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Can fashion ever be sustainable? EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Zerrin

Zerrin is the emerging Singaporean fashion marketplace that tackles the issue of clothing wastage and promotes sustainability in one. The company responds to over-consumption and the detrimental impact of clothing wastage on the global climate crisis. 

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Fast fashion is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The mindset around the production, consumption and disposable process is responsible for its detrimental impact on the environment: low-quality materials are utilized in production, vulnerable workers are exploited, fad trends are used to inspire designs, consumers over-buy and hardly wear the clothing, and the disposal of the items means they are never recycled. Not only does this process require undue resources (such as water) and nonrenewable energy during production, but there is a lack of viable recycling methods. This means that without changing the current practice and scale, fashion and clothing retail overall is an unsustainable practice. 

However, as a result of the hobby being promoted on TikTok and other social media platforms, there has been a noticeable increase in second-hand shopping and ‘thrifting’ amongst Gen Zs. Despite this, fashion retail still desperately needs an overhaul before it can become a universally green practice. 

We are beginning to see hope in countries such as Singapore, where companies like Zerrin are compiling sustainable brands onto one homogenous marketplace to foster an environment that encourages sustainable shopping and modernizes Singapore’s retail space as a whole.

In the exclusive interview, Retail in Asia had the pleasure of finding out more about Zerrin’s mission and the company’s evolution with its CEO Susannah Jaffer.

Source : Zerrin

RiA: As a leading sustainable fashion brand, what does sustainability mean to you and what measures do you use?

Jaffer: At ZERRIN, sustainability encompasses a movement towards consuming less but better. Our goal is to cultivate a culture around shopping small, sustainable and independent in Singapore and the Asia region. Within the fashion space, this can come in different forms, from more circular means of acquisition like swapping, thrifting or renting, to still buying new from a more ethical, transparent brand, like the ones we curate on our marketplace.

Despite our retail model, we believe it is important to use our platform to educate about the broad range of options within the sustainable fashion space to be more accessible, inclusive and realistic. We do this through social media, articles, panels, a podcast and other events.

RiA: Since Singapore’s ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, there has been a tangible shift in focus to sustainability. How do you as a company contribute to this movement?

Jaffer: ZERRIN is a multi-concept platform championing independent brands and sustainable consumption. Launched in 2018, our platform amplifies the work of emerging brands that use sustainable, ethical and circular practices. We advocate quality over quantity—the opposite of fast fashion—and only back products made better for people and the planet.

The word ZERRIN means ‘golden’. It represents our mission to reinvent and reimagine the landscape and traditional values of retail and media. We are committed to nurturing a community of citizens, brands and up and coming talent driving positive change, to spark the culture shift we need to create a better world.

RiA: What makes you stand out from your competitors who also put sustainability at the forefront of their business model?

Jaffer: ZERRIN is more than a marketplace. Our platform combines commerce, content and brand consulting to drive the development of emerging designers and awareness of sustainable consumption.

As such, ZERRIN is a growth engine for young labels. We support them across four key areas: omnichannel retail, marketing, insights and strategic services. This means we have multiple revenue streams and work with brands in various ways. This could look like, for example, a brand joining our platform and opting for us to shoot their next campaign, or help with strategic PR outreach.

Alongside this, we take a hybrid media/commerce approach to our business. Our higher mission is to shift mindsets, and to inspire both citizens and industry to find their own ways of creating and consuming more consciously. To that end, we have weekly media content, a podcast and social content we put out to create conversations.

Another thing is that we are a highly curated space. We vet brands both on great design and their approach to sustainability. We want to be able to attract customers that are looking for both; it is key to longevity and reaching a wider spectrum of people.

Source : Zerrin

RiA: Why did you choose Singapore, a smaller and sustainability-conscious country, as your market rather than a larger market which potentially could have made a bigger difference?

Jaffer: While Singapore has grown in its eco-consciousness, there is a marked difference between attitudes now and 6 years ago when I was conceptualising the company. Sustainability was not a hot topic in fashion discourse within the region. It is still in a nascent phase, and many conversations on an industry level are just scratching the surface. We have seen a big shift in awareness during the pandemic—with a focus on climate action—and that has meant significantly more eyeballs on our business, from various stakeholders.

Also, more practically, I am geographically situated here and have lived in Singapore most of my adult life (since 21, 10 years) so called it home. There are already marketplaces back home in the UK which have since pivoted towards sustainability in the last few years, who already have a big market/mindshare and a lot of investment. Looking back, it may have been more of a challenge to grow, despite the market size.

I also believe there is something to be said for making a bigger buzz in a smaller place. As an entrepreneur and sole founder with no investment, this was really the only option, so I took it in my stride.

RiA: Your website features ‘stories’ in a blog post-style format. Why do you do this/does it substantiate your community?

Jaffer: With the concept of sustainable fashion barely discussed in Singapore when ZERRIN started, I knew that consistently educating and creating conversations would be important. Coming from a media background, content marketing and storytelling were actually a strength and became a way of differentiating our platform and making authentic connections. We have both a local, regional and international readership to our platform.

I think doing this has enabled us to create deeper connections with people—whether they come to our platform as readers or as customers. It is also positioned us not just as a marketplace, but as a thought leader.

Source : Zerrin

RiA: How did you formulate your 5P’s Better Brand Framework (People, Planet, Product, Packaging and Principles)?

Jaffer: We formulated our 5 P framework, which we use to curate brands, based on the common areas we see and believe companies should be concerned with, both on a design and sustainability level.

When new brands seek to partner with us, we prompt them through our stockist forms and initial conversations to share more about their impact in those key areas. We ask for information on material and ingredient usage, sourcing, production, labour and wages and more. This framework also takes into account existing certifications and frameworks that exist, and if they have been through those too themselves (GOTS, B-Corp, Higg, etc)

While we have this framework, we acknowledge the nuance that comes with working with smaller emerging brands. They do not usually have the budgets or connections to get everything in order from the start. Finding the right partners for your supply chain takes time and often money. You cannot treat the efforts of a listed company in the same way that you would treat an independent designer, it is like comparing apples to oranges. There is no such thing as perfectly sustainable; that product (or company) doesn’t exist.

RiA: Your company is principally made up of an online marketplace where you can, according to your website, “ship worldwide, with customers in Europe, the US, Malaysia, Hong Kong and more”. How has this utilising ecommerce helped expand your business?

Jaffer: We started with e-commerce first and foremost, which has helped us reach a wider network through the simple fact that we can connect with customers wherever they are in the world. The way we have done this most organically is through content marketing. I think that has been one of ZERRIN’s biggest strengths compared to other similar concepts. I believe as a marketplace you have to add value through your content. You have to have your own positioning, voice and point of view, in order to build out your own brand and what you stand for.

Source : Zerrin

RiA: What are your biggest challenges as a startup?

Jaffer: On a business level, investment so we can build out our team and new technology. Many would not believe the size of our team compared to our output. I am proud of what we have achieved with sheer bootstrapping.

On a personal level, mentorship. I have not had many key mentors along my journey which I think has meant, both strategically and on a mindset level, it has been a struggle at times for me to make decisions as quickly as I need to. I have also not been great at asking for help. That has changed over the last year as I refine our business direction.

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RiA: Do you have any plans to open more physical stores besides the flagship store you have in Singapore?

Jaffer: We believe the future of retail is definitely omni-channel, and so physical experiences will always play a big part in the future of the company. We are currently in discussions with various partners and stakeholders to hold shorter experience stores vs. long time flagships, so we can be more mobile and cost-effective in our approach to expand regionally.