If you think that finding eco-friendly products in Singapore is almost impossible, we’re here to change your mind! From knitting classes to organic oils, we give you the inside scoop on seven entrepreneurs who are inspiring change in the industry through their sustainable, ethical or socially responsible businesses.
Ethically-produced statement accessories
Kristin Mariella, Twin Within
Having represented Icelandic labels in fashion showrooms or at trade shows for over six years, Kristin felt the need to branch out on her own. So she started her own eco-friendly label in 2013 in Iceland, making her jewellery by hand for the first year and a half.
Her signature statement necklace designs are a fusion of both feminine and masculine elements, using a combination of fishing and climbing ropes, hardware, rubber tubes and magnets, she explains. “I believe you can create beautiful pieces from simple raw materials; it just comes down to creativity.”
After moving to Singapore, she looked for a way to outsource the production of her necklaces. Having developed a special connection to her jewellery through the hand-making process, however, she felt strongly that it had to be produced with love and care, and within ethical parameters.
“I had no idea where I would find the kind of workmanship I wanted. Production by hand and according to fair trade practices isn’t exactly typical of most factories in Asia.”
Her research eventually led her to stumble on a small advertisement for an organisation in Tagaytay City in the Philippines, under the auspices of the international charitable movement Focolare, which provides job opportunities for disadvantaged women.
The rest is history, she says. “Before I knew it, I was on a plane with my husband and our then nine-month-old daughter to check out their facilities. We honestly had no idea what to expect, but our gut instincts told us to go for it!”
Was it easy to take into account the ethics aspect of every step of the production process? Definitely not, says Kristin. “It took about a year to set everything up, and for us to be able to run larger production numbers, but it was well worth the wait!
Being socially responsible in the way we operate is one of the core purposes of my business. Our vision is to give back, every step of the way.” This has taken her to other countries to look for production opportunities; now, she has some of her metal detailing crafted in Bali, giving back to a local community there too. Though it’s been tough, it’s been hugely rewarding both personally and professionally.
Socially responsible organic argan oil production
Habiba Raffa, Ayelli
Seeing Ayelli as more than just another beauty brand, Habiba is also committed to giving back through her eco-friendly business. “Through my argan oil, I realised I could not only produce high-performance products, but also improve the lives of female farmers back in Morocco.”
Argan oil production is labour-intensive, she explains, requiring specific skills that have traditionally been held by rural women. To make Ayelli argan oil, the work is carried out by skilled female farmers living in the argan forests in Morocco, employed for their special skills in harvesting and drying the fruit, and then cracking the kernals from the nuts.
The business gives these women increased financial power and social freedom in a socially and economically fragile region, enabling them to send their kids to school and get health care. In the future, Habiba hopes to partner with other local entities to work towards female empowerment. “I believe in creating effective cosmetics which carry a sense of community and care for our planet. It’s my aim to build a group of health-conscious and socially responsible consumers, too.”
100% organic cotton clothing
Dragos Necula and Yumiko Uno, Etrican
Sharing an interest in sustainability, Dragos, originally from Romania, and Yumiko, from Japan, came together to launch Etrican, a clothing label that uses only GOTS-certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) organic cotton. “Both of us had knowledge of the problems inherent in the fast-fashion industry, which prompted us to have a go at doing fashion better,” says Dragos.
“In the course of about a year and a half of planning and research, we realised just how little responsible and eco-friendly fashion was available in Asia, despite most of the more sustainable textiles like organic cotton or bamboo being produced here.”
Settling on Singapore as a base, they launched their pilot collection here in December 2009, making them one of the pioneering sustainable brands on the market. Once part of the production control team who launched fair trade fashion label People Tree, Yumiko has a deep passion for design that is rooted in sustainable practices.
“The main difference between organic and nonorganic cotton is that the production of organic cotton doesn’t use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides, which are harmful to the environment,” she explains. “Other benefits include using less energy and water during production, and creating fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”
The maker revolution
Adeline Loo, It Takes Balls
My mum first sent me for knitting classes when I was nine, but as you can imagine, the old traditional patterns didn’t hold my interest for too long!” says Adeline, nimbly working on what looks like the start of another clutch bag. It Takes Balls (a gutsy name!) first started out as a blog. It was her way of challenging the way fashion is made – of resisting a consumerist and materialistic culture that is largely built on the backs of the less-fortunate individuals who make our clothes and accessories.
Running a socially responsible business has its challenges. For one thing, it can be difficult to find the right suppliers of raw materials. “If a company can’t tell us exactly what it’s made of, by whom or from where, we won’t stock it. We only support places with visible supply chains,” she says.
Output is another challenge. “Our partners and stockists have been very supportive and understanding of our eco-friendly business model, but it’s always a struggle to explain why we cannot provide products with a shorter lead time (since we don’t mass produce or use machines). So, we can’t meet most minimum order requirements.” Though that has restricted the growth of It Takes Balls, Adeline is confident that she will strike the right balance, given time.
Supporting communities in Jaipur
Gema Santander, Baliza
Each piece in Baliza’s summery collections is designed by Gema and her business partner, Ruth Gonzalez. “I draw the ideas and patterns and send them to Ladli via email. Then the artisans cut, stitch and hand-embroider each piece, also using traditional techniques like hand-block printing and fabric dyeing.”
Improving the lives of disadvantaged children in Jaipur is what motivates Gema and her team to improve and expand their collections. Currently, around 100 young adults and 200 Gudri women are working at Ladli. At the centre, they learn English and Hindi plus arts and crafts skills, and receive a fair salary, medical care, meals and psychological support.
The young adults attend school, earn certificates and pursue their careers, while the adults are taught a skill, given financial support and advised on managing their finances.
For her, creating a fashion business that’s rooted in ethical practice is all about living in touch with your local community, and fighting poverty. “It’s the same with groceries – I try to buy from and support local trade. I do the same when I’m back in Spain, too, where everything I buy is from local butchers, fishmongers, farmers, craftsmen and designers.”
Sustaining artisan tradition
Renyung Ho, Matter
Though it recently launched a range of jumpsuits and playsuits, Matter first became known for its printed pants. “We wanted to start with one product category,” explains Ren. “I believe it’s important to start with just one item, and become very good at it.” Her main focus now is to further the sustainability of the textile artisan industry, and finding the right partners for this involves a lot of research and travelling.
“We try to work with communities of artisans instead of individuals, so as to raise their incomes and improve their economic opportunities; and with socially responsible manufacturers that focus on fair wages.”
“We started production in India mainly because of the incredible diversity of its textile crafts: our eight different partners there range from a small block-printing family business to a larger weaving cooperative. I’m also excited about expanding our network into Thailand and Indonesia.”
Continually inspired to improve the state of the fashion industry, Ren believes that it’s only a matter of time before there’s a real revolution in the way people consume clothing. “It’s going to be a natural progression. We’re already seeing a great revolution in the arena of food, so it’s inevitable that clothing, our second biggest necessity, will be next.”
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