Fashion is something that we consume everyday – but little do we know that it is actually one of the leading polluting industries in the world, given how fast fashion seasons and trends change all the time, leading to high-end over consumerism issues. Priyanka, the founder of Swapaholic, shares more about her thoughts on the ever-changing fashion industry and what we can do to save our earth.
1. As the founder of Swapaholic and an advocate for sustainable fashion, could you tell me more about how you got involved in the area of sustainable fashion?
Fashion is very personal for me and for a lot of women – and that was where my journey started. I was a shopaholic – literally the opposite of everything that I stand for today, and it was because of the lack of awareness. I would proudly proclaim that I was a shopaholic, and I wouldn’t only just buy things for myself, but also for everyone else. This was because of the way the industry is designed where everything was so cheap and accessible, which gave rise to the term “fast fashion”. So, for me the turning point was when I found out that the fashion industry was the second-largest producing industry in the world. When I learned about that, it changed my mindset and I felt very embarrassed for my past actions that I should have known about the consequences of my actions off my mindless consumerism. I also realized at that point around six or seven years ago, there wasn’t much information available about sustainable fashion, and so, I set up a website called fabricoftheworld.com, which talked about textile sustainability. everything that I learned, I will put it on the website so that other people can learn from it. So the awareness began to sink in through that process, and I thought of looking for ways to mitigate the damage that I’ve done in the past.
So much of my life was filled with consumerism in the past, where I would always buy as much as I could when I was overseas, and be it online or in-store. For shopping in-store, although I do feel that customers might make better purchasing decisions in person when they try on the garments, consumerism is still an issue when there are other pushing factors such as grand sales which drives people to want to spend more. For online purchases, the carbon emissions are definitely higher due to the logistics involved, but at the same time, you might also tend to buy less due to uncertainties over sizing and comfort.
2. Fast fashion chains are a common pick nowadays. Could you share more about your views and thoughts on this topic and how our consumer actions will affect the industry and our planet?
The fashion industry is already the second most polluting industry in the world right after oil and gas, but not a lot of people are aware of it as the fashion industry is very opaque. The industry has 52 micro seasons today, which means that every week new clothes are being produced on a large scale. and that level of consumption means that we are all going to try to buy all those things because it is exciting to see new things and it eventually leads to overconsumption but we could actually consume all those things. Statistics show that women only wear 20% of what they actually own, and 80% are things that are impulse purchases, or things that were bought just because they are accessible, which is what the industry is designed to do.
The other problem is for the clothes that we buy and cannot consume because fast fashion is so cheap and accessible that we think of it as disposable – and then we throw things away, they eventually reach landfills. In fact, 4% of global landfills are filled with textile waste. and in the landfill, these clothes are filled with harmful chemicals that garment making process, which makes them unable to decompose, exuding methane into the environment which is a greenhouse gas. In a sense, every aspect of the supply chain is very harmful to the environment, as well as to the labour force behind the production. It is a very capitalistic scheme, where child and unregulated labour are often exploited to produce cheap clothing, which does not benefit them. By not regulating our actions and purchases, we are actually fuelling this scheme, to say that we want more and expect more. But if we stop our actions and be mindful, the brands will have to step up and reconsider their production plans.
The idea is for us to stop this vicious cycle of buying and throwing, just because the items are cheap. We have the power of our money vote to stop these brands from producing more unnecessary clothing, if we choose to halt our actions too.
3. Could you share more about how you came up with the idea of creating your clothes swapping service? Were there any instances that sparked your inspiration to take action on your plan?
When I started out, not a lot of people were aware of the issues caused by fast fashion, at that point of time the internet did not really have a lot of resources, where even celebrities did not talk about this topic. No one was really talking about this issue – which didn’t centre an influence for me, as I discovered the concept of swapping a few years ago and I felt that it was brilliant. It was first done at an informal level by advocates who want to save money, and already have an understanding about overconsumption, and it was being done in pockets all over the world! In the UK and the US, and when I discovered the little pockets of people exchanging things in the community, it brought me back to the ancient concept of barter, which I felt that I could systemise and scale. Instead of creating an informal exchange, we made it into an enterprise on a larger scale with more capacities and capabilities.
However, things did not come easy during our starting phase as there was not a lot of awareness about overconsumption and swapping in Singapore. We had to break the Asian mindset of thinking that preloved items are “dirty” or “bad”, and instead, focus more on the benefits that fellow swappers can achieve through their acts. Our first few swappers were Western expats, who were more familiar with the term “second hand”, and were more accepting of it as it was a norm in their home countries and not considered a taboo in Asia. Marketing is also an issue as explaining the whole swapping process is difficult, as people’s attention spans are getting shorter. It is a difficult transition from fast fashion, as we have to break down the information and processes to our consumers. All of our backend processes and applications are developed by us, as there is no global benchmark for our business model.
4. Can you share with me more about your age demographic of swappers?
Our usual demographic is usually between 22 to 45 years old, however, our youngest active swapper is 13 years old, and our oldest active swapper is in their 60s. The idea is that anyone who is interested in fashion and is willing to contribute what they have resourcefully, is who we would want to target.
I do feel that the demographic will change over the years, especially with our Gen Z who will carry on this mindset of stopping over consumerism. I just feel that we can start from our younger generation who will then pass it down to the next generation over the years.
5. Do you have plans to create any mass swapping events in future instead of swapping online and in stores?
We already have large-scale swapping events, which are Swapaholic signatures. We have run events successfully for the last four years – in 2019, we had a 4000-person event at Marina Barrage, and in April this year, we had a 1000-person event at Somerset 313. We usually call these events “Swap Parties”, as we want to encourage swappers to take part and contribute to the whole idea and fun of swapping.
6 . What do you think we can do to lower our carbon footprint when it comes to purchasing clothing items, besides trading in or reusing them?
As I mentioned before, it mostly boils down to awareness and our actions – if we can slowly reduce our consumption, less carbon footprint will be generated as we would consume less resources to produce new clothing that we do not need. Not only does the production of our clothing produce harmful gases, toxins and waste, washing our clothes also releases microfibres into our water bodies, which pollutes and contaminates our potable water sources. Our clothes may cost a small amount, but the true cost is the damage that we are causing to the environment and the propelling of these unpaid and underpaid labour to keep the industry thriving.
Once the mindset shift is set, it’s all about being creative! We should try to extend the life of our clothing more – to maybe upcycle our clothing or wear them in different ways. Instead of acquiring new resources, we should try to think of ways to give our clothing a second life. Swapping or clothing rentals are also a good approach in being a good consumer!