Hi, I’m Mehendi Siraj, Sustainable Supply Chain Intern at MATTER and also assisting the team in creating an Artisan
Impact Metric. Throughout my two months here, I’ve learnt plenty about ethical
and sustainable brands and hence the team had me working on this “how to shop ethically guide”.
Instead of telling you what to buy and what not to buy, I thought I would just tell you how I feel and what goes through my head when people ask about being a socially responsible shopper.
As a broke college student who works two part time jobs to finance her spending, there is nothing more I like than cheap thrills. In fact, it has now come to a point where I actually genuinely enjoy the taste of cheap, junk food more than anything of quality. Despite all of that, you can imagine the surprised and baffled faces of those who know me when I tell them that I don’t shop at fast fashion labels.
Why? Because I cannot and will not support fast fashion. I don’t support fast fashion because someone’s whose life is already in a more precarious position than mine pays for my clothing by endangering their livelihood and that is not okay.
But you probably already knew that. Leading publications have released articles (such as this, this and this) and
there even has been a much-lauded documentary on the topic but the message seems to fall on deaf ears. I am not here to preach or write another article on why you should shop ethically but I do want to highlight the repercussions when we buy from retailers who turn a blind eye to ethics.
MATTER’s artisan partners are paid at or above market benchmarks, and the factory that we work with to enable garment production is internationally certified and compliant with labour standards.
The problem isn’t just that people are getting paid less and less or that their working conditions are getting worse
and worse, it’s that this is causing a cycle of oppression where people are getting stuck in poverty because they don’t have a choice. They don’t have a choice because we are putting them in that position. Our sartorial choices are
robbing thousands millions of people of opportunities and this is not okay.
Let me illustrate: Most families who work in the garment industry, on average, have three to four kids. However, often there is only one parent working. When clothing companies try to reduce their costs, they pressure suppliers to cut down costs and in turn suppliers push these reductions onto the workers. So when the sole breadwinner has to accept a pay cut to continue working, someone else from the family has to find work to makeup for the lost wage. As often is the case, very rarely do living costs go down when people’s income go down (especially when it’s forced). The other family member who ends up helping to pay the bills is often the oldest child who is very frequently of school going age himself but because he has to support the family, he does not get to continue his education. The same thing
happens when factory owners compromise the working conditions to cut costs. People get sick (or they die) and are unable to work and their children have to starting looking for jobs, forsaking their education. When a generation is
stripped of their education, they once again face the same limitations that their parents did and they become powerless, especially in a time where more people are getting educated than before. They get trapped in a cycle and it
becomes harder and harder to get out of it. The lack of laws, the lack of rights, our thirst for cheaper, trendier clothing and businesses’ conquests for greater profits oppresses a whole generation and that is never, ever okay.
MATTER adheres to timeless principles of style rather than runway trends, with season-less styles and seasonal fabrics. Styles are tested by time, and are phased out or brought back accordingly.
Of course shopping ethically isn’t easy. (Nothing worthwhile is easy) When you choose to shop ethically,
it could very well mean that the next time you are in a mall you can’t purchase
from 90% of the stores. And then of course, not all of us have the choice. If
you are struggling to pay your bills and can only afford to spend very little
money on your clothing then please, pay your bills. Buy that item from fast
fashion because this is isn’t your priority at this point in your life. However,
most of us have the choice and we refuse to make it and I understand why. It
takes more time, effort and money and honestly (it feels like) ain’t nobody got time for that
in this era of FOMO.
MATTER makes a personal visit to each of our partners and artisan clusters, which gives us the assurance that these workplaces are good to work with and good to work in.
Then there is the million-dollar question of who and what is ethical? There are many ways to approach this question and to make your life easier, I’ve made you a list (because everyone loves lists).
Top 5 things to keep in mind when trying to be a more socially
- What is the factor that is most important to you?There are many things that come under the ethical umbrella and it can be very overwhelming when making the switch.
- So think: what do you care about the most?Does the fact that the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter (behind oil) really bother you? Then you might consider buying from brands that use recycled materials or you may want to buy vintage or thrifted items. If you are passionate about animal rights then consider buying vegan clothing. Similarly if you interested in agriculture, go organic in your fashion options too. Personally I am a big supporter of homegrown labels and like to purchase from Singaporean brands. Not only do I feel proud for supporting the arts and talents of creatives in Singapore but it also reminds me of home when I am away.
- Research the brand.This is probably my favourite and least favourite part of shopping ethically. I love searching for brands that make beautiful clothing pieces and reading about the process behind their production including what and who is affected by it.
- Be careful of “green washing”.From time to time you will come across brands that claim to do this and do that but they actually don’t. It can be helpful to look out for certifications but these days there are so many, it can be hard to keep track and find out what exactly is the purpose of the certification.A rigorous certification is B Corp. It is a relatively new certification that is gaining popularity and for good reason – it not only wants goods and services to not harm society and people but also actually wants them to be beneficial to society and shareholders. You can find a list of B Corps on their website.
- Read the labels.Not many of us read the labels on our clothing other than to see the size but clothing labels can tell us many pieces of valuable information. We can see where it was made, what it was made with and how to care for it. These three pieces of information by itself can tell us a lot about who made our clothes, what fabrics were used and how long we can expect our clothing to last.
- Buy less.More often than not we end up buying things that we really don’t need out of impulse. Once we are over the initial joy and excitement and after wearing it a couple of times, we throw it into the dark abyss of our wardrobes and never ever touch it again only to ask ourselves, “When did I get this?” when we clean our wardrobes later. I have done it, you have done it and everyone has done it.Our current society tries very hard and quite successfully to sell the idea that if you have X, you will be happy and if you have Y, you will be happier. It encourages happiness through materialism but really, you should be buying more experiences not things. Experiences create memories and are proven to provide more joy in the long run. A helpful guideline when buying new pieces of clothing is asking yourself, “Can you wear
it at least 30 times?” If your answer is positive, it’s worth making a purchase. Not only is this better for the workers and the environment but also for you. It helps you save all the precious dollar bills that you work so hard to earn.
Though I know that it can sometimes be difficult, the joy of finding brands that subscribe to ethics while still producing items that you adore can be summed up by this GIF:
(Yes that’s totally me…if only I had an empty elevator to run to every time I made any discovery.)
And then of course there are times when you keep looking and looking and can’t find what you are looking out for.
But then you have to remember that some things take time, and this took 14 years for it to happen.
Good things happen to people that wait, so you persevere. You will find the brands that speak true to your heart, a story that you can relate to with products you can stand by.
At the end of the day whether you choose to shop ethically or not, remember no one is judging you. It is, however, important to acknowledge.
To acknowledge the people that make our clothes, to admit their existence and the conditions in which they exist, to recognize their importance and realize they are not heard. We don’t hear their voices, we don’t read their stories, and we do not see them represented in our media. We don’t pay attention to them and it is important to acknowledge that. If you do decide to change your shopping habits, do more research and spread awareness about this issue.
It is not a simple case of what to buy and what not to buy. It is a complex issue and won’t truly be resolved until an institutional change or reform takes place. But remember: We all spend our lives chasing for power and right now, we have the power. So exercise your power and make a choice.