast fashion comes at a price: The fashion industry released 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions in 2018, according to McKinsey — more than the airline and shipping industries combined (900 million and 1.1 billion tonnes respectively).

The numbers vary between reports, but the fashion industry has higher carbon emissions than most.

Is there a happy balance between bargain hunting and saving the environment? Or is the cost of cheap fashion greater than people expect? The programme Talking Point investigates.

IT’S THE SUPPLY CHAIN

One factor in fast fashion’s prices is volume of production. Some “mega” e-commerce retailers can release between 500 and 1,000 items per category every week, said MDIS School of Fashion and Design lecturer Kae Hana.

A top can be designed, produced and marketed so quickly that e-commerce has made fashion go even faster, “and it’s now called ultra-fast fashion”.

In this business model, retailers first find a trending style and create designs in small batches to test demand. If sufficient demand arises, more of those successful designs are produced to capture sales.

A cupboard filled with clothes from online shops, like Shopee, AliExpress and Shein.com.

This can be done in double-quick time because of vertical integration in the supply chain. “(These e-commerce players) own the production companies … the fabric dyers (and) the logistics companies,” she cited.

This process, from concept to sales, takes as fast as two weeks or less. And with consumers “across the world”, the more an item is produced, “the cheaper it gets”.

The fashion industry’s long supply chain, however, is a reason for its high carbon emissions, said Chu Wong, the country co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution Singapore.

“It starts with the agricultural and the petrochemical industries for the raw materials. It goes on into the manufacturing industry for the fibres to be turned into fabrics and eventually into clothing,” she said.

“It touches the packaging industry (and) logistics industry. Eventually, it gets to the retail industry and to us.”

T-shirts, shorts and bargain buys at the end of the fashion industry's long supply chain.

The low prices also lead to overconsumption and overproduction, she said. “Cheap fashion tempts us as consumers to purchase more because of the accessibility, and so more is produced. And that’s what makes cheap fashion so dangerous.”

She added that synthetic fibres, such as acrylic and nylon, are often used “because they’re cheaper” than natural ones. But they “have a higher carbon footprint” — the extraction process “is very energy-intensive” as they are oil-based fibres.

ECO-FRIENDLY AND INEXPENSIVE?

The more sustainable options include fabrics such as recycled polyester and Tencel. The latter is derived from wood pulp, usually from the eucalyptus tree.

But shoppers can do more than look at the fabric to find out how sustainably produced an item of clothing is, advised Susannah Jaffer, the founder of online platform Zerrin, which curates options in sustainable fashion.

Susannah Jaffer with Talking Point host Sharda Harrison.

“Natural materials, like linen, Tencel (and) bamboo, are definitely more sustainable … because (they’re) biodegradable (at the) end-of-life,” she said.

But you need to go a little bit deeper … read labels, do research on brands. Also, look at how much information they’re sharing.

Sustainable clothing is not all that better for the environment either. For example, recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic and polyethylene terephthalate bottles but is not biodegradable, she cited.

“When it comes to organic cotton, it uses less pesticides when it’s produced. However, it still takes 2,700 litres of water to produce an organic cotton T-shirt … the same as it would a traditional cotton T-shirt,” she added.

“That’s more than we’d drink in two and a half years.”

Usually, sustainable clothes are more expensive owing to their production methods and are produced in fewer numbers than those made from more conventional fabrics.

Organic cotton pyjamas. (File photo: Reuters/Michele Tantussi)

And that higher cost is the main barrier stopping Singaporeans from buying sustainable clothes, according to a DBS “conscious fashion” survey in 2019.

Jaffer said many fast-fashion brands are able to produce cheaper clothes in their “sustainable capsule collections” because they still produce “over 90 per cent of their collections through the traditional fast-fashion model”.

“It’s not possible (to have sustainable fashion at cheap prices) because you have to think about the additional costs of production, for better quality materials,” she added. “That could cost (sustainable brands) 50 per cent, 60 per cent more.”

COST VS QUALITY

Despite the higher price tags, clothes made from sustainable materials are often more cost-effective in the long run.

WATCH: Capsule wardrobe challenge: I survived on 5 clothing items for 10 days (9:04)

When Talking Point put clothes made from different fabrics — including bamboo, cotton, linen, polyester and Tencel — through washing, comfort and durability tests, Tencel clothes retained their colours and shapes better after 30 washes, compared to cotton and polyester clothes.

Cheap clothes are suitable for short-term wear, after which many Singaporeans would donate or discard them.

According to a CNA report in 2018, however, only about 10 per cent of the clothes given to the Salvation Army, for example, are sold in its thrift shops, while the remaining 90 per cent are exported.

WATCH: Recycling in Singapore: What will it take to bring the numbers up?

Daro Tan, a manager at SNI Trading, which has been exporting second-hand textiles for more than 10 years, said many of the clothes it receives go mainly to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and South Africa.

Bundles of second-hand clothing at SNI Trading, ready for export.

He said exporting used clothing for reuse is more suitable than recycling, as each piece of clothing may comprise many materials, making recycling “too time-consuming” and manpower-intensive.

Import restrictions in other countries, however, are making things more difficult for his company. These countries, he said, want to focus on their domestic clothing industries instead of depending on imports.

Since 2018, tighter import restrictions have led to a 40 per cent drop in Singapore’s second-hand clothing exports. In 2019, of the 168,000 tonnes of textile and leather waste generated here, only 4 per cent was recycled, i.e. exported.

The rest ended up being incinerated. “It’s really a huge waste,” said Tan.

So what can be done to solve the problem of buying and throwing away cheap clothing to the detriment of the environment?

WATCH: The full episode — Our love for cheap clothes: What’s the true cost? (23:54)

“Perhaps less is more,” said Talking Point host Sharda Harrison, who created four different looks for herself from the same black outfit by, for example, combining it with jeans and different accessories.

“With a bit of creativity, I can change up my style with clothes I already have and do my little part in saving our planet.”

Watch this episode of Talking Point here. The programme airs on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.

Harrison wearing a black top and floral dress for a shirt-and-skirt effect.
Source: CNA/dp

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