It’s difficult to imagine that there wouldn’t be fashion consumers in China who care about protecting the environment—after all, its cities are choking in “red alert”-level pollution and contaminated water. But while there are some designers and organizations in China have have taken up the “green” cause by going to great lengths to source certified organic fabrics or striving for a “zero-waste” production process, the number of Chinese consumers willing to shell out the extra cost or abandon fashion trends for an eco-friendly cause is too few.
Shanghai Fashion Week organizers attempted to remedy this last week with its first consumer-facing event in its 14 years of existence. Lane Crawford, Hong Kong-based environmental NGO Redress, Condé Nast Center, and other major players in China’s fashion scene gathered together October 12 to 16 to support GreenCode, a program complete with workshops, talks, a fashion show, and a pop-up shop that drew attention and discussion to sustainability, eco-friendliness, and related issues in the fashion industry. GreenCode is not the first large-scale B2C eco-fashion effort in China, as a number of luxury fashion companies, including Kering, have been doing eco-friendly CSR initiatives, and even fast-fashion giants like H&M have been heavily marketing their eco-conscious collections in the country.
This time though, the tone felt colorful, cool, and hip, rather than the more typical attributes of an eco-conscious event. Instead of pushing any specific “green fashion” definitions on the public, the GreenCode organizers invited 18 stylish and youthful China-based brands that were loosely connected to the idea (or by more strict standards, not at all) to showcase their work in a four-day pop-up shop. In some cases, “green” meant simply having products with cute animals on them, while in other cases, it meant using recycled materials. On one end of the space, Fake Natoo designer Zhang Na told stories about upcycling used clothing in her Reclothing Bank project. On the other, “green” came in the form of clutches that were hand-painted, as opposed to being produced in a factory, in this case by New York-based Chinese designer Leaf Xia.
Critics might interpret the vast range of brands as misleading marketing, much in the same way that companies use “greenwashing” to ride on the back of eco-friendly fashion trends in the United States. But eco-fashion is already a difficult term to define, and many organizations are still working toward doing so. For Candy Li, director of fashion management company HARDcANDY, which operates in London and Shanghai and curated the GreenCode designers, the variety of brands in the pop-up shop is the best way to speak to the open-minded, yet uninformed consumers in China who might only care mildly about eco-friendly initiatives in fashion.
“We want to make things easy, fun, and interesting,” she said. “When we’ve talked about sustainability in the past, we’ve talked about it in negative terms, like ‘you can’t kill animals,’ and ‘it’s not good for the planet.’ This is a really important part of the discussion, but if you make it fun, the average person can get involved.”
Li received her master’s degree in international fashion marketing in London, where she spent a year learning about eco-fashion and sustainability issues. She said that at first, the more she learned, the more she didn’t think that eco-fashion would work in China. And in a country whose e-commerce giant is Taobao, where consumers can get access to dirt-cheap garments that can be worn once before getting tossed, it’s hardly surprising. “But now, I think people are starting to change,” she said. “They care more about health food, they do a lot of sports, they work out. Their lifestyle is changing, so I think it’s time to increase more awareness about sustainable and eco-friendly fashion.”
Those like Li recognize there is a long road ahead. Shopping habits motivated by anything other than recognizable luxury brand names has only recently begun to shift for the Chinese consumer. Completely open discussion of the environment is censored by the Chinese government—as recent as 2015, a documentary about pollution was blocked after going viral online. Even with the rising demand for organic food and healthy lifestyles, there’s a distinction between making purchases because of personal safety concerns versus buying a product on behalf of social issues that may feel further removed from one’s daily life.
Still, Li is confident attitudes will change if people are given small and easy ways to participate in the “green” movement. GreenCode’s tent, which occupied a large part of the sidewalk on a busy street outside of Lane Crawford in Shanghai’s Times Square, was covered with simple tips for saving the environment, such as donating used clothing, or making a birthday gift for a friend instead buying a new product in the store. Passersby were also invited to drop off used clothing in a box run by Shanghai-based non-profit Green Initiatives. Li hired a GreenCode ambassador and fashion editor, Krystal Gao, to spread the word on social media.
“Everybody loves to help, right?” Gao said when asked about the public’s response. “When they have extra clothes, but there is nowhere to drop them off, and there is a good way, why not?”
Consumer participation certainly dwindles compared to the West, where eco-conscious culture and platforms like clothing recycling are much more mainstream. GreenCode’s drop-off box featured a portion of the wall beside it where people bringing unwanted garments could write what they wish would become of their donations. On the second day of the event, the space largely remained blank. Li said she is nonetheless happy. “Even if only one or two people participate, it’s enough.”
One or two participants isn’t enough to sustain a year-round eco-friendly fashion effort commercially though, and Li said she’ll personally move on to other projects before possibly doing a second edition of GreenCode next year. Some of the designers whose collections were showcased might have the opportunity to be sold at Lane Crawford’s own month-long pop-up (but one that is unrelated to “green fashion”), and at the very least, were exposed to tips by the department store’s experienced buying team so that they can continue to put their causes to work in the commercial ecosystem.
But GreenCode wasn’t the only eco-conscious fashion event at Shanghai Fashion Week this season. Coda Showroom, organized by Fan Yang, positions itself as a buyer shop that vets designers that, according to their website, have characteristics like “innovation,” “accessibility,” “playfulness,” and “concern for the environment.” Fan is also the founder of YCO Foundation, an online platform that connects more than 100 China-based independent designers with buyers and manufacturers, and provides members free guidance into the retail and production process. YCO has support from the Hangzhou government to give designers just starting out access to local resources, and in addition to the platform, YCO has an official WeChat account that features interviews with designers, as well as columns relating to sustainable fashion.
Coda Showroom, which first launched in 2015, featured nine designers that Fan’s team felt best represented good design and are “dedicated to exploring new ways to be more respectful of and responsible to our planet.” One of these is ffiXXed Studios, whose collection is stocked at Lane Crawford and who won the Yoox.com Asian Sustainable Fashion Award last year. Others include Ejing Zhang, who worked with UK womenswear designer Xuzhi to use leftover fibers for her contemporary jewelry collection. Coda provides help with the sales and production process “so that they can really just focus on design,” Fan said. “We want to see more original design from Chinese designers.”
This is particularly important for brands Coda represents when it comes to eco-friendly fashion “because they’re young designers and brands, and it really makes an impact on the young consumers,” she said. “People like them, who actually invest money, effort, and resources to promote this idea, really help.”
Fan said she thinks that while the “green” presence in China’s fashion scene is growing, there is a lot of room for improvement, citing other cities where showrooms devote entire sections to green initiatives. “I think in China, most of the general public is not aware of fashion being environmentally friendly,” she said. “At this stage, it’s definitely meaningful to have events like GreenCode. At least it has provoked its audience to think about eco-fashion. We are one step behind—people are not even aware of green fashion yet. In other words, green fashion does not motivate consumption.”
However, it’s apparent at Shanghai Fashion Week that some high-end brands are seeing a demand from affluent Chinese consumers for quality and natural fabrics, even through platforms like Labelhood, Shanghai Fashion Week’s newest presentation option for emerging young designers. There, Woolmark teamed up with leading Chinese multi-brand boutique Dongliang Studios to select six designers, including Shushu/Tong, Babyghost, and Boundless, to create three to six looks that used its Cool Wool, a fabric the company markets as being versatile enough to wear in hot weather. Woolmark has long been working with Chinese designers to find innovative ways to use wool—Ban Xiaoxue, whose collections were on sale at GreenCode, received the International Woolmark Prize Asia Region award for 2012/2013—but recently has been stepping up its efforts in the country as it sees a huge potential for growth in the eco-conscious market.
“I’m positive that it all might evolve faster than we realize,” Fan said about green fashion in China. “If more and more designers want to tackle that area, it’s actually good for both the Earth and their own career.”
Where GreenCode is all about making green fashion accessible and trendy for consumers who are only coming around to the idea, Fan’s approach is more about getting back to the basics.
“If it’s good design, if it’s quality, and if you can feel the person behind it, then the consumers will of course cherish it and wear it more,” she said. “That is more environmentally friendly than anything else.”