This story was first published in Issue 030 of Enterprise SPARKS, our quarterly newsletter, here (pages 14–16).
The fashion industry has a sustainability problem. Driven largely by fast fashion cycles that rely on high volumes, ever-changing styles, and cheap fabrics and labour, clothing production has approximately doubled since 2000. But affordability and accessibility for consumers have come at the cost of quality and longevity: while we are buying more than ever, the average number of times an article of clothing is worn before being discarded is at its lowest.
All of this overproduction, consumption and disposal exacts an environmental, economic and social toll. As McKinsey reports, “for every five garments produced, the equivalent of three end up in a landfill or incinerated each year,” with the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from textile production exceeding “those emitted by all international flights and maritime ships combined.”
How can entrepreneurs push fashion in a more sustainable direction?
We take a look at some trends within the industry that are helping to turn the tide, as well as the NUS Enterprise-affiliated start-ups whose innovative approaches to business models, supply chains and material choices are making a difference.
1. Rewear, resell & recirculate
One of the simplest ways to combat a culture of throwaway fashion is to extend the lifetime of existing garments by keeping them in circulation: by purchasing clothes that are already part of the ecosystem, no further resources (excepting transport and packaging) are expended, and less textile waste ends up in our landfills.
One start-up making this option easily accessible to women is The Kint Story, an online thrift store created “with a sole mission to reduce the ecological footprint the fashion industry has on our environment.” Founded by NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) New York alumnae Elisa Goh and Huang Yushu, the start-up focuses on providing a curated selection of high-quality pre-loved clothing that is both trendy and feminine. To date, the company has “rescued” more than 900 garments, while also providing a marketplace for users to sell their previously worn pieces.
2. Material Innovation
The environmental impact of the fashion industry extends beyond clothing production and disposal, however. Consider this: more than 500,000 tons of plastic microfibres — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles — are released into the ocean each year through the act of washing clothes.
But what if we could use advanced technologies to improve the durability of our clothing, therefore reducing the amount of times they need to be washed and mitigating our carbon footprint in the process?
This is exactly what apparel start-up Man’s Best Friend (MBF) is doing. Founded by Yale-NUS students Johann Wah (NOC Silicon Valley), Glen Ang, Hwy Kim, and Keith Wo, the B2B sustainable procurement service provider specialises in sustainably-sourced apparel that blends nanotechnology with alternative fabrics such as bamboo, tencel and recycled polyester to greatly enhance the fabrics’ natural properties. The result? Garments that have extreme anti-bacterial and anti-odour characteristics that can last for days without washing, despite heavy activity and sweating. The apparel has helped MBF’s clients to greatly improve comfort and functionality for their employees, especially those who work long hours.
Most importantly, the clothing can save the equivalent of 26% of carbon emissions and over 3500 litres of water per outfit, as compared to traditional cotton apparel.
Most recently, the start-up partnered with security firm AETOS to create new training kits for the company’s recruits. As Johann states, “We found these users to react extremely well to the fitness/lifestyle verticals of our products. Now, we are actively looking for more companies who would also be interested in partnering with us to significantly decrease their carbon footprints as well as improve the functionality of their apparel.”
3. Plant-Based Alternatives
Leather forms the basis for many of our jackets, shoes, and bags. But the livestock industry from which it is derived is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change. The tanning process itself, which frequently uses chromium salts, can also have devastating environmental and public health consequences if not managed properly.
Petroleum-based alternatives fare no better, with PVC labeled by Greenpeace as “the most environmentally damaging of all plastics.”
One potential solution: mushrooms. BLOCK71 Bandung incubatee Mycotech is binding mushroom mycelium with agricultural waste, such as sugarcane or sawdust, to grow a strong, pliable and durable material that has been used as a leather substitute in everything from watches and wallets, to shoes and furniture. The product is not only superior in terms of its smaller environmental impact, but also more efficient: compared to the years and resources it takes to rear one cow, Mycotech’s mushrooms can be grown in 60 days. Even better: the company sources its raw materials from local mushroom farmers, helping to provide them with additional income.
4. “Buy Less, Buy Better”
Clothing lifespans are being artificially shortened by companies which cater to the consumer wish for novelty and immediacy: where there used to be two seasons in fashion, brands like Zara are reported to now launch more than 20 collections a year.  This not only cheapens the value we place on clothes, but encourages consumers to continuously refresh and replace items they already own. For businesses, this can also mean excess inventory and financial waste, as manufacturers overproduce items in advance in anticipation and hope that they will sell.
Slow fashion is the antithesis of this: clothes are produced in small batches, with emphasis on quality and craftsmanship. While this can translate into higher prices for consumers, the investment more than pays off: because better materials are used, the resulting garments are also meant to be more enduring and last for years, if not a lifetime. Importantly, the movement encourages consumers to take a more mindful approach to shopping: by valuing and loving the items we purchase and the work behind them, we are less likely to consider clothes as easily disposable.
One brand embracing this ethos is menswear line Stòffa, based in New York City and founded by NOC Silicon Valley alumnus Agyesh Madan. The company’s made-to-measure and made-to-order approach to fashion provides its clients with customised, unique-to-them garments (think: peached cotton trousers and suede flight jackets), while reducing waste in the production cycle by manufacturing only what has been ordered. Materials and styles are also developed and prototyped for years before their release, with items remaining in Stòffa’s collection season after season. To further extend the lifecycle of its products, the company also offers lifetime repair, encouraging customers to mend, rather than throw away, clothes that are still wearable.
Ultimately, both the fashion industry and consumers have a role to play.
As Agyesh states, “A more environmentally sustainable future is truly only possible if the responsibility is equally shared by every maker and consumer today. Even the smallest consumption choice we make is indicative of our support of a system. We need to inform ourselves about the impact of our choices and have discussions about them more often
Beauty Brands to Know
Nail Deck, founded in 2011 by NOC alumnus Daryl Chew, initially began by importing foreign nail lacquer brands. 10 years later, Nail Deck has evolved to become Singapore’s only custom nail label with three lacquer formulations that are vegan, cruelty-free and 9-free. With the ability to customise colours and help prevent buyers’ remorse, Nail Deck also aims to contribute less waste and promote sustainability.
Nature Intended, founded by Elizabeth Ong, with the help of Tiffany Ng and Raeann Teo, is a recent graduate of NUS’ Venture Building programme. Their products are free of synthetic chemicals, with research-backed formulas made from naturally derived ingredients of plants and traditional remedies, and made especially for Asian skin. In addition, their products come in sustainable glass bottles, aluminium, and paper tube packaging, which are recyclable, reusable, and refillable. So they are not only safe for your skin but safe for the earth too.
 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future.” (2017). p.18
 Ibid; p. 18
 Magnin, Clarisse, and Saskia Hedrich. “Refashioning Clothing’s Environmental Impact.” McKinsey & Company. 25 July 2019. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/sustainability-blog/refashioning-clothings-environmental-impact
 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future.” (2017). p.21
“PVC: The Poison Plastic.” Greenpeace. 18 Aug. 2003. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Global/usa/report/2009/4/pvc-the-poison-plastic.html
 Remy, Nathalie, Eveline Speelman, and Steven Swartz. “Style That’s Sustainable: A New Fast-fashion Formula.” McKinsey & Company. 20 Oct. 2016. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula#