Roxane Uzureau Zhu
Executive Director - Beyond Now Impact
Roxane’s introduction

Ex-fashion designer and entrepreneur, Roxane first started in the fashion industry holding several Head designer positions for high-end and high street activewear brands, leading product development from specs and material sourcing to supply chain management and production. She, then, went on an unexpected and career changing entrepreneurial journey, which included co-founding barePack, a container-sharing business in Singapore. 

Roxane has also been engaged as a public speaker and expert advisor for all matters regarding sustainable materials and textiles, plastics economy, circular packaging, reuse models and recycling. She is currently a Sustainable Fashion Advisor and Curriculum Developer at the Textile and Fashion Industry Training Centre (TaF.tc), delivering sustainability curriculum and support to students and management, respectively, and board advisor to the materials traceability and circularity platform Orobo.

What got you into sustainability?

I have been close to nature since a young age, growing up in the countryside and being surrounded by animals my entire life. After moving to Singapore in 2018, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of waste such a small but largely very wealthy country generated, and the waste system appeared to me very disorganized.  

This caused me to undergo some kind of personal awareness and shift in mindset whereby I knew that this was something I couldn't close my eyes on for much longer. I pretty much started a plant based diet overnight and started volunteering at Zero Waste SG. I began conducting talks at corporate events and participated in programmes to educate others on the issue.

Following this, I launched barePack, a container-sharing economy for takeaway food, and led the initiative even during circuit breaker, partnering with Foodpanda, Deliveroo and Grab delivery. Along the way, I got involved in the development of other sustainability businesses and startup incubators in Singapore. 

I’m passionate about reuse models and circularity’s application across industries, as well as how they could transform the landscape of how materials and resources are utilised. I have even conducted training for the SG Packaging Federation, an obvious example, but almost every business is concerned by materials.

Could you please share some of your responsibilities at Textile and Fashion Industry Training Centre (TaF.tc)? How is it transforming the organisation and the programmes that it develops?

TaF.tc is instrumental in shaping new designers and how the industry will look in the future. I designed a tailored curriculum regarding sustainable design to train fashion industry professionals, aiming to teach about materials, as well as different aspects and facades of sustainability beyond just better materials.

I feel my responsibilities there are to redesign sustainable content that feeds into different modules at Taf.tc. My goal is to enlighten students and make them connect to the content I teach to any other module, i.e., integrating sustainability instead of compartmentalising it and separating it from other aspects of fashion. 

Hopefully, what they take away from it is that they should be thinking about these principles at the back of their mind across every aspect of their diploma and learning, in every single thing that they do.  This makes it more challenging and requires more reflection and problem solving, and that, in my opinion, makes it a more exciting and worthy goal to pursue.

Are there changes in the way students are approaching fashion compared to previous generations of fashion enthusiasts and practitioners?

There are similarities between them. Younger students new to the industry come in with dreams of creating their own brand, but some of those also want to do something for the planet - not all, but some. While fashion is mostly a consumer industry, it’s still perceived as a creative industry so it’s not surprising to see that still reflected today in the students’ motivation to study. The school welcomed students from a partner French school last month, we showed them around manufacturing sites in Malaysia and honestly their reactions weren’t different to those I’d have seen in my own graduating class in 2012. 

The questions that are brought up are a bit different though. Ten years ago, we never talked about the impact of fashion on the industry - except perhaps about material wastage in terms of monetary loss. We deplored the rise of “Made in China”, its reputation for poor quality and advocated for local quality made clothes but it wasn’t about ethics. Now, there is more focus and concern over the environmental impact of material wastage, as well as recycling partners, turning  waste streams into feedstock and considerations for the people involved. So, there’s more of a focus and interest in sustainability now overall. 

If you had the resources to do so, during your past positions and occupations, what do you think you could have done more of, or would you have liked to have done more of if you had been given free range to transform your Department organization?

I would have liked to have had access to transparency on whom I was working with and where the materials came from: fashion is an opaque line of work in most companies, i.e. outsourcing certain processes and materials, hence there was no insight as to what impact you have in production. 

I was largely (even blissfully) unaware of different aspects of sustainability: if you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you improve? I only understood that some polyesters were better than others, i.e. recycled vs non-recycled. I was not made to question the materials, and in fact these were not necessarily perceived as worth my (paid) time. 

The fashion industry has been spotlighted over the past few decades as a large contributor to the climate crisis, and social injustices. How has the industry responded to this, i.e., large brands vs small, production changes, end of life changes?

The realisation that the fashion industry is a major contributor to carbon emissions and pollution is not new. The use of rPET (recycled polyester) has been mainstream for over a decade, e.g. Nike using polyester made from recycled plastic bottles for South Africa 2010 football jerseys. 

The difference between then and now is the politicisation of the issue, engaging all actors across the industries to take action. Today, using rPET is so much the mainstream that there is more of a need for new methods to collect plastic bottles. In fact, there is a need to move beyond rPET into more innovative and sustainable textiles and fibres.

So many tools have been developed, e.g. Higg Index: Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a Not-for-Profit Organisation that assesses environmental and social factors in the apparel supply chain.

Large versus small brands have different challenges: Large companies have huge impact but have complex and opaque supply chains, which results in slow progress but provides opportunities to find efficiencies through collaborations - they require brands to support them while they seek innovative solutions, i.e. material research. For e.g., H&M’s investment in textile recycler Renewcellw. Large companies also contribute by funding incubators, partner with services that provide alternative experiences of shopping/consumption, e.g. Gucci and The RealReal.

Increasingly, the secondhand market and luxury brands are coming together, and are shifting mindsets by putting items on the resale and/or rental market. Tapping into different revenue streams that improve their sustainability rating, these brands are realising that these markets do not damage the brand. In fact, when brands acknowledge that these opportunities are a source of brand reputation assurance, offer economic and structural resilience, the decisions to make systemic changes suddenly become a priority.   

For smaller brands, they have less capital to invest in third generation materials, e.g. mycelium leather, pineapple fibre, etc. Instead, they work with smaller companies and factories and have more human relationships as they have fewer middlemen. The most basic strategy which smaller businesses adopt is material swaps, e.g. synthetic fibre for organic cotton, and more committed brands focus on the health, fair wages and human rights of their workers, as well as building a strong community by leveraging on existing networks and support streams. Those who struggle are the ones who initially offered fast fashion competitive products at prices they cannot maintain. 

With the UN’s SDGs and goals for 2030, the world and industries have been ramping up efforts to improve their approach to sustainability. How is the fashion industry doing this, and what do you hope to see by 2030?

There’s a shift towards collaboration, i.e. it’s not merely a design collab between Brand X and Brand Y for aesthetics only, but how Brand X and Brand Y come together for sustainability. We’re going to be seeing more of this as brands work together to bring different aspects of their strengths together. 

Governments are also taking more action: policies are no longer only about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but also specific industry-related targets, i.e. Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action that aims to drive net-zero emissions from the industry by 2050.

My hope is that we will make regenerative practices a commonplace, which is extremely ambitious because regenerative practices are one level higher and more difficult to achieve than sustainable practices.

What are you most proud of?

The curiosity and courage to start a circular business against all the odds, and despite not being trained in either environmental sciences or attending business school. I’m often asked if I studied materials science or chemistry, because I can get very technical when talking about materials - but I am all self-taught.

I’m happy that I can inspire others to see how there’s no better time than now and no better person than you to try to make the change you want to see in the world.

What would be your top 3 pieces of advice to TMI users and especially to up and coming fashion designers and brands?
  1. Set yourselves up for success: it’s much much harder to change a business model or supply chain after building up something, versus building it into a sustainable way from day one. For existing brands, find all the links and connections between processes, and aim to retain value at every point, minimise or remove negative consequences and bring positive social and environmental impacts. 
  2. Start somewhere, get help and be patient. The big picture is both exciting and overwhelming, and there’s too much you don’t know you don’t know. So just start, get some expert support, and ideas and solutions will slowly come together. There’s no quick fix. 
  3. Ask yourself the hard questions. If you haven’t yet built your business, are you really contributing to the solution or the problem? As a designer, it’s natural to want to express ourselves and create our own products, but if similar offers are already on the market, consider whether it is more helpful to make more or to contribute to support or improve an existing business. 

The truly sustainable product is the one not made unless to replace another: we have so much already, any new product is just adding to our brimming inventory of things.

How could you help The Matcha Initiative (TMI) users?

I welcome project leads to reach out to discuss their challenges, in particular circular and material challenges, and have experience in sustainable communications and campaigns (ensuring there’s no accidental greenwashing).

Roxane kindly accepts to answer your questions.

If you need additional insights, you can send her a message.