As we usher in the Year of the Ox, that time of year has come again. But with reunion dinners kept to socially safe groups of no more than eight, silent tossing of yusheng, there’s no denying that Chinese New Year (CNY) looks a little different this year—and so might our wardrobes. The CNY tradition of buying brand new clothes to symbolise new beginnings may be one of the oldest, but the practice undoubtedly contributes to a spike in clothing consumption—and waste.
With CNY-themed drops and relentless discounts abound, it’s hard not to ponder on the environmental cost of this tradition. “The biggest problem that emerges from the festive season consumption is impulse buying. Research shows that 25 percent of impulse buying consists of fashion,” says Priyanka Shahra, founder of local swapping platform, Swapaholic.
But there are ways to approach the tradition more mindfully. Speaking to sustainable fashion aficionados, we’ve rounded up five ways that still allow us to still be in step with tradition more mindfully.
‘Shop’ your own closet
The most sustainable garment will always be the one you already own. Start from your own closet as the first port of call for your CNY outfits this year—chances are, there are lockdown-induced purchases that you haven’t found the occasion to wear them to. As you spring clean, take the opportunity to rediscover the pieces that sit at the back of your wardrobe.
“In pre-fast-fashion days, this annual tradition of updating our wardrobe for CNY was one of our few yearly opportunities to buy clothes that would last us until we outgrew them,” says Chu Wong, founder of sustainable fashion search platform, Shop Bettr. “But in today’s world where the prices of clothes have decreased and new styles are dropped ever so frequently, many of us often have ‘new’ unworn clothing in our wardrobe even before doing our CNY shopping. We could ‘shop’ our wardrobe and style existing pieces differently with a little creativity.”
Swap, not shop
“Each item you swap instead of buying new, you’re reducing its carbon footprint by 82 percent and saves 2700 litres of water,” says Shahra. “Swapping opens up new doors of style, well beyond what the high street dictates.” With CNY parties in session, consider consolidating your pre-loved pieces to swap—either in-store, or at any reunion gathering with friends and family.
Upcycle your clothes
Upcycling continues to be the technique of choice for emerging and established designers alike. If sewing—or dyeing—is in your wheelhouse, giving your clothes a new life could be an option to consider this CNY, too.
“Our CNY shopping is often not because of a need for new clothing, but because of a want—and our desire for ever more clothing is driving overproduction and a lot of waste,” says Wong. “In Singapore, only 4 percent of textiles were recycled in 2019, this means 96 percent of our clothes will be incinerated once discarded.”
“Meanwhile, local charity shops are often inundated by our donations and don’t have the manpower nor warehouse and retail space to handle everything they receive,” she adds. “With our only landfill, Semakau Landfill, expected to be fully filled by 2035, we need to rethink the way we consume and dispose of clothing.”
Buy secondhand and vintage
“Because two-thirds of a woman’s closet never gets used, buying secondhand very often is buying new,” says Nejla Matam-Finn, CEO of The Fifth Collection. “So you look good while doing good, and you don’t break the bank or the CNY traditions in the process.”
“Having become a deeply ingrained practice for generations, the tradition of wearing new clothes is unthinkingly practised and holds true across many Asian cultures,” Shahra adds. “Just as ‘new’ purchases are a sign of good fortune, ‘old’ or ‘secondhand’ have earned a connotation to the contrary. This negativity towards ‘used’ or ‘secondhand’ is largely representative of the Asian mindset. The good news is that millennials and Gen Z are much more open to preloved fashion—with 74 percent of 18 to 29 year olds preferring to buy from sustainably conscious brands, we are optimistic that the wave of change is here.”
Shop from sustainable and ethical labels
“If we’re sticklers for tradition, we could shop from brands that are doing better—brands care about both the people in their supply chain as well as our environment,” Wong suggests. “Shop Bettr is a great place to start.” Some labels to check out this festive season? Look to Cantosoul for understated Mandarin-influenced pieces, and Dear Samfu for locally made grandma chic matching sets.