Fashion

A Glimpse Into the Growing Trend of Sustainable Fashion in the Philippines

Here’s a look into the strong, influential current that is sustainable fashion.
IMAGE COURTESY OF BPI SINAG, TELA
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Last year was touted as the “year of sustainability,” but looking back at all the recent developments in 2019 thus far, the relevance of sustainable movements in business has definitely solidified. Just last August 24 at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, fashion industry big guns signed the G7 Pact, basically a sartorial vow—with no legal agreements—to redirect their efforts toward a more sustainable path. Brands include Adidas, Burberry, Chanel, the Inditex group (Zara, Mango, Bershka), the Kering group (Gucci, YSL, Balenciaga), and the PVH group (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, IZOD).

As for the local fashion scene, well, that G7 Pact or “The Fashion Pact” trickles down to us, too, as brands under the SSI Group (one of the leading specialty retailers in the Philippines) signed the pact during the Biarritz summit as well. 

What’s most striking about the G7 Pact is its Science-Based Targets or SBTs which provide brands with concrete, quantifiable goals such as zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the use of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. The pact also calls for zero single-use plastics.

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It’s a start. But what about the other 70%?

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The numbers are very idealistic but that doesn’t mean they aren’t feasible. The industry has a lot of time (or is it too late?) to take action. For the unaware, the fashion industry has been grappling with sustainability issues for the past few years, with the scale of collective efforts growing each year. Perhaps the major incident that caused public uproar would be the collapse of Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh back in 2013. 1,132 people lost their lives in the accident, while 2,500 were injured. It is disheartening that a tragic incident had to take place before people's eyes were finally opened to the reality of unethical fashion manufacturing that had been the norm for many years. At the very least, the industry’s collective conscience slowly materialized, thus paving the way for sustainable fashion movements.

As for the environmental effects of fashion, it is well known that the industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. While it is also known that this is partly due to the massive wastes produced by fashion brands, it is also largely due to the production process itself, from making fibers for fabrics, to the carbon dioxide emissions of factories. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation emphasizes how more clothes are produced than necessary. The statistics even indicate that clothing utilization had decreased by 36 percent compared to 15 years ago—that means people buy more clothing than they can wear.

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Such information has been making waves on the internet and penetrating the minds of consumers and entrepreneurs everywhere. People have adopted more sustainable consumption practices, such as buying secondhand products or supporting sustainable brands. Moreover, fashion enterprises have increasingly overhauled their systems to make way for ethical and eco-friendly practices. 

In the Philippines, the voice of sustainable fashion has found its form through various key players in the industry. With many activities happening simultaneously.

Real influencers: the burgeoning group of sustainable local enterprises

The number of sustainable fashion brands in the market has been increasing, with a mix of high-end brands and more affordable ones. These brands have their own respective stories to tell and unique selling points that set them apart from other competitors vying for consumers.

One of the metro’s most recognizable brands is Hindy Weber’s eponymous line, Hindy Weber every.day, a luxe array of sustainable clothing made from natural, organic, and biodegradable materials sourced locally. Moreover, the clothes are crafted by small family-run workshops to ensure their livelihood is supported.

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In 2011, Weber took a sabbatical after feeling burnt out from the rigorous pace of her 11-year fashion career. She and her family then moved from the city to the countryside and established Holy Carabao Farms, an organic farm that practices holistic farming. She may have taken root in new territory, but this resulted in a newfound philosophy that could not be shaken. It was about adhering to nature, or nothing. 

“I didn’t think I would end up in fashion again because now that my perspectives have shifted, I wasn’t sure I would be able to produce anything sustainably. I told myself I’d only go back into fashion if I can make it a sustainable line. As luck would have it, I found a source for materials and dyes that complied with my strict criteria.”

Given her career in fashion prior to Holy Carabao Farms, we asked Weber what she thinks of current sustainable brands in the market. “I think most are wonderful, and some are just riding on the trend. Our biggest problem is the fabric sourcing and dyes. Generally, we’ve got the social aspect covered in that most of our sewers and weavers are paid fairly in comparison with other Asian countries. But it’s in the production and disposal of fiber and dyes that put a  direct strain on the environment.” 

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Weber said the main pollution problem in the local fashion scene lies in our lack of manufacturing control, as most fibers and trimmings are imported. “We have also become a hotbed for imported second-hand merchandise and factory rejects that end up in our ukay-ukay. This sub-system has a grave effect on the livelihoods of fiber farmers, dressmakers, embroiderers, and craftspeople.”

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Inquisitive minds in the fashion industry (both global and local) know what needs to change is the system. Hence, the emergence of protesters and those who break sartorial rules by producing according to their own terms. Weber is one of them, and so are the other founders of local brands. Although each brand can only affect change within its sphere of influence, change happens nonetheless.

“I am an independent fashion designer and [I] operate my business on my own terms, with no need to adhere to the fashion industry’s trends, seasons, or market demands. This means I can limit my production to a level that is more sustainable, I can choose to work with small-scale sewing shops where I can monitor the wages of the workers, I can dictate the fibers, trimmings, and dyes I use. And on top of all this, I have a steadfast stance on sustainable fashion and a regenerative approach to business that I speak out about as often as I can.”

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Alyssa Lagon, Owner and Designer of Tela

Photo by TELA.

Among these movers and shakers of fashion is 19-year-old Alyssa Lagon who just launched her own sustainable label, Tela. A junior in college, and the daughter of the founding family behind fashion brand BAYO, Lagon came up with the idea of starting her own brand and launched into acceleration mode thereafter. Months later, a Tela's inaugural line was born.

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And as with all sustainable brands, its essence is in the framework. It’s well known that a circular diagram (from sourcing, manufacturing, end product, to the waste produced) is necessary for sustainable fashion to happen. Simply put, nothing should go to waste. This is exactly how Tela operates:

BAYO gives scrap fabrics to BAYO Foundation. The foundation partners with different organizations (in this case, ANTHILL Fabric Gallery) which help and sustain other communities—it is in this stage that the scraps are upcycled into new fabrics. Tela then buys the fabrics from the foundation. In this collection, ANTHILL Fabric Gallery is working with a community from Argao, Cebu.

Aside from the upcycled fabrics, the brand uses fabrics made of natural fibers which are sometimes combined with a cotton-linen blend. The brand doesn’t use buttons or zippers for any of their pieces. During its launch, the clothing racks were made of recycled wood and abaca.

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Photo by TELA.

When asked about her thoughts on this brainchild of hers, she admits, “I feel scared and excited. Scared because I do not know if the brand will be accepted. Will people actually believe in my advocacy as well? Excited, because I am still young and there are so many opportunities.”

Although Tela is still in its nascent stage, it has already partnered with other brands. Tela works with Rags2Riches on bags. The bags in the debut collection feature the same upcycled fabric used to make the clothes and is versatile, too—it can be used as a tote or a backpack. Sustainable brand Retaso is also one of Tela’s partners. The brand donates scrap fabric to Retaso to repurpose into furniture.

Given its stately entrance into the market, we can definitely expect upward growth for the brand, and hopefully, this inspires other social entrepreneurs to follow suit. Change can only happen in the industry if it starts with the producers themselves. 

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Gearing up for growth: The importance of financial literacy

Tela is one of many sustainable fashion enterprises in the country. As we’ve seen in the recent upscale artisanal fair that is ArteFino, a handful of these sustainable enterprises have already gained a large following. There are more brands, however, that still need an extra boost to catapult them into top-of-mind status, and hopefully, achieve greater influence in the industry. Such is the mantra that guides the workings of BPI’s annual Sinag program, which aims to develop the business acumen of budding professionals at the helm of social enterprises.

BPI Sinag is essentially a business competition that gathers 45 accepted applicants who will then take on a series of bootcamps that act as ‘elimination rounds,’ until the top 10 participants remain. More than a competition, BPI Sinag equips these rising entrepreneurs with intellectual capital, social capital, and the financial capital needed to expand their enterprises. T&C had the chance to meet two of the participants who have cultivated such amazing brands.

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Photo by COURTESY OF BPI SINAG.

Candid Clothing was founded by Samantha Dizon. During a roundtable discussion hosted by BPI, Dizon fondly talked about her brand's beginnings. “I grew up in the garment capital of the Philippines, Taytay, Rizal, with a seamstress grandmother. That meant that I grew up wearing clothes made out of retaso, and I witnessed how difficult it was and still is now for garment workers to support their families through their trade.”

Dizon’s brand was one of the first few sustainable brands in the country, and it has established its position in the market, one that is more affordable and accessible to consumers. Her product portfolio features an array of wearable, versatile pieces that are made of leftover fabrics she sources from Highway 2000 in Taytay, an area full of warehouses with rejected fabric from Korea, China, and Taiwan.

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Photo by COURTESY OF BPI SINAG.

Seeing Dizon’s designs (all made by her team of six workers) makes one marvel at the sheer creativity that goes into upcycling. One item that she demonstrated herself was her best-selling 10-way scarf which can be worn as a dress, as a cardigan, as a skirt, and more. Through her business, Dizon got to help improve the lives of her workers and their families as well. Thus proving that fashion does not have to be produced at the expense of employee welfare.

We also got to meet Maridul Fawziyyah of Malingkat Weaves, a brand that puts the spotlight on handwoven textiles from Mindanao. Malingkat means ‘beautiful,’ a word that best describes the brand’s story and its product offerings. Fawziyyah said a chance encounter with a weaver, grew into a relationship with a whole family, until the ripple effect encompassed more weavers. “We focus on working with individuals then we grow to their family, sisters, cousins, aunts. We are able to measure our impact in that way.”

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Photo by COURTESY OF BPI SINAG.

Just like Candid Clothing, Malingkat Weaves also targets consumers with a more budget-friendly price range to cater to those who can’t afford local luxury brands. Considering the labor-intensive process of weaving, we asked how she manages to maintain a competitive price point. She said she focuses on developing a small range of items such as her home products which are her bestsellers. Some of her products on offer are woven table runners, pillow covers, espadrilles, and the hero product, her eco-bag. 

Fawziyyah is now working on a few collaborations, so you can expect to see more of Malingkat and the traditional weaving they uphold. “We are big on collaborations because we want to make accessible pieces to address the needs of our partners. We are also using natural and tropical fibers with the help of PTRI like cotton abaca [and] cotton banana.”

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Malingkat Weaves pouches
Photo by COURTESY OF BPI SINAG.
The hero product: Malingkat Weaves eco-bags
Photo by COURTESY OF BPI SINAG.

BPI Sinag is celebrating its fifth year. Over the course of its existence, it has assisted over 150 social entrepreneurs, 60 communities, over 40,000 beneficiaries, and P12 million in grants; not to mention the invaluable knowledge and skills it imparted to its participants. Manila is rife with creative capital, but we need guidance to put ideas into practical perspective. Skills, financial literacy, and collaboration are the key to affecting true sustainable change on a larger scale. 

From an advocate’s standpoint: Steering towards the right direction

Although the group of sustainable fashion warriors in the Philippines hasn't hit mainstream consciousness, they are working and fighting for change nonetheless. The only non-profit organization in the Philippines that champions sustainable fashion is the Philippine arm of Fashion Revolution, which originated in the U.K.

This group aims to be the bold, inquisitive voice of fashion that fights for systemic change for the welfare of human beings and the environment. Genevieve Sagcal, who acts as the organization’s universities and schools liaison, shared with T&C her two cents on the progress of local sustainable fashion.

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“We have noticed the influx of local brands who are adopting better practices like swimsuits made out of plastic bottles or affordable cute clothing made from retaso. Many consumers are voluntarily educating themselves as well, especially since more and more people are becoming concerned about the environment.” 

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When asked about the root of the problem of fashion’s unsustainable methods, Sagcal shared, “Buying fast fashion is still one of our major predicaments today. A huge part of it is due to the lack of awareness of many, and of course, the accessibility and the rise of trendy online shops can be really tempting to some consumers. Another one is the habit of shopping itself. The urge of buying a new outfit for different occasions, events, and vacations greatly affects the consumption of clothing, specifically fast fashion. I think for a fashion revolution to occur, we as consumers need to demand better and change our habits as well. Another problem is the price of 'ethical clothing.' Many consumers question its affordability.”

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Sagcal’s strong sentiments about the power of consumers echo that of Sienna Somers’, the Policy & Research Coordinator of Fashion Revolution’s Global Coordination Team. Her comment on the G7 Pact emphasizes fashion brands will continue their unethical or polluting ways if they know that profits won’t be affected. If consumers take a stand, however, brands can awaken from their placid greenwashing and convert for the better. 

“I’m positive that the ethical practices that we are methodically adopting today will continue to flourish and set a new standard for fashion. Our dream is to reach people from different socioeconomic systems to get on board with ethical and sustainable fashion. We want it not to remain just a trend, but a style that hopefully lasts forever.”

Collaboration is key to a sustainable future. 

These three facets are evidently working within their own capacities to implement changes within a seemingly indestructible (and unsustainable) fashion framework. Local sustainable labels are implementing new processes by recalibrating their production lines and rethinking the materials they use. Larger groups such as BPI are harnessing their vast pool of resources to educate younger professionals, slowly laying the foundation for a more socially conscious business landscape. Lastly, advocacy organizations such as Fashion Revolution Philippines are doing their part in keeping consumers informed about the realities of the fashion industry. They too are affecting change by suggesting innovative practices (such as a better way to approach 'fashion week.'

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The local fashion industry has not turned a blind eye to the profound relevance of sustainability, but there are still many pain points to address. As we've seen from the individual achievements of these key players, they are able to create change only through collaboration. When collaboration is prioritized over competition, that is when sustainable businesses can truly flourish. There is still much work to be done, especially when the problem boils down to the overarching production system dictated by consumer demand. But as long as people press on and pursue the change they long to see, then the Philippines is well on its way towards a future that hinges on sustainability as the only standard. 

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Nicole Cruz
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