The word “sustainable” can mean different things to different people. For UK-born Susannah Jaffer, it’s shopping more mindfully, in a curated and considered way, instead of mindlessly subscribing to fads and trends. It means appreciating the human effort behind our purchases, instead of hunting down cheap throwaway deals. To her, it’s better to have a few good pieces in your wardrobe to “wear to death” than owning lots of luxury items you may never even touch.
“Growing up in the UK, I was exposed to a very sophisticated retail market where high street brands and luxury labels were everywhere, including online platforms like ASOS. By my mid-20s, I outgrew all that and became less influenced by trends; instead I look for clothes that really made me feel good,” she says, dressed in a bright and cheery ikat wrap dress by Singapore label Wray Crafted.
She adds: “I think we all get to that point where we better understand who we are and how we want to present ourselves and how we don’t. I was going through this transition of self-reflection and aspired to find clothes that made me feel happy, but I couldn’t really find that or identify with luxury or fast fashion brands.”
Fast fashion is almost like a dirty term to her. She says: “The thing about the fast fashion business model is that it is based on a capitalist concept of endless growth and expanding GDPs. But with the state of the climate crisis now, fast fashion brands are facing legacy issues because they’ve grown so big. They are taking the most and giving back the least, from squeezing profit margins and cost prices and lowering labour prices, to taking shortcuts in manufacturing in terms of chemicals down to cheap plastic-based synthetic fibres. How does this all gel with the future for the fashion industry, where we actually need to be creating and consuming less to regenerate the planet?”
At only 31, Jaffer, who is half English-half Indian, is the founder of Singapore-based Zerrin — a multi-brand retailer and media platform that spotlights emerging designers and independent labels from the region that champion conscious consumption with a tangible social impact.
Zerrin is coined after Jaffer’s middle name, Zerin, which means “golden” in Turkish. She makes clear that this brand is not about her, but an idea or movement that’s helping reshape the narrative around fashion consumption and our relationship with clothing. “Zerrin really speaks to our vision of creating a golden and positive future, and setting a gold standard for what is well-made and what sustainable fashion can be,” she explains.
Launched late 2017, the online platform started with 14 ethically-made brands spanning fashion, beauty and accessories sold mostly on consignment basis. Today, Zerrin carries over 50 brands from the region such as Cambodia, India, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The labels are curated based on a “Better Brand” framework coined by Jaffer herself, which looks at five key aspects of a brand’s business approach: product, packaging, planet, people and principles. “I realise that sustainability is still a very nascent concept where every brand’s approach is a little different, so we needed to come up with a checklist of benchmarks to properly shortlist brands. Whether it’s fair wages and labour practices, or a better approach to fabric usage and waste reduction, all these brands are making concrete moves in sustainability, but at the same time, they may have to make some adjustments here and there,” she describes.
Jaffer also shares that each label stands out for its unique story. One brand that she has a fondness for is Cambodia-based Dorsu, a brand that believes in transparency and strives for a fairer fashion industry. It brings to life deadstock or end-of-run fabric and turns them into soft cotton jersey coordinates for everyday wear.
Dorsu, which owns its own supply chain, is also really passionate about human rights and social justice and makes a point to pay its workers 30% more than what is considered to be the living wage. “I’ve always admired Dorsu because of their dedication to ensure the labour and hard work of garment workers is properly honoured and valued. Beyond that, their quality, timeless essentials are our bestsellers for a reason: they are made well, fit well, wash well and are great for all climates,” shares Jaffer.
Believing in quality over quantity, Jaffer develops a deeper relationship with these independent labels as if they were her own. Not only does she assist them with their marketing and branding needs, via her subsidiary creative arm Zerrin Studio, Jaffer also acts as a conduit to introduce merchants to the right suppliers in her growing network of connections.
As a former fashion and beauty scribe for a local magazine, Jaffer found herself drawn to the founding stories of planet- and socially-conscious brands which showed her that there can be a different narrative around fashion, consumption, and creativity. This inspired her to turn Zerrin into more than just a retail platform, but also a blog for thought-provoking content and channel for discourse on fashion’s impact on the environment.
Aside from showcasing emerging retailers in the region, Zerrin also hosts workshops and sustainability-led panel discussions with industry folk at its physical showroom, Zerrin Lounge, at Marina One. Taking up the mezzanine floor of social enterprise The Social Space, Zerrin Lounge, which officially opened in June 2021 (before that it was used intermittently as a pop-up space), reminds us of Instagrammable fashion boutiques in Bali, offering a colourful array of dresses, coordinates, accessories and skincare in a calming and cosy space where aesthetics meets ethics.
“We call it a lounge because the idea is that you come here and do a bit of shopping, meet a friend, have a cup of coffee and make a little day of it. This place is designed to be an intimate and exploratory space for you to discover and appreciate what goes behind the creation of these ethically-made products and the people you are supporting,” she shares.
Life is a colourful albeit busy one for Jaffer, who lives in Singapore with her husband. If she’s not busy pushing out articles for Zerrin’s blog or uploading social media content, she’s planning a brand campaign for her clients under media agency Zerrin Studio, styling her customers at Zerrin Lounge, or producing a podcast for her new channel “Made Better”.
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Completely self-funded and bootstrapped, Jaffer single-handedly built the website from scratch with a small capital outlay of about $2,500 set aside for branding. Although she is not against receiving seed funding from investors, she is biding her time to select the right stakeholders who share her vision.
“We have had some talks with potential investors and there are a lot of quite a few people interested in this space, but I think that there’s not a lot of success stories when it comes to sustainable fashion concepts within Asia. A lot of the money and interest is still in high growth and numbers, and that’s not in line with our direction,” she shares.
She hopes to work closely with government bodies like Enterprise Singapore or the Singapore Tourism Board to deepen ties with the community and engage the public around conscious consumption.
In this interview with Options, Jaffer shares her fashion journey and views on sustainability.
Can you share your sustainability journey?
A few years into my career, I found myself becoming jaded with the seasonal repetition and poor quality of most international brands and started to rethink and reassess my shopping habits. I felt so much more inspired by all these amazing independent labels and upcoming sustainable businesses whose designs I found way more creative, exciting and thoughtfully-made. Their stories reignited my spark for both the fashion industry and even the media. I realised that when I bought something that I really connected with, I valued it a lot more and was far less likely to throw it away.
I think the real turning point was watching the documentary The True Cost which spotlights the social and environmental effects of the fashion industry supply chain, particularly in developing countries. What I found most eye-opening was its impact on people. The most shocking illustration of this was, of course, the horrendous Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 which killed over 1,100 people.
It goes without saying that no-one should have to suffer or die to make the clothes on our backs. I decided to consciously cut my spending and only buy from brands that championed socially or environmentally responsible values.
When I started on my own sustainability journey, I was very much not an eco-warrior and I still don’t consider myself as one. While I’m passionate about sustainability and it’s part of a life philosophy, I can’t claim to be 100% green — almost no one can. But it’s mostly just making gradual changes and eventually killing off a habit. I can now pass by a Zara and don’t feel any urge to go in!
What is your take on fast fashion brands becoming more sustainable?
The big industry buzzword for this year is “degrowth”. I personally believe that we’re moving towards a future where the fashion industry will be infinitely smaller, and this might not sit well with the world of fast fashion.
H&M recently announced that it was going to double profits by 2030, but at the same time it’s launching upcycled collections using recycled fabrics. I’m not sure how this marries with the concept of sustainability. Ultimately that is going to mean [the cost of] manufacturing processes will go up and the shopping will too. No matter how you try to fit it and be as circular as you want, things aren’t infinitely recyclable and you shouldn’t just recycle or produce at this large scale just to do recycling.
These brands are big and influential and have a mind share of the market. It’s important that they take concrete action and become part of these conversations to champion sustainability in the right way. How meaningfully they can engage, to me and to many in the industry, is still questionable.
What do you think is/are the challenge(s) facing the industry now?
Fashion and media have played an important role in shaping culture over the years and they are partly responsible for the mess that we are in now, in terms of how we advertised to and how we’re influenced. It’s all part of this machine that’s promoting overproduction and overconsumption which is inextricably linked to the climate crisis.
The appetite for sustainability and interest in green initiatives has grown a lot particularly over the last two years. Here in Singapore, there’s a lot of investment in alternative meats, food tech and green tech as those are also spaces that are tied to human survival.
I feel fashion is less on the radar, but it actually accounts for over 10% of global carbon emissions, while 35% of the micro plastics in the ocean are from synthetic textiles. There’s a lot of hidden impact that we’re so removed from because either the impact is happening in developing countries or that we don’t see it, but it’s out there. I sometimes feel like no one is truly holding the world’s biggest polluters accountable.
What gives me hope is the uprising of young grassroot voices such as green activists and social media influencers, who are calling these big organisations out. It’s not just about slating [criticising] these large corporations, but also asking them how they truly intend to change.
Locally here in Singapore, there are some inspiring individuals trying to democratise this space, demystify climate action and climate science, and how you can take action on an individual level. For example, Qiyun Woo of @theweirdandwild breaks down complex sustainability topics into bite-sized chunks, from carbon emissions to sustainable fashion; while Audrey Yang of @thisisaudsomee helps to communicate complex sustainability topics and helps people find their own ‘brand’ of activism.
How do you think you’ve changed the sustainability narrative since starting Zerrin?
I think now, a lot of consumers understand the impact of fast fashion and more people are starting to care. Rather than breaking up with fast fashion, we should consider how to access sustainable fashion and shop more mindfully. It’s okay to buy a dress from Zerrin but you shouldn’t impulse-buy a dress from Zerrin because that’s actually more unsustainable than buying a piece from Zara and wearing it to death for 10 years.
We discuss things not with the vested interest of selling you more products but to open your minds on consuming consciously whether it’s renting or swapping, buying secondhand, buying less or just going on a no-buy detox. Although this sounds counterintuitive to making sales, I haven’t seen a correlation between our sales going down and us putting out content. It’s actually been the opposite. We have new customers coming into the store or buying online from as far as the US.
I’m not here to judge or guilt-trip you for not shopping ethically. We’re all multifaceted individuals at the end of the day. I say this as someone who is not a perfectly sustainable person. No one that I know is, and it’s actually more realistic to be in-between. That’s not to say, don’t make an effort to change your habits, but the most sustainable habits are the ones that you can sustain. Just like the saying: We need more people doing sustainable things imperfectly than less people doing it perfectly. Hopefully, we have been instrumental in moving towards an industry where sustainability becomes the default.
Cambodian-made Dorsu owns its own supply chain and creates comfy wardrobe essentials made from discarded fabrics
A social enterprise based in Cambodia, Manava works with female artisans to create beautiful accessories from locally harvested rattan
Handmade in Malaysia, Talee, which means ‘rope’ in Malay, was founded by Sabah-born Lorraine Lee, who had the idea to make accessories by tying knots as cognitive therapy for her father’s brain injury
Based in Australia, The Elsewhere Co creates multi-functional accessories from recycled leather offcuts that can be used and repurposed in many ways
MAIN PHOTO: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore