How could something so pretty and glamorous be so ugly and harmful?

Viola and Velda Tan, Rachel Lim, Andrea Chong, and Willabelle Ong are all small fish compared to this fashion juggernaut, except that you probably never have heard of him before. You’ve seen his designs and maybe even have some of his clothing in your closet. His name is Amancio Ortega. And what does this 80-year-old Spanish grandfather know about fashion and the kinds of things young Singaporeans want? Enough to make him (at one time) the richest person in the world.

Amancio Ortega founded Inditex Group which owns Zara, Bershka, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius and other fashion labels, making his company the largest clothing retailer in the world. Until his retirement in 2011, he played an active role in the design and manufacturing of his brands. His company was the first to utilise “fast fashion”, which meant designs recently seen in catwalks and fashion shows would appear in stores in only a couple weeks, in limited quantities, and stay in stores for a short run until they are quickly replaced by another trend. Fast fashion reminds me of cinemas and how there is always something new to watch each time you visit them. But unlike a movie, most clothing is not supposed to be for one-time use only; unfortunately, fast fashion encourages this rapid turnover of clothing.

The Irony
If following the latest trends from a man who has already reached the average lifespan of a first-world male is a bit weird, here’s the real irony: Mr. Ortega lives a rather simple (and frugal) life, and wears essentially the same simple outfit every single day to work (and that outfit is not from Zara or any of his other clothing labels). So each time you buy a Zara outfit, if you are imagining that you’re following someone who is himself trendy and designs clothing that he himself wears, you are wrong. But you are contributing to his net worth, keeping him in the “race” with fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

What’s Wrong with Being Fashionable?
Being fashionable in and of itself is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but there’s something to be said about the second richest man in the world being a fashion brands owner. Fashion is not necessarily high up there in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a world with limited resources, global climate change, a lack of clean water in many developing countries, and 40% of the world population still living on below $2 (USD) a day, there’s just something wrong with this picture. The fact that many Singaporeans struggle to save adequately for retirement or even to meet their regular expenses, but are willing to hand their hard-earned money over to the fashion industry is an endorsement of how effective marketing is in fashion.

The Dirty Little Secret
Fashion on the outside is glitzy and glamorous, but underneath it all are dark and dirty secrets. The industry is powered by an estimated 40 million garment factory workers, many of whom work in deplorable working conditions. It is also the second largest polluter in the world (oil is the only thing that’s worse). While it’s common to see activists protesting mountaintop removal mining, illegal dumping of toxic waste, hydraulic fracturing, and deforestation (because these are things we associate with pollution, environmental harm, and unsustainability), we usually do not think something so beautiful and attractive as fashion can be just as bad or even worse for the environment. We don’t usually think of the fashion industry’s toxic dyes, pesticides, water-thirsty raw materials, or petrochemicals used in manufacturing and shipping. We don’t want to see the mountain of waste generated every year from throw-away and “disposable” fast fashion items. And we certainly don’t see (or don’t want to see) the lives of the workers who make our clothing; it’s just not pretty.

Alternatives and a Call for Change
In the recent months, there’s been a shift in thinking. People are starting to ask tough questions. The concept of “ethical consumerism” has become a buzzword, and it is a good start, but what we really need to do is to curb and curtail our spending on fashion. My choice has always been to buy used. To me,

it’s easy to look good in a brand new $1000 designer outfit, but it takes effort and a solid sense of self worth to feel fabulous in a $3 used dress or shirt.”

And where can you get great looking clothes for $3 or less? From thrift stores, flea markets and clothing swaps. The online second-hand market (Ebay, Carousell, Trezo, Gumtree, Craigslist, etc.) is also a good place to look.

How You Can Get Involved
If you didn’t get a chance to go to the NTUC Mega Swap event over the weekend (or the 313 Green & Gorgeous Swap last March), there are more frugal fashion events coming your way. There will be another chance to swap your clothing at the Connected Threads Asia Clothing Swap at CHIJMES on 18 September (Sunday), fromΒ  3 to 7pm. Collection dates for clothing will be on 3 September (2-6pm), 11 September (2-6pm), and 14 September (6-9pm).

There will also be a Green Living Eco Lifestyle Event happening on 9-11 September at Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre. There will be workshops, seminars, and other activities, along with over 100 eco-lifestyle products and services on display. You can also exchange your alkaline batteries for rechargeable batteries at the event.

In October, Green is the New Black is Asia’s first conscious festival with workshops, performances, and a mindful marketplace. Its aim is to bring together changemakers and lifestyle brands that are conscious and mindful in their business practices.

There are other ways to get involved but change usually begins with the individual and family unit, and starts with baby steps. Simply recognising that there is a problem and that your actions matter is a good start. And while it’s good to attend talks, donate money to support causes, and buy more eco-friendly products, keep in mind that in most cases, the best thing you can do to be more eco-friendly and environmentally conscious is to curb your consumption. As NTU Associate Professor Teo You Yenn put it,

it’s much easier to talk about what we can do for others rather than what we would give up ourselves.”

2 comments on “Why the Biggest Fashion Influencer in Singapore is an 80-Year-old Grandfather”

  1. Great article! Thank you for this thoughtful piece and for putting into words what I think a lit of people are starting to think! The antidote to fast fashion is definitely found in the inditex creators own personal approach: less is more. The fast fashion philosophy relies heavily on habit formation (ie regularly visit the stores and always be looking out for that next purchase). I broke the habit a few years ago with the help of the ’10 item wardrobe’ (the daily connoisseur, she has a blog and YouTube channel) a concept that requires you to put in some effort to plan a small set of clothing to suit your seasonal variation and your personal lifestyle needs; recycling items and replacing as they are worn out (which actually happens when you wear them more frequently). Her idea is to get better at selecting quality (whether new or 2nd hand so things last and are less ‘disposable’).

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