Earlier in the week, we had a chat with Sasibai Kimis, coordinator of activist group Fashion Revolution Malaysia and founder of fair-trade Malaysian brand Earth Heir, to talk about ethics in fashion and sustainability. At the end of the interview, we concluded that individual action can cause a positive impact in the fast-paced world of fashion, and it may seem like an uphill battle to overcome the system in place, but not impossible.
The key takeaways were:
1) Make conscious purchases
Think about the life cycle of your new buy. They should preferably be pieces you’ll love and wear over and over.
2) Check the labels
Opt for natural fibres such as cotton and linen or other fabrics that are biodegradable.
3) Buy well
Save up and purchase a well-made item that will last you for years, decades and generations.
Watch or read the full interview below:
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How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the fashion industry?
I think a lot of fashion businesses (both garment manufacturers and designers), everybody’s having a huge drop in income because you can’t sell [product] physically. I think e-commerce has definitely picked up, but everybody’s revenue is definitely affected.
On a global scale, one of the issues that I’ve seen happening is because of [COVID-19], and because retail significantly dropped, a lot of the large scale brands have cancelled their orders from garment manufacturers like in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India. So a lot of these business, they depend on on these large brands to order from them. For example, their order book is filled for the whole year. So now suddenly a brand comes along and says, “Okay, we’re gonna cancel our orders for the whole year”.
All these factories have hundreds and thousands of people working for them, so all of these people are now jobless. It has really affected things in a sense, but I feel like as much as that could be a negative thing in terms of a lot of people not having jobs. I really do hope that there will be a huge change in the fashion industry.
This whole idea of consuming and [over] buying lifestyle has to change. We really have to start thinking about the things that are being made. Where are they coming from? How much are we making? What happens to this product when it can no longer be used? How is it affecting the environment? How is it affecting the person who made the product?
I also think that the fashion industry and even the whole idea of capitalism has been changed and come to a stop during this time. The whole world has to review how we live. How are we living in this world? How are we earning money? How is the economy being run? How is GDP (gross domestic product) calculated?
A big part of GDP is calculated by how much we consume. Consumption numbers and retail numbers matter for GDP calculation. So, the more people buy, the better the GDP is. But, is that really the right way of measuring well-being and growth of a nation and of a people? So I think a lot of these things need to be rethought and it has been going on like this for a hundred years? Now, things need to change.
Circling back to your point about factories, are they still able to operate because of the MCO?
In Malaysia, I think only factories that are making essential products. So, if you’re stitching PPE or you’re making something out of a non-woven material or something that is needed in the country at this time, then you’re allowed to work. So let’s say you’re a shoe factory and you’re makings shoes for the army or the police. If you’re part of a supply chain that is supporting the front liners or supporting industries in the nation (like provision of electricity, water, internet) [that] keep the basic bits of the country running.
What can an individual do in this time of need?
For me, if you are able do contribute to the many NGOs, social enterprises and civil society organisations that are distributing food. Earth Heir, Biji biji, Batik Boutique, Suri Lifestyle, Sew for Dignity are sewing PPE for hospitals, clinics and medical organisations in Malaysia. We need support in donations, so that can help.
I hope this time away from regular life has given people time to think about how they live. When you don’t get access to things, you start appreciating them. Global supply chain in anything that you buy in the world has come under stress and I hope that encourages all of us consumers to think about the impact of our decisions, and that comes from asking “Where is the product that I’m buying made?”, “Is the person who’s making it paid fairly?”, “Are they being treated well?”, “When I finish using this product, where does it go?”
We need to put up our antennas and see the world around us. And I hope other people get to learn is that we cannot live in our silo lives anymore. My actions can have impact on your life. This pandemic has shown us how connected we all are and how important it is to be good citizens and be socially responsible.
What can we do differently in a post-COVID-19 world?
[When it comes to fashion], read the label. I always look where it’s made and the materials used. I look out for natural fibres and avoid synthetic fibres as much as I can. I look for cotton, linen and silk because these are fabrics that are biodegradable and easy recycleable, while polyester and nylon are synthetic petroleum-based materials which are essentially plastic. So when you can no longer wear it, you’re throwing away plastic and that has a significant impact on the environment.
Are synthetic materials recycleable?
Yes, but they are non-biodegradable. The thing is, once you make it, it’s in the system and you have to think about how to get rid of it, and that’s the challenge.
What are the other ways we can change our shopping behaviour?
Doing your research in the brands that you buy from. Go to a brand’s Instagram page, website, read up about who they are. Do they share [information on] their supply chain? Do they share information about how they pay people?
For example, at Earth Heir we share how much money goes into materials, labour, marketing and transportation, so people understand what makes up the price of a product that is fairly priced.
You mentioned looking at countries where your clothes are made in. Is there a particular reason behind this?
There are certain countries that may not have as good of a reputation when it comes to labour laws and protection of the workers. If a garment is made in those countries, it’s important to figure out if those factories in those countries are safe and treating the workers well.
The Fashion Revolution movement started because 1,200 people died in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh…and they were making our clothes. It was a very unsafe building and very crowded. It’s going to be hard to figure out where exactly your clothes are made, but if you can find out the country of origin and check on the labour laws and check that the people that work in that country are protected.
What does sustainability mean to you, in your own words?
Everybody has different abilities to be ethical and sustainable. Sometimes being sustainable is seen as a luxury. A lot of people have told me, “I think that being sustainable is only for rich people. I don’t earn that much and I can’t afford to be sustainable”.
Why do people see sustainable fashion as a luxury?
I think it’s because the way fast fashion has reduced prices by reducing the amount paid to people. For example, if a t-shirt costs RM1, can you imagine the amount the person who made it is getting? It’s not a fair price for that product. So if you compute the fair price of a product, it is more. Because when you start paying people more, recycling waste from the factory and making sure it doesn’t damage the environment and doing things correctly and right by respecting the environment and people, prices of products will be slightly higher.
And that’s why I think the whole idea of consuming a lot at low and cheap prices is no longer valid in the world. We need to consider all of these other issues, and consider that the right price for a product may be higher. And that means, I will do my research, buy less, and buy higher quality.
Not enough people are aware of or practise sustainable fashion choices—what do you think is the biggest challenge for these individuals. Or why is that, in your opinion?
One is definitely lack of information. It’s hard to find information when you want to buy from a brand. For example, how many brands are actually transparent about supply chain or how they’re paying people?
And that’s why we as consumers we have the power to pressure brands and ask them questions. We have to use our influence and the ability that we have to ask brands to be more transparent.
Another challenge as mentioned earlier is cost. Because when you are paying for products fairly, the cost might be slightly higher.
What are your thoughts on fashion brands’ sustainable collections?
It’s definitely a good start and I’m glad more brands are starting sustainable lines. But it’s still very vague if brands don’t define what they qualify as sustainable. For example, a brand might decide to name a collection as sustainable because they used 1% organic cotton. So they need to share why they what they are doing is sustainable. More transparency and traceability of supply chains is needed and it can’t just be lip service. I also think brands need to consider environmental and human issues. Impacts on humans, like the people who make the products cannot be ignored and fair wages and other good labour practices must exist.
Where is Malaysia in terms of sustainability? How are we faring against other countries?
We are definitely not where I’ve seen other countries at. In 1998, I was living in Stockholm, Sweden. And back then, every single home in Sweden was already separating their trash and recycling their rubbish. All the waste is managed.
Look at Malaysia 22 years later, we’re still not even there. For me, I think there’s so much more we can be doing to be a sustainable society and country. It’s important for our cities and our leaders to start thinking more holistically about makes a society happy and successful.
How do you hope fashion to change after the pandemic subsides?
For fast fashion to drop! [laughs] I hope this period of lack has made people realise why its important to buy things that last. Because now when you don’t have access to cheap clothing anymore, you have to rely on what you have and hope that what you have is good enough to last you a long time.
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