Hong Kong-based NGO Redress highlights the fashion industry’s ‘‘catastrophic contribution to today’s environmental crisis,’’ but is hoping to inspire designers and students to make sustainable fashion part of the industry’s mainstream. Are the hopes justified? K magazine investigates….
The world is enjoying a booming fashion industry. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Cotton Advisory Committee, total global textile consumption increased to 69.7 million tonnes in 2010, from 47.3 million tonnes 10 years earlier. In just two years, production volume of the global textile industry in 2013 had risen to 92.3 million tonnes, an expansion of 7% from 86 million in 2011, according to The Fiber Year Consulting.
But all this comes at a price. Lest we neglect the negative impact on the environment, the World Bank estimates that as much as 17 to 20 % of industrial water pollution comes from textile dying and treatment. To produce 16 pairs of jeans, for example, we need a whopping 58,000 litres of water, 48kg of chemicals, 6,400 MJ of energy and 208m2 of harvested land, according to Fashioning Sustainability 2013, a report by Deloitte.
In order to raise awareness of this issue, Redress, a Hong Kong-based NGO is promoting environmental sustainability in the fashion industry by focusing on reduction in textile waste, pollution, and water and energy consumption. Founder and CEO Christina Dean said: “The fashion industry’s catastrophic contribution to today’s environmental crisis is continuing unabated. Change, which requires multi-stakeholder collaboration, is urgently needed. Hong Kong is a hub for Asia’s fashion industry in terms of production, especially now, owing to Asia’s economic growth and consumption. We are powerfully positioned to drive the industry into accepting that we can’t carry on with business as usual.”
With this mind, Redress launched The EcoChic Design Award, a sustainable fashion design competition in Hong Kong, in 2011. It has since been expanded to include mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, with its next cycle being open to all Asia and all Europe. Aiming to challenge emerging fashion designers and students ‘‘to create mainstream clothing with minimal textile waste,’’ all contestants are required to follow three themes: zero-waste, up-cycling and reconstruction.
Simply speaking, zero-waste is a design technique that makes the best use of materials and eliminates waste at the design stage; up-cycling refers to the recycling of a material into a product of higher quality; and reconstruction means the process of making new clothes from previously worn garments or pre-formed products.
Easier said than done, especially working on sustainable fashion. But some of the contestants are highlighting the possibility. For example, by using up-cycling techniques on his textile waste source of Swiss army blankets and polyethylene bags, Kévin Germanier from the UK impressed not only the judges but influential industry audiences alike, resulting in him winning the 2014/15 competition cycle.
Speaking at the awards ceremony at HKTDC Hong Kong Fashion Week World Boutique on 21st January 2015, he said: “Sustainable fashion is one way of expressing myself. It feels amazing to be able to create clothes and at the same time to protect the planet. As a young and passionate designer [he is a student at Central Saint Martins], it is very important for me to feel useful. Winning the prize is an unprecedented opportunity for me to create a collection that represents the future of fashion design, production and consumption.”
The second prize went to Hong Kong’s Victor Chu, who impressed the judges with his up-cycling technique, and ideas for scaling up. He will now design textile-waste-reducing staff uniforms for The Langham, a prestigious hotel in Hong Kong.
The Special Prize went to Laurensia Salim from Singapore, who used the technique of zero-waste, up-cycling and reconstruction on her textile waste, comprising second-hand jeans from second-hand shops and her friend’s unwanted clothing, to make a collection featuring a wide range of denims in differing silhouettes. She said: “The fashion industry is a very wasteful industry that has a huge negative impact on the environment. To me, sustainable fashion means a better way of enjoying style that is harmless to the environment. I want to be a sustainable fashion designer because I simply want to make garments that don’t harm anyone or anything.”
It seems that sustainable fashion is no longer a topic for a small group of specialists only. More and more international brands, private enterprises and designers are integrating sustainability into their core business. These range from the Maternity Exchange, a Singaporean retail concept brand which rents maternity wear to accommodate the changing bumps of mums-to-be as a way to minimise textile waste; to online evening wear rental companies, like Yeechoo; to designers offering bespoke reconstruction services for private clients, like Hong Kong’s Cher Carman Chan.
Apparel and accessories firm Kering has also rolled out a group-wide Environmental Profit & Loss account across all its 23 brands, so as to measure and put a monetary value on the environmental impact throughout the entire supply chain, for deeper understanding and better decision-making in the future. The company will publish the results in the coming months, and publically share the EP&L methodology with other organisations – including competitors.
In fact, The EcoChic Design Award may reflect the fact that sustainability is starting to become part of the mainstream. The event targeted emerging fashion designers, but also gained strong support from various stakeholders, ranging from Ford, UPS, The Langham, Hong Kong, Shanghai Tang, jewellers John Hardy, the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium (SFBC) to celebrity Kary Ng. Plus, CreateHK, the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government agency has taken an interest.
SFBC chairman and judge of the Award, Anderson Lee, stated: “Together, both judges and competitors are immersed in learning and in the competitive environment, whilst travelling on the same journey to drive systematic change towards sustainability in the fashion industry.”
Can sustainability finally enter the mainstream, on a global basis? Let’s hope so.