Environmental Engineer Turned Fashion Sustainability Entrepreneur

Najah Onn is an environmental engineer by training and now runs a sustainability consultancy business, FASHINFIDELITY. Born in Ohio, USA, Najah is the eldest child in a family of seven siblings, so she had to grow up really fast. She sees herself as a highly organised person, with strong leadership skills, a nurturing soul, and also unofficially everyone’s life coach. What Najah loves most is seeing people whom she cares about thrive, living out their best potential.

What was the driver behind you starting FASHINFIDELITY?

In April 2017 I had an epiphany on a beach in Krabi, Thailand. I was feeling restless because I was unhappy with my partner whom I moved to Perth with. Even though my job was super rewarding, I had a difficult boss who really affected my quality of life. (It was only after I left the company I realised he was trying to sabotage my success every step of the way because of his own personality/psychopathic issues. I even experienced identity theft perpetrated by him! Quite a traumatic experience.) 

I always loved fashion and style but knew it was full of excess and wasteful. I thought, why don’t I pursue a career, solving problems, in an industry I’m passionate about? That was my self-realisation moment. (I even wrote about it, here.) 

After five years in Perth, I decided to leave Australia at the end of 2017. I packed my life of 17 years and sold them all, bar my trusty roadbike Carl, a handful of boxes worth of belongings, and my beautiful raw leather sofa. I shipped them all to Malaysia to start my business from my grandma’s living room. It was the perfect idea because I get to spend my days with her, as well!

How was it like growing up under the care of your grandma?

I was born in Ohio, USA, because my mum and dad met each other there while studying. My mum had me when she was twenty! I was under the care of my grandmother since I was two while mum finished her studies.

Grandma was the person who instigated all the important life moments I had – my first ear piercing, my first bus trip into Kuala Lumpur to check out all the shopping haunts. She was very frugal and the OG ‘DIY’ Queen in my mind!

She loved her home and would show me her creative process for interior design. She created cardboard samples of furniture pieces she wanted in her home and would commission them to be made. She was also a great networker and negotiator. She knew what she wanted with all these furnishings she wanted in her home.

I learned about being ‘green’ from her, to never ‘waste’ anything – from saving water from the laundry to water her plants to reusing jars and bottles, and containers for other uses. Our relationship got closer when she taught me how to cook at 14. I will never forget those moments.

What would you say was the biggest influence your grandma had on you?

Looking back, I realised her wisdom had been instilled inside me throughout my adulthood journey. They are all subconscious influences that play a big part in my own self-development, like an inside ‘voice’ that I didn’t realise existed. I would say her biggest impact on me was how to appreciate what you have. I also think I learned my social skills from her, and she taught me how to maintain a household, with a lot of love.

What impact are you looking to make with FASHINFIDELITY?

Since 2018, FASHINFIDELITY has had a strong brand presence, and has been a trusted advocacy voice and educational platform in fashion for both consumers and industry in the Southeast Asian context, but most especially in Malaysia. I did this purposely because being Australian, I knew the sustainable fashion conversation was very ‘white’ and privileged.

I am most passionate about empowering manufacturers of clothing, textile, and footwear from the ground up. This was the reason I quit my day job. I wanted small to medium businesses to access sustainability principles at work. I know they needed help, but don’t know who to call. I wanted to tap into localised challenges and cultural barriers. I wanted to challenge my community’s perception of what sustainability really means, but also advance manufacturers’ credentials in environment and social governance. We offer sustainability strategies that match your purpose; not spin.

We’ve turning five in the new year and we’re very proud of our journey thus far. Our next horizon would be to effectively engage our audience: community, businesses, industry, and educators.

One, we want to keep tackling controversial topics, bring fresh innovation news and amplify Southeast Asian voices and communities.

Two, we want to help brands and organisations communicate sustainability truthfully, with well-researched, factual and trustworthy strategies.

Thirdly, we want to bridge the gap between slow fashion producers, suppliers, and age-old techniques to a wider audience, to disrupt the ‘fastness’ and ‘immediacy’ of fashion at the moment. We are looking at technological solutions for this.

And lastly, we want fashion educators to bring the outside world into fashion school. The fashion supply chain doesn’t revolve around just design. It’s bigger than that. I’m currently writing up a new business plan. Watch this space! FASHINFIDELITY also only employs staff from Malaysia because we believe opportunities in sustainability in this space are rare.

Why do you think that there’s still such a big gap to be filled when it comes to education around sustainability and fashion?

Funny you asked that. We had a fashion student mental health forum last night that deconstructed the whys which confirmed what we have always suspected: fashion education is broken. The syllabus has not only *not* kept up with calls for de-growth of fashion – because fashion school teaches you how to create, make, and sell with no consequence – but has also failed to bridge the connection between a designer’s role in the industry with a more sustainable, ethical, and responsible supply chain. 

Designers are creative people, and their creativity is stifled by the enormous pressure to make something that’s supposedly sellable within impossible deadlines, but with no great reason why, other than ‘market trends’. This is the work ethic they’re subjected to when they design apparel once they get a job, too. It’s a vicious cycle of physical and psychological torture. And why? To create more stuff? 

I believe fashion’s slow uptake of sustainability principles in its supply chain originates from the fact that they’re an unregulated industry. I have worked in construction, utilities, automotive, fast-moving consumer goods, local government – and as a collective, they are bound by compliance and targets to do better, become more efficient, utilise emerging technology, and reduce their carbon footprint. But fashion isn’t. All the accreditation, pledges, and commitments you see in fashion are voluntary and so they make up their own targets. I’m being absolutely blunt, I know. But it’s the reality. If you asked anyone in the industry ‘is there a minimum standard of how to make a t-shirt that takes into account fair wages, environmental controls, and best practice resource utilisation?’ – the answer is no.

Of course, the internet and globalisation helped fashion become a bit of a monster in the past three decades, when fast fashion was born. 

Now we have to go back to basics and take fashion back to an industry that can clothe people in the world (fashionably or not) without so much waste, excess, exploitation, and injustice. 

Fashion degrees and courses can be a big part of the solution in the collective movement. I believe fashion design, textile technology, and fashion business must be taught holistically, and in tandem/combined. The biggest gap is that the fashion supply chain is disjointed. Until we see fashion educators also advocate for a more equitable fashion industry, we will be spewing out graduates who are ill-informed to tackle fashion’s greatest challenges, and lagging in efforts to move the needle for systemic change.

What are some of your favourite fashion pieces and why?

For me, nothing beats a great pair of jeans, t-shirt, heels and blazer for looking absolutely on point, anywhere. This is my default look while travelling as well. You always look so polished and sophisticated! A staple in anyone’s wardrobe.

If you could give one tip to teenagers growing up and how they should be picking fashion trends, what would it be?

Of course, I would say DO NOT FOLLOW FASHION TRENDS. My greatest piece of advice is experiment with silhouettes and types of clothing that look good on your body, and how you feel in them. Feeling absolutely wonderful in what you wear really shows in the confidence you carry.

Once you’ve found your ‘fit’, Google styling tips on what pieces goes with what. This gives you a wider view of how you can utilise items in your wardrobe multiple ways. Stick with this! (Until you outgrow them in size or life events.)

As you grow older, don’t be afraid to keep exploring your own style. Fashion trends won’t serve you well – resist the temptation to want to own what someone else wears, or look like them. Own your personal style, and you will appreciate your clothes even more. The rest, they say, is history!

Follow Najah and FASHINFIDELITY.

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