While fashion is contending with a less-than-stellar reputation, it is definitely changing. With the best business practices or the right attitude, designers and brands can indeed create a positive social impact.
In Malaysia, people are beginning to realise there are brands that do indeed want to give back to society and help out the community.
“When we first started in 2013, I often felt like I was shouting in the desert... Most people didn’t even understand what a social enterprise is. Many even questioned how we could make money if we are helping artisans, ” says Sasibai Kimis, founder of social enterprise Earth Heir.
Her business helps out traditional artisans in underserved communities. Products sold – which range from apparel to bags, jewellery and more, support local craftsmanship.
She adds: “I am so encouraged that there is now much greater awareness about why consumers should consider the ethical and sustainable credentials of the products that they buy.”
Another Malaysian social enterprise, Fugeelah, is also doing its part for society. What started as a fundraising project to help keep education free for refugee children and youth, has today grown into a busy little lifestyle accessories brand.
It frequently launches collaborative collections with artisans, independent volunteers or private entities. A majority of the monthly profit is then committed to the Fugee School Malaysia.
Fugeelah is a mission driven social enterprise created for children and youth seeking refuge in Malaysia. It is founded by former Miss Universe Malaysia Deborah Henry in 2017, evolving over the years to include a women-led conscious jewellery brand.
Fugeelah’s recent launch is a range of T-shirts highlighting imposter syndrome – a psychological phenomenon whereby a person thinks he or she is an inadequate failure, despite evidence showing otherwise.
Designed by visual artist Dhan Illiani, a percentage of the profit goes towards the Fugee School Girls’ Circle Program, an initiative empowering refugee girls with a safe space where they can share and express their feelings without being criticised or ashamed.
Keeping it real
That said, there are questions being raised on whether actions taken by fashion labels (especially those run by big conglomerates) amount to nothing more than a public relations stunt.
This includes campaigns that go beyond just responsible practices or efforts to give back to communities.
Positive fashion can also come in the form of championing key social issues like body positivity or even anti-racism. But brands have to keep it real.
“Walk the walk and talk the talk. People today resonate with your brand or business based on your values and purpose, not what you may claim it to be, ” says public relations practitioner Choon Choon.
Choon, who has close to 20 years experience in the industry, says the Internet and social media makes it difficult for businesses to escape from being called out for acting irresponsibly.
“It is pointless if a brand is advocating body positivity, but the apparels produced totally disregard the largest or smallest sizes. Or if a brand stands for anti-racism, please make sure the organisation hires people of all ethnicity equally.”
Jenn Low, the founder of local jewellery brand Wanderlust + Co, agrees.
She thinks it is important to not be tone deaf and to be genuine at understanding what consumers would like to get from their shopping experience.
“I do feel that brands have to re-evaluate what they’re putting out there in the world, and why they’re selling, as it’s far more meaningful to balance a strong social purpose alongside commercial needs.”
Low says her business has worked with Women For Women International, an organisation that is committed to enabling single mums and survivors of war, by teaching them new life and work skills.
“Locally, we have contributed to Shelter Home, an organisation sheltering children who have suffered from abuse, neglect or abandoned backgrounds and recently donated laptops to assist them with their online learning classes and lessons.”
So, should a person feel guilty about loving fashion or embracing a stylish lifestyle?
No, when fashion can be so much more than clothes and trends. It is also about wearing something that makes you feel empowered.
“Fashion is a form of self-expression. It is important to align ourselves with brands that are responsible with the choices they make. Realisation is the first step to making great impact, ” Choon comments.
“Rather than feel guilty about loving fashion, opt to be a more conscious consumer. Spend with companies who share your values, invest in pieces that will stand the test of time and look after the items you buy, ” Low adds.