Founder and board chair of Redress; founder and CEO of The R Collective
Chairman of Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium; CEO of Novetex Textiles
+852: Lately, there has been a slew of news articles about the detrimental effects of the fashion industry on the environment. Just how bad is it?
Christina Dean (CD) The global fashion industry is thought to generate 92m tonnes of textile waste every year. In Hong Kong, post-consumer waste is the main issue. According to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), we chuck 370 tonnes of textile waste every day. By Redress’ own estimates, the city sends roughly 18,200 garments to landfills every hour.
Milton Chan (MC) I’d also point out that in the production process, water pollution [from chemical dyes and processes] is a huge problem. Government enforcement is not very systematic in China. A few global brands, like H&M or Zara, have taken steps to address this issue. But the whole industry has yet to commit to that.
+852: What are the main differences between fast and sustainable fashion?
CD Sustainable fashion is the production of clothes that minimises the impact on the environment and maximises the social impact. Circular fashion is even more sustainable – it recaptures and reutilises waste materials generated in the supply chain. Fast fashion refers to low-cost, high-turnover, poor-quality garments that don’t last very long.
MC I think it’s possible for fast fashion to be circular and sustainable, depending on how a business chooses their materials and operates. The big difference lies between linear and circular fashion. Right now, the traditional garment industry is quite linear – going in one direction from raw materials to production to consumer. Then the consumer throws out garments, which end up incinerated or dumped in landfills. In circular fashion, we create new garments from consumer waste to close the loop.
CD The idea that fast fashion can be sustainable is very questionable to me, unless fast fashion can utilise wasted resources and recycled fibres. No fashion is truly sustainable. Even when you produce it in an ethical, environmentally conscious way, there is always a negative impact [on the environment]. The most sustainable choice is to wear what you have and stop buying new clothes.
+852: Just how did fast fashion become so prevalent?
CD It kicked off when people felt like it was a party – shop, shop, shop. No one understood its impact on the planet.
MC In the last 10 years, there have been so many shops expanding in Hong Kong and mainland China. The novelty of styles that change every few months was exciting, but now customers know the consequences of buying fast fashion.
CD Sustainable fashion started to slowly emerge in Hong Kong around 2007, then sped up in 2013. Now it’s growing quickly. Social media has enabled stakeholders all over the world – be they garment workers or rich fashionistas – to see what’s going on in the supply chain.
+852: How would you describe consumer awareness?
CD A lot of people think of Hong Kong as a place of mass consumption – I disagree. I am excited about Hong Kong consumers’ willingness to adopt more sustainable fashion.
MC But do we have enough sustainable options? I don’t really see many local brands promoting it. Without options, it’s hard to convince customers that sustainable fashion is the way to go. Big brands can make it more mainstream by creating more sustainable options – through clothes designed from recycled resources or making upcycled products.
+852: What’s the biggest obstacle?
MC I would say it’s the traditional manufacturing process. It’s complicated, involving many steps and people. In addition, the technology for recycling post-consumer waste is not totally efficient, so brands are hesitant. It’s a big challenge for the whole industry.
CD I think tighter government legislation and rising prices of raw materials will be catalysts. This can push businesses to embrace sustainable principles – whether they want to or not.
+852: What’s needed for Hong Kong to become a sustainable fashion hub?
MC There are a lot of brands, agents and scientists in the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium, but most are half-retired. It’s the next generation that we have to nurture.
CD Second-generation leaders are engaged. We now need more business cases to prove that sustainability works. We lose US$100 billion in financial value annually through the linear system by incinerating and landfilling so many clothes and textiles globally. Enormous changes requiring many fashion stakeholders – logistics, recycling and so on – need to happen in order to capitalise on that. Any forward-thinking CEO must take it seriously.
MC Yes, when [my company] Novetex was investing in a sustainable factory in Tai Po, my friends asked me if we were crazy. Perhaps we are crazy but we also have hope. If no one takes the lead, we can’t survive.