The Post-Museum runs the Singapore Really Really Free Market every 2 months for the past 11 years. Popping up around Singapore in different locations each time, it is a gathering place for people to give things they don’t need away and be free to take what they find there that they fancy. Clothes, boxes and boxes of clothes are what we see being brought to the market. Even after much of it finds a new home with a fellow free marketer, we are still left with boxes of bygone fashion choices that either find its way to a thrift store depending on their condition, or achingly, in the trash.
The reports are bleak. According to a survey by Channel NewsAsia in 2016, every 1000 Singaporeans purchase an average of 34 pieces of new clothing and discard 27 pieces of previously-owned clothing each year. There are trends that fashion sales are declining yet still, Business Insider reported in 2019 that 7 in 10 Singaporeans buy new clothes once every 6 months, and most don’t care if it’s sustainably made. In the same year, Forum for the Future highlighted findings by the United Nations which showed that globally, the fashion industry contributes to 10 per cent — or 1.2 billion tonnes — of carbon emissions. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the labour that goes into making these fast fashion that we wear and discard.
Covid-19 times will likely slow down this endless cycle of consumption and destruction, but why do we need a pandemic to force our hand to do so? We simply need to do better.
When hands move, so does the mind
The genesis of Renew Earth Sweatshop started as a small sewing group in a Chinatown studio in 2017, where a few friends got together to look at what we could make out of all the discarded clothes from the really really free market. Some of us touched the sewing machine for the first time. There were a lot of hits and misses. If our mission was to save these fabrics, we also found a lot of it left on the sewing room floor after cutting and trimming. The simple act of making opened up deep questions about the hidden costs of fashion behind the glamourous world of models, displays and advertising.
Renew Earth Sweatshop grew out of these questions. As a community and participatory art project, it seeks to react to the environmental impact and labour conditions linked to the global fashion industry. We have seen the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh over thousands of sweatshop workers and the grim reality of more such operations in Cambodia, Indonesia and China. Renew Earth Sweatshop is an attempt to ‘reverse’ sweatshops – to become what a sweatshop is not, to counter waste, to rethink labour and ultimately to renew our earth.
By seeking to bring people into a simulated sweatshop experience, we want to give them the experience of making a wearable creation, one they can be proud of to showcase in a final catalogue and year-end show. The ‘reverse’ sweatshop will also be a little community space to learn new skills and refresh old ones in sewing, pattern making, embroidery, indigo dyeing and more from a team of experts. Participants do not need any sewing experience to start.
Online sweatshop - for now!
With circuit breaker in place, we have since held two workshops online. The first workshop on April 19th became a community check-in as people were starting to grapple with the extraordinary changes in our lives. Responding to the times, we hand and machine-sewed reusable cloth face masks together as the conversations flowed. In the second workshop on April 26th, trainers Tien Wei, Agatha “Agy” and Veronyka brought the group through the design process towards a final creation and discussed upcycling ideas.
Our next online workshop is on Saturday May 23rd 3.00 - 5.00pm. In this edition, we will be showing work-in-progress creations and continue to bring new participants through the design process.
We look forward to seeing everyone in a physical sweatshop space soon, as circumstances permit. In the meantime, thoughts about the future, our choices and our relationship with the earth becomes all the more significant in these times. And we look forward to seeing these ideas come to life very soon. Join our Facebook event for updates Register here to receive Zoom meeting details for May 23rd workshop. Or sign up at this link
About the author - Veronyka Lau is the associate artist of local art collective, Post-Museum. She believes there is nothing more important than battling economic injustice and climate crisis in our present age and her art practice reflects that.