As we gradually reopen under different circumstances, it is imperative for us to re-think fashion and sustainability, and adjust methods of production and distribution.
To give a better understanding of what constitutes sustainable fashion, I've outlined some issues that independent brands like A.Oei face from fabric/fiber sourcing, garment manufacturing to prevailing retail trends. I will also propose some solutions and principles that A.Oei abide by.
One of the biggest problems is the inability to accurately track and control the fabric and fiber manufacturing process. Information is often murky and obfuscated from consumers.
Fibers can be divided into three groups: Natural Fibers stemming from vegetable (cotton, flax, hemp) or animal (wool, silk), Synthetic Fibers based on minerals and oil (polyester, acrylic), and Man-made cellulosic fibers (bamboo, lyocell, viscose).
The easy consensus is that natural fibers are 'good' because they are bio-degradable with low environmental impact and synthetic fibers are 'bad' because it is non-renewable. However, a material's renewability does not tell us much about the conditions in which it is created.
Questions that we ask:
- what types of chemicals and dyes are used? do fabric workers wear sufficient protective gear during the manufacturing process which sometimes emits harmful by-products?
Bleaching fabrics is an important stage in textile processing because it ensures dyeing fabrics right the first-time as well as color fastness.
Most textile factories today use hydrogen peroxide to prepare fabrics for dyeing. Some problems with hydrogen peroxide is that the chemical additives are highly polluting if left untreated in the discharge water. Another method of bleaching is the use of ozone which does not require any water. However, it is much more expensive. A combination of the two across several processing stages is thus more sustainable and cost-effective.
In terms of color dyes, the higher the fixation rate, the less dye remains in the waste water and the lower the risk of water pollution. In conventional reactive dyes, which are the most common dye for fibers such as cotton, approximately 35% of dye remains in waste water.
New developments in dyeing techniques include bi-functional reactive dye which allow as much as 95% fixture to the cloth. In addition, dye bath reuse and reconstitution allow the bath to be recycled up to 6 times before the quality of the dye is affected. There is also increased research to develop 'universal' dyes that can be used over a variety of fibre types.
Using natural dyes from food waste like onion skins, coffee grounds, turmeric is the most sustainable method as it works within the limits of nature. However, its lack of color-fastness, stability and scalability is both desirable and undesirable depending largely on the design.
- what are the water / energy consumption levels like?
Cotton requires the highest percentage of water irrigation, in turn affecting access to water for other purposes such as food-crop. In contrast, synthetic fibers such as polyester use low levels of water.
In terms of energy consumption, synthetic materials such as acrylic consumes high fossil-fuel energy which releases high amounts of carbon dioxide as compared to flax and hemp which is much less energy-intensive.
As an alternative, recycled fibers, including recycled polyester or nylon is around 80% less energy-intensive than the manufacturing of virgin fiber. Using recycled fibers where possible is therefore the most sustainable route in fiber production. However, sourcing for the right recycled fibers that can achieve the same desirable look as virgin fibers is still a challenge as it isn't as readily available.
Where do we source for fabrics and what types of fibers do we use?
Given the pros and cons of different fibers, these are some principles that A.Oei follows when it comes to fabric sourcing:
1. We use natural and bio-degradable fibers where possible. Most of our garments are made of 100% cotton that are mercerized with long-staple fibers. They are more tightly woven with better strength, give off a refined sheen, comfortable and easy on the skin.
2. We use Tencel-lyocell fibers (certified Tencel (TM), which are regenerated cellulose fibre made from wood pulp. The production of lyocell substantially reduces water pollution as raw cellulose is dissolved directly in an amine oxide solvent which is non-toxic. Almost 100% of the solvent extracted can be purified and reused.
3. We use polyester-blends for sturdier garments such as outerwear, trousers or essential staples. We believe that different product groups have different needs, and that the end-usage of them are just as important. These are easy-care-wear pieces that don't require as much washing, and are comfortable and durable. They perform other functions such as water-repellant needs or provide stretch. We are currently sourcing for recycled polyester that have lower impact than virgin polyester but maintains the same quality.
4. We source directly from textile factories where we can have answers regarding fiber content, manufacturing process, and fabric quality. We try not to work with 3rd-party suppliers who are unable to provide accurate information. To prevent wastage, we only work with factories that have no minimums.
Our main textile suppliers are based in Japan and Thailand.
Most of our cottons, tencels and polyester-blends are produced by an established Kyoto-based textile factory.
Our unique patterns are digitally printed in Thailand by a factory that uses raw Thai silk and cotton. The advantage of digital printing is that there is less set-up cost and time than traditional methods such as silk screen which requires a screen stencil. This allows us to print the exact amount that we need.
We are constantly revising our fabric inventory so that we have a range that can be used across different designs and seasons. We create tightly curated collections in order to keep our fabric selection and consumption to a minimum. At the same time, this enhances each collection's identity and helps us work more efficiently.
2. Garment manufacturing
As an independent brand, this is one aspect where we are able to have the biggest control. Since we are not a large corporate company, our manufacturing volume is significantly smaller and therefore we have to find alternative manufacturers who can cope with small-batch, no-minimum requirements.
It took us time to test out different factories but we are proud to work with our sewing partners in Seattle, Vancouver(Canada) and Singapore, where we have built up personal working relationships and understand their production environments.
75% of our designs are sewn in Singapore by a small team of 1 tailor and 2 seamstresses who have extensive manufacturing experiences. The owner is a former designer with strong knowledge of high-end fashion. As I am originally from Singapore, I am keen to support local manufacturing.
A portion of our products are sewn by a garment factory in Vancouver with over 20 years of experience. The owner is the head pattern-maker and therefore has a strong understanding of garment construction and design quality. She has a team of around 10 seamstresses and personally oversees the production stages.
Finally, pieces that are made in Seattle are mostly handcrafted in our studio. Some are sewn by myself and some are sewn by part-time local sewing contractors. These designs are either custom-made or require an extremely small batch.
What do we do with scrap materials / unfinished prototypes / defective merchandise? We cut out usable portions from these pieces to create prototypes, or one-off designs.
As with fabric sourcing, we are continually testing out different styles to find the right fit that is timeless, accessible and will last a long time in your wardrobe.
3. Retail Patterns
Meeting the demands and expectations of a ready-to-wear fashion market is another challenge. The search for "new" is a consistent, necessary and also crucial part of the industry. However, fast fashion has significantly increased the pace of design and production almost to a point of inefficiency.
I have had the opportunity of working for fashion companies of various sizes; from designing over 200 styles to 20 styles per collection. What I have discovered is the emotional connection and pride I take in each individual design when I produce at a smaller scale.
A.Oei currently follows a seasonal cycle where we showcase a line of samples to fashion retailers 2 times a year (Spring and Fall), receive orders and have around 5 months to produce the orders.
We follow this cycle because it allows us to use samples to test the market. Often times, retailers reflect customers' needs. We realize that perhaps not all samples are worth producing either because of the fit, style or season. This helps us make better decisions in term of what to produce, when to produce and how much to produce.
With the rise of online shopping and direct-customer purchases, there is a democratization of distribution channels that allow us to continually revisit and better communicate our values and process.
We are increasingly trying to make adjustments that would allow us to become more flexible in our design and production process. At the same time, we have joined more pop-up shows to directly meet customers and see how our designs fit on different people. We are also in the process of taking on more custom designs tailored just for you.
As a consumer myself, when purchasing a garment, aside from fit and style, I look at the wash care label that tells me about the material used and where it was made in. On A.Oei's hang tags, we indicate both fabric and sewing origin so you know where our garments come from.
When it comes to wash care, I generally advise cold hand wash and hang dry for natural fibers. If you prefer to use the washing machine, I would advise putting the garment in a laundry bag and using cold wash, and hang dry.
Tumble-drying should be avoided not only because its high heat can cause shrinkage and pilling of natural fibers, but also because it is highly energy-intensive.
We recommend dry-clean for pieces with silk and wool, unless stated otherwise.
If possible, wear the same garment a few times before washing. Since most of our pieces use lightweight and breathable fabrics, they are able to withstand sweat and multiple use. In particular, trousers and outerwear generally do not require washing after each use. This should extend the lifetime of each piece.
Our current packaging includes a clear poly bag and a poly mailer bag that keep the garment well-protected against rain and shipping conditions. We will be developing more sustainable packaging options in the coming year, but hope you can recycle the bags as much as possible.
Simply creating "nice things" is no longer a viable option; form, function and sustainability must be the goal. In addition, it has become even more important to develop skills and tools that allow us to work independently in times of crisis.
1. Designing for durability using natural fabrics and components. Using polyester only for specific product groups and continue sourcing for recycled polyester.
2. Working with reliable suppliers that we have personal working relationships with, and have no minimums in order to maintain production flexibility.
3. Developing more sustainable packaging options with biodegradable materials.
4. Moving towards made-to-order designs that are timeless and versatile.
Fashion & Sustainability, Kate Fletcher
Cradle to Cradle, McDonough, W and M. Braungart