An Open Conversation About Sustainable Fashion
with Susannah Jaffer
There has been much talk about the shift to sustainable fashion and we are definitely seeing an increasing number of independent retailers terming their businesses as sustainable. What is it really like running a sustainable business in Singapore? We spoke to the owner of ZERRIN, Susannah Jaffer to find out more.
What made you decide that you wanted to become an entrepreneur? What motivated you to start your own business?
“I was working in the media/fashion/beauty as a magazine editor and creative director before ZERRIN, and I think I’d gotten to a point where, tired of the lack of substance, pretentiousness and quality of many international brands, knew there had to be a better, more meaningful way to partake in the industry. After going on a ‘fashion dietrin’, discovering an array of unique designers and learning more about the impact of the fashion industry, I became inspired to want to change people’s perception of fashion and skincare - to promote a more connected, responsible and meaningful way to consume that was positively value-driven. That desire along with an accumulation of experiences along my journey was (thankfully!) enough to spark the inspiration to build ZERRIN.”
The fashion industry does sound exciting, but behind all the glitz and glamour, there are certain things that go on behind closed doors that the public is unaware of. In order to break away from the dark side of fashion, there needs to be a change in the way we process, manufacture and shop.
Being part of this radical shift must be exhilarating, tell us, what are you excited about today?
“At this very moment, I’m excited that I’m in a good headspace to see what opportunity and growth lies ahead rather than focusing negatively on everything I haven’t gotten done so far in my business journey or things that I think I ‘lack’.”
Constantly reflecting on the journey thus far can be beneficial in helping us identify areas of improvement. However, we have to be mindful to take a step back and not be too hard on ourselves as negative energy could stunt our personal growth. In ensuring our mental wellbeing, we will then be better able to move forward and achieve our goals in a healthy way.
There have been a surge of independent brands emerging as consumers look for new ways to connect with the brands they love, compared to other platforms, what is special about ZERRIN?
“ZERRIN’s goal is to become a global destination for the emerging sustainable fashion and beauty industry, through a combination of media content, events, pop-up experiences and omnichannel retail.
We celebrate an alternative, ‘grassroots-and-up’ perspective of the fashion industry, particularly in Asia where most multi-label platforms and marketplaces are still largely focused on selling volume through cheap trendy fast-fashion products. We advocate style and self-expression but also substance and intelligence. We acknowledge that the retail industry has a huge social and environmental impact and want to become a savvy resource and guide for the multi-faceted modern women who love fashion to see how she can partake in dressing more meaningfully, mindfully and intentionally.”
“Our mission is to make the conversation around sustainable fashion exciting, engaging and empowering.”
There have been initiatives by many, to come up with new ways to start a conversation about sustainability, however with the many brands that are jumping onto the sustainability bandwagon, how do you ensure that the brands stocked on ZERRIN are true to that promise?
“We build close, authentic relationships with each retailer and have a specific onboarding process to get to know their brand and supply chain first. We also try, sample or wear the products ourselves to test their quality, durability and ask for evidence about sustainability claims. We have a set of values on site that customers or readers can filter by; we curate brands through the same value set, too.”
With greater transparency, consumers are encouraged to rethink their purchases and shop mindfully. Living in the age of information has made it both easier and harder to shop. From the manufacturer to the consumer, everyone has a responsibility to ensure that supply chains are ethical and that our consumerist tendencies do not come at the expense of the planet.
Owing to how choosing to ditch fast fashion for sustainable fashion comes at higher price points, do you think that sustainability options could be exclusive since there could be barriers for consumers who are looking to actualise change?
“Specifically when it comes to fashion, there’s a spectrum of ways to be a more mindful shopper.
First off, not buying anything if you don’t need it and truly love it; that’s universal, regardless of your budget.
Be open to looking at second hand or vintage options or swapping. For those looking for something dressy for a big event that you’ll likely only wear once, you can rent; I think the rental industry was just made for that category!
“I still believe in owning things you truly love and will wear again and again, whether that’s a new piece from a sustainable brand that you love or a fast-fashion piece you’ve had in your wardrobe forever that makes you feel great. There’s no point throwing it out just because it’s fast-fashion and already exists in your closet.”
“There’s a lot of sweeping (and sometimes, self-serving) statements like ‘only shop second hand’ or ‘ownership is over’ or ‘swap don’t shop’ which I understand, but make me feel uncomfortable. These taglines are catchy but at the same time dictate to people what they can and can’t do, which, just like the perpetual meat vs. no meat debate within the food industry, is polarising and can actually serve to alienate people instead of spreading your message.”
“Women today are multifaceted, beautifully complex and unique; we all participate in fashion differently. What if you want to do all of the above, does that make you wrong? No! To be more inclusive in our approach, we’re going to be talking a lot more about the spectrum of conscious fashion consumption on ZERRIN in 2020, so watch this space.”
At its core, fashion celebrates individuality, self-expression and boldness. For the longest time, fashion has not been inclusive, but as we experience radical shifts over the decade, our perception of what fashion is has progressed. We still have much work to do when it comes to ensuring inclusivity and reducing our carbon footprint, but with more people slowly practicing mindful habits, we believe that we can do better together.
As a consumer yourself, what are you doing in your personal capacity to champion sustainability? Any word of advice for others who wish to do their part?
“I’d say that overall I’m more mindful of my own consumption, from what I eat to what I wear. I think the key driver for this was having more curiosity about where things come from, and how things I bring into my life were serving my mental or physical health. Deciding what you value and care about is a good driver for you to know which brands to support or where you want to become more sustainable.”
There are always two sides of a coin and where there are people who champion a cause, there will be people who question the impact of this form of activism as well, what would you like to say to people who do not believe that individual acts can affect real and impactful sustainability changes?
“I’d say all individual acts have ripple effects. You never know who is reading your posts on social media or how you’re influencing those around you; children, parents, friends; through your actions. Imagine if Greta Thunberg had decided not to sit outside the Swedish parliament last year because she decided that her individual acts to raise awareness of global warming meant nothing?”
As we become more aware of how our actions have consequences, it is normal to express concerns over multiple areas. Be it picking between opportunities or choosing purpose over profit, it is fair to say that as a business owner, there are many things to think about daily. In hectic moments, how do you maintain a calm state of mind?
“I’m not very good at this! But one thing I’ve become better at in business is focusing on solutions and finding them fast rather than the problems. Finding the solution to something as fast as possible makes me calmer; I work well under pressure. “
The first step to actualizing any form of change is self awareness. With a better sense of our abilities and weaknesses, we are able to set more specific goals, manage expectations and basically, do what works for us.
Speaking of adapting to situations according to our abilities, when you first came to Singapore, what was it like navigating through the cultural differences? Anything that stood out to you?
“That people had or have very clear stereotypes of races which are often sweeping, stereotypical and not necessarily true. These references are sometimes fond and ‘well meaning’, sometimes scathing. Growing up in a multicultural (British/Indian family) and living in the UK where you can walk past 10 different nationalities in 10 seconds, I was taught to see people first, not their skin colour or race.”
Throughout history, we have witnessed the atrocities, violence and emotional torture that happen as a result of a lack of understanding. While we pride ourselves on being a “melting pot of cultures”, there needs to be a better environment of acceptance. Despite this, we believe that by working on becoming more open-minded and compassionate, we will be better able to understand people and not make hasty generalisations that may be hurtful.
It takes courage to embark on a journey such as yours, moving to a new country, starting a business and learning how to adapt to the tides of change as you go along.
What would you say is the most important lesson you have learned from your journey?
“That running your business well is inextricably tied to your mental and physical health. You need to have good self-esteem, the ability to get up and go, put yourself out there to network. Be humble but not to the point of self-destruction. There’s a lot of self-work that I’ve had to do and am continuing to do to perform better on behalf of my business as a founder. Starting a business in a country which isn’t your home country, without the support comforts of your family or close friends around also isn’t easy, so creating and nurturing your own support network is crucial. Learning to ask for help has been one of my biggest personal and professional challenges. This year, I’m proud that I let more people in to help my business who genuinely volunteered their time, and that was really a lightbulb moment for me to realise hey — it’s ok to not feel bad about that.”
Asking for help is not easy, especially when you have something to prove. However, it's always good to remember that it takes great strength and humility to ask for help. Being a game changer is never easy, there is no set formula to guide you, reaching out and working with others would be more effective than trying to solve things on your own.
Change does not happen overnight, and as inhabitants of the Earth, we all have a collective responsibility. As Jane Goodall says, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what difference you want to make.” Make the switch and be part of the green movement today.
UNDERCOVER is a social series brought to you by VF+c and STATE Creative. Through the series, we seek to impact the lives of our community through authentic stories of inspiring individuals. Each edition, we partner with a social enterprise to shed light on the issues that matter.
For the first edition of UNDERCOVER, we partnered with The Lion Mind, a non-profit organisation (NPO) whose mission is to promote mental wellness and positive psychology through education and partnership with the community. Due to the rise of mental health cases around the world, we endeavour to do our part to normalise conversations around mental health issues through the subjects featured in our campaign.