Sustainability Roundtable: 6 Trailblazers On Fashion's Footprints
“It makes me want to cry,” says Hula CEO Sarah Fung, one member of the Tatler round-table discussion, as Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, brings up one of many unsustainable practices of the fashion industry: the destruction of unsold goods by luxury brands to maintain scarcity and thus high prices.
After oil, fashion is the most polluting industry in the world today, causing environmental degradation and pumping out ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.
Despite efforts by luxury and mass fashion brands to become more eco-friendly—huge conglomerates and speciality retailers including Kering, Burberry, H&M and Inditex, for example, have signed the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2030—progress is slowing down, according to a report in May by the Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Today there’s a growing movement in the fashion industry to adopt sustainable practices by transitioning from the linear production model of “take, make and waste” to a more circular model that preserves value and returns materials to the marketplace.
This is being achieved in both the manufacturing process (think responsible labour laws, upcycled materials and zero-waste manufacturing) and consumption (such as through vintage and second-hand trading). But each part of the chain comes with its own set of challenges.
Even in the 21st century, certain mindsets hold the industry back from making positive progress. During a recent visit to the Paris headquarters of a luxury brand, Edwin questioned senior directors about their continued use of animal leather.
“They said it’s because they’ve been doing it for 100 years,” he says. “It’s almost sacred—the idea that it’d be a compromise if they don’t do it exactly this way. But, actually, they’ve just locked themselves into this world they’ve created and are fearful of deviating from it.”
Christina Kountiou, professor of fashion marketing and management at SCAD Hong Kong, adds, “We humans don’t take on an idea unless we’ve heard it three times at least. One of my favourite fabrics is Tencel [an environmentally friendly fibre made from cellulose]. It’s been around for years but I don’t see how it’s not of equal importance to organic cotton. If you talk to people in the industry, many still consider it new.”
Often, technology that supports more sustainable practices in manufacturing already exists but the industry has failed to harness its power for a variety of reasons, from cost (pineapple leather, for example, is readily available but the meat industry makes cow leather cheaper and more accessible) to, as Edwin experienced, tradition and inertia.
One brand that’s committed to heading in the right direction is The R Collective, whose sophisticated garments are made from recycled fabric waste. Given that up to 80 per cent of the non-financial cost of a garment—water use, fossil fuels, emissions and so on—is generated before the garment is even made, the use of recycled fabrics represents a huge saving for the environment.
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But recycling comes with its own challenges. Most fabrics are mixes of materials, which means it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to separate them into their raw materials for reuse. It’s also hard to predict the amount of usable fabric available.
“We don’t know what we’ll get from the textile waste,” says Sharon Tsang of The R Collective. “It’s a surprise a lot of the time. Often we think we have an entire roll of fabric and when we unroll it, we actually have a few yards.” This is where designers need to be flexible, to adapt a garment’s design to accommodate the limited size and often irregular shapes of fabrics in order to generate zero waste.
Once a sustainable garment is produced, however, it may not instantly be attractive to consumers—a failure in marketing that Christina cites as another challenge. “We’re all working in little silos,” she says. “Designers, even among their team, don’t really talk to each other. They do their job and pass it on and then someone deals with the next step.”
Fragmented communication is also a problem on a macro scale. In the absence of an overarching governing body policing widespread standards, private enterprises have taken it upon themselves to drive change, which also results in varying standards being put in place. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was universal grading for sustainability in clothing labels like we have for nutritional labels?” says Edwin.
HOW’S HONG KONG DOING?
Hong Kong sends 200 tonnes of textiles to landfills every day. That represents about 10,000 garments discarded every hour. But everyone around the table agrees that times are changing.
The city is in the midst of a transition from the industrial age, with its focus on the value of products, to the information age, where we value data, design, services and radical innovation. Young brands are disrupting the market, challenging processes from the ground up; and where once luxury fashion houses dictated what is beautiful, fashion has become a far more democratic landscape.
Hong Kong is in a unique position in this time of transition, with its own challenges—and successes. “When I started Hula in 2016 and there was so much money in Hong Kong, everybody was spending like wildfire,” says Sarah.
“The city is so small, and everybody wants to wear something new because they see the same people when they’re out. That’s why I set up Hula, but even now I don’t know why people make a fuss over what I’m doing—people have been buying pre-loved in Japan for 40 years.”
The compact nature of the city is an advantage, allowing trends, both good and bad, to catch on with a speed rarely seen in other big cities, including awareness of the need to promote a sustainable lifestyle. “Hong Kong is leapfrogging,” says H&M’s Hanna Hallin. “Three or four years ago, you didn’t hear much about sustainability and now everyone talks about it.”
Hong Kong’s position at the crossroads of supply chains—with Mainland China’s garment factories on one side and international demand on the other—makes it a fertile environment for innovative businesses to thrive.
Edwin, who went to business school to learn how to manage complex systems after a frustrating stint with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is convinced that for-profit organisations are the most efficient at solving big problems. “In Hong Kong, if there’s a business model that works, somebody’s going to get on it,” he says.
So what needs to change?
There is no single solution that will end fashion’s deleterious effect on the planet.
“Whatever anyone is wearing today, we took scarce natural resources, water, fossil fuels and land from the world to make it, and almost all of that goes to waste,” says Hanna. “We need to break that behaviour, and we need to start with ourselves. This is where we need to get fashion lovers to inspire other fashion lovers, and to drive creativity within the industry.”
The whole panel agrees that the industry needs to get creative—and that we, as individuals, need to start contributing to a solution today by buying fewer garments, buying pre-loved, and avoiding PVC where possible.
Marketing also needs to be more creative in providing a wider context for consumers to see sustainable clothing in use. “We need to spend some time creating brand images that people feel are relevant,” says The R Collective’s Denise Ho.
Social media is one of the drivers of unsustainable fashion behaviour, encouraging consumers to buy into trends. The responsibility falls on the shopper to know their style rather than “this nightmare of keeping up with social media, of people needing to wear the It item of the day,” says Sarah. “It’s important to buy the right things and not have this excess afterwards.”
Indeed, forming new habits is what each of us can start doing today. According to Hanna, “It’s not about having all the facts and the knowledge, or being an expert; just buy what you love, treasure it, care for it, give it a long life, and when you don’t love it any more, make sure it gets a second life. It’s not a perfect product from an environmental perspective; you just have to go with the habit you think you can change.”
And while technology in the form of social media may propel poor consumer behaviour, it’s likely technology will also be our saviour.
“People should be talking about new materials,” says Christina, citing haptic technology through which our phones provide tactile feedback. Think fabric that can react to the environment and to humidity, she says, as she tugs at her dress. “Right now, being pregnant, I’m sweating bullets in this heat, but if my fabric was smart fabric, the fibre would open up and allow for more breathability. The technology is there; we’re just not pushing it, and we need to.”
As our discussion comes to a close, Edwin gestures at a jug of orange juice on the table. “I’m using this to make fabric,” he says, going on to explain the link between orange juice and the search for a down substitute.
“We’re looking into using graphene. A graphene ball floats because it’s lighter than air. You can make geometric shapes with graphene, and if you light a fire on one side of the material, there’s no change in temperature on the other side. The problem is that a lot of powerful acids are used in making it, so we’re trying to work out a way to substitute them with a citric acid like this, like orange juice.”
At this, hushed “wows” are whispered around the circle.
“How’s that going?” asks Christina.
“Well,” says Edwin, pausing, “it’s coming along.”