The sustainability specialist is passionate about adding a Southeast Asian voice to the global sustainable fashion conversation
“There’s no accurate word for sustainability in the Malay language,” Najah Onn remarks candidly. “There’s ‘kelistarian’, but I don’t think it captures the spirit of the word. ‘Kemampanan’ perhaps has some elements of it, but it doesn’t make sense to people who don’t speak English.”
Najah isn’t saying that sustainability doesn't exist in Malaysian culture or, for that matter, in Southeast Asian culture. Quite the opposite, actually. “Sometimes when we talk about sustainability in the English language, it excludes many cultures around the world. The reality is that sustainability is a big part of Asian culture and is nothing new,” she says.
Born in Ohio, US, Najah and her family came back to Malaysia when she was two years old. She spent most of her formative years here under the care of her grandmother.
“I think I became environmentally minded because I hung out so much with my grandma and she taught me many green habits. We always saved our containers. I would see her using laundry water for her plants. I learned about being frugal, about saving scraps and saving water. I learnt about making compost with my tea bags and loose leaf tea. That was just the way she did things because she had a hard life like many others in her generation,” she adds.
After migrating with her family to Australia in her late teens, Najah took up a university course in environmental engineering and eventually landed a job at Ford Motor Company. At 35, she made the decision to pack up her belongings and return to Malaysia.
“I’ve been a practising environmental engineer and sustainability specialist for a long time, and was also working hard managing my blog (titled Deconstructing My Wardrobe). I wasn’t jaded about my job but I knew I was passionate about fashion. I realised it was now or never. I had a five-year plan and made a list of all the people in Malaysia whom I should reach out to in the green eco-system and I started building my network.”
Working out of her grandmother’s living room, Najah embarked on a garment footprint project with the aim of collecting data on the exact amount of water and other resources used in the manufacturing process of clothes. After six months, she realised the difficulty of gathering this information from supply chains that typically stretched across countries. It was then that she pivoted, rebranding her platform as FASHINFIDELITY.
“At the time, a lot of the fashion sustainability online conversation revolved mostly around whether cotton was better than polyester,” she says. “I wanted to dig deeper than that. The fashion supply chain is huge. Why weren't people not talking about biotech, alternative materials and the pollution from dyes, textile finishing and processes?
"I decided FASHINFIDELITY was going to be a platform where we deconstruct the entire fashion supply chain in a way that is consumable and accessible. That’s when it became an education platform explores environmental engineering and a holistic problem-solving approach, which I think gives weight to a lot of these topics.”
Back in Australia since the pandemic, Najah has done her five-year plan justice, expanding FASHINFIDELITY’s reach and living out her commitment to empower manufacturers and producers across Southeast Asia to incorporate sustainable practices from the ground up. As a sustainability consultant, Najah helps small businesses and corporations to navigate ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) practices and assists with impact reporting and certification.
“I am passionate about empowering manufacturers to lift their game, get their factories cleaner and greener, with better resources and less polluting." She also believes that empowering people from the bottom up with sustainability experiences will make them better qualified to work for international companies or brands that already have sustainability practices in their operations.
Najah is currently working to shift the negative mindsets that sustainability is expensive and inaccessible in Malaysia. “Sustainable fashion isn’t about buying expensive fabrics. It’s a way of life and a way of thinking. In the Southeast Asian context, it has to do with sourcing local, not importing so many materials. It's using local resources, working with local people and businesses and ultimately, placing value in our own heritage and culture.”
FASHINFIDELITY doesn't shy away from controversial topics, from the pollution created by batik production to greenwashing and whether or not locally made is also sustainably made.
“What I wanted was to create a sustainable fashion network. That idea has now pivoted to a slow fashion marketplace. The questions I get from up-and-coming fashion designers range from, ‘Where do I find organic cotton?’ to ‘Do you know who supplies biodegradable sequins?’. Right now there is no one-stop platform to get all this information for Malaysian designers so this is our next five-years challenge!”
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