Novetex chairman Ronna Chao is pioneering a waterless upcycling process to help alleviate overproduction in the fashion industry. Here, she talks about how family and education have shaped her core personal and corporate values

Ronna Chao’s passion for conservation and environmentalism comes naturally. The chairman of Novetex Textiles—as well as CEO of Novel Investment Partners, director of Novelpark Investments, and CEO of the Bai Xian Asia Institute, an organisation founded by her father, Ronald Chao, to foster cross-cultural educational exchange among students in East Asia—grew up in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, a decade before the city’s mall boom deposited a spate of luxury shopping and entertainment monoliths across the skyline.

Family influence

“I think my passion and my interest in environmentalism comes from the fact that things have really changed,” Ronna tells Tatler. “We didn’t grow up with it. When we were little, we didn’t have so much—and we didn’t throw things away. Conservation—and recycling—wasn’t a conscious thing, because it happened naturally.

“If you think about it, there were no malls. We went to Ocean Terminal, which is now Harbour City, and there were individual shops. What we’d shop for were books, and we were allowed to get one—it was never like, ‘You can buy 10 books.’ And I remember a major treat; when we were in our early teens my dad took us to a record shop and maybe once every two months we would each be able to choose a vinyl. Things were very precious and you would reuse them, reuse them, reuse them.”

These core values of respect and thoughtful consumption have been passed down in the family through generations. “I remember my grandmother unravelling sweaters to re-knit because the yarn was perfectly fine, it’s just that it was too small for me because I’d grown,” says Ronna. “So she would unravel, add more and knit it into another style. I still have garments I can show you that my grandmother knitted. I wore them; my kids wore them.”

These values of respect and thoughtful consumption have also become intrinsic elements of Novetex’s core values. “Novetex started paying attention to sustainability as a commercial decision a decade ago; it has been a journey of discovery for us as well,” Ronna says. “As a company, we looked at our manufacturing processes and other ways we can improve and contribute less to environmental issues.”

See also: 5 Hong Kong Charities That Save The Environment

The Brains Behind The Billie System

Enter The Billie. Created by Novetex in cooperation with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, The Billie is a waterless textile upcycling method that allows for colour sorting and bre processing, and which releases no harmful chemicals. In Hong Kong, where more than 300 tonnes of textile waste goes to land fills each day, The Billie is a glimmer of hope—a conscientious decision in the production cycle that could provide brands with nimble and varied upcycled options while exerting minimal environmental impact.

“We have always offered recycled yarn. Textile recycling is nothing new; it’s been around for a long time,” Ronna explains. “The Billie is new because of the method. In the old way, the traditional way of recycling, you get a load of old clothes, we chop it up, we card—basically, comb everything back to bre—and the colours are mixed, so you’re kind of getting some greyish purplish colour, and then we dye it into a dark colour: black, navy or heather grey. That’s pretty much the old way, the conventional way of recycling textiles.

“The way we’re doing it now, we separate by fibre content, we separate by colour, so the system can make upcycled yarn in nine major colours. Let’s say you’re a big brand and you have 10,000 pounds of a particular garment that didn’t sell or that you collected from consumers, and it’s all a similar colour. We will recycle it, add virgin material to it, and we’ll tell you, ‘It will be this colour—or this range of red.’ The customer can accept that red and knit it into red sweaters. That’s the closed-loop circular recycling that we’re hoping to achieve.”

See also: Asia Tatler Sustainability Forum At Soneva Kiri: The Who, What And Why

Her Education And Childhood

On set for her Tatler cover shoot in July, Ronna is relaxed and exuberant. She has an easy-going rapport with the photographer, stylists and staff, and possesses a natural confidence and warm engagement that’s a byproduct of her New England liberal arts education, at Choate Rosemary Hall and Brown University, after which she headed west to earn her MBA at Stanford.

“When I first arrived at Choate, I was a second form student and it was very different,” she says. “When I went there, there were only three Hong Kong students, but we didn’t know each other; we were all in different years. The biggest thing I felt was culture shock, not because I didn’t know American culture, but because they were all just so natural. That’s not how we were brought up; we tended to be a bit more reserved, a bit more quiet.”

Although she was homesick and lonely, 14-year-old Ronna was determined to stay the course. “My parents would call me once a week, and I remember it was probably during the first 10 days, I suddenly burst into tears because this feeling of loneliness was overwhelming. But I said to my parents, ‘I really wanted this and I’m going to tough it out and I’m going to try.’ And I think it was within the next week that I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom and there was a girl next to me brushing her teeth, and she started a conversation. She asked me, ‘Are you new? Where’s your next class? Why don’t I walk you there?’ She introduced me to her group of friends and they just embraced me and welcomed me.

“I think that really taught me the power of very simple kindness,” Ronna says. “We became such good friends. And they were not typical prep school kids; they were all scholarship students. I had one friend who told me her father was a sanitation engineer. I didn’t know what that meant so she explained, ‘He’s a garbage man.’ Her mother is a nurse. And I just felt like, ‘When you give opportunities to people who have potential, it really could change their lives.’"

Father As Her Source Of Inspiration

To this day, Ronna is an active member of the Choate alumni community. “It’s just a very natural thing for me. Choate was a life-transforming experience, so to be involved in the work that alumni do, to tell more people about that school, to stay connected to the school—it’s not necessarily that I’m doing something for the school—it feeds me.”

The same passion and dedication extends to her work as CEO of the Bai Xian Asia Institute, which, through its Asian Future Leaders Scholarship Programme, provides support for students in Asia to study abroad at partner universities throughout East Asia. Established by the Bai Xian Education Fund in 2014, and guided by the vision of her father, Ronald Chao, the institute and scholarship were inspired by his own experiences as a student from Hong Kong studying at the University of Tokyo in the late 1950s.

My dad didn’t want to go—he didn’t know Japanese— but my grandfather said, ‘I’ve put aside this amount of money and no matter what happens to the business, you’ll be able to finish school,’” Ronna says. “So my dad went, learned the language in one year, took the entrance exam and got in. The five years he was there he lived in a dormitory for Japanese students and other Asian students. At the time he was only 18, and [at that age] you don’t really think about stuff.

“I think it was at his 55th class reunion that he saw a list of his old classmates. One of them became a very senior-level person in the Japanese government, and [my father] said, ‘I’m going to call him. I don’t think he’s going to answer, but I’ll try anyway.’ So he called and the guy came to the phone. He was stunned, but it was just like old times.

“When my father thought about this scholarship programme, he thought about what happened when he was young. Friendships that develop when you’re in your teens are very true. You’re not thinking about what you can get from a person—friendships are very, very pure—and they last because they’re experiential. So that became the nucleus of the scholarship programme.”

An interdisciplinary vision

With so many Asian students choosing to stay in their own countries for higher education or, if they venture abroad, going to Australia, the UK or the US, the Chaos focused their Bai Xian Asia Institute scholarships on academic institutions in Asia.

“How can you know the world if you don’t even know your own region?” Ronna says. “How can you impact the world? You should impact your own area first. We think it’s important for Asian students to know Asia first. It’s very beneficial to the region—and eventually the world—if relations between China, Japan, Korea and this region are positive. And with so much in common—language, history, culture—there shouldn’t be so many differences. We, as civilians, can do things through intercultural learning, interdisciplinary teaching, experiential learning—we provide opportunities.

“The world is getting smaller; it’s not a cliché, it’s a reality,” Ronna says. “There are fewer and fewer borders, and more and more collaboration—a need for collaboration. Giving young people the opportunity to extend their own circles of influence and to be beneficiaries of others’ influence allows us to be better connected, more efficiently connected—to do great things, solve problems together.”

See also: Hong Kong's Power Women And The Women Who Inspire Them

  • PhotographyVinci Ng
  • StylingJustine Lee
  • Stylist's AssistantGennady Oreshkin
  • HairGloom Kwok from HK Makeup Artist
  • Make-UpJasmine Chan from HK Makeup Artist
© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.