Eco-Fashion Sheds ‘Granola-Crunching’ Image In China

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A sustainable look by last year’s winner, Karen Jessen. (EcoChic Design Award)

With both a massive and growing consumer base and a status as the world’s largest textile producer, China plays a vital role on both the production and consumption ends of the global fashion industry.

With rapid industrial-driven growth, however, often comes serious environmental damage—a fact close to home for Chinese citizens living in pollution-choked cities. Textile production can be particularly problematic, with a World Bank estimation that dyeing and treatment accounts for up to 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution.

In order to promote a more sustainable model for fashion design, The EcoChic Design Award has been working to recognize outstanding eco-friendly fashion since 2011. Founded in Hong Kong, the annual competition recognizes fashion designers who use environmentally friendly techniques in their creations. It opened up to mainland Chinese competitors in 2012, and has since expanded to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, UK, France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden for its current competition cycle that is now underway.

With a “Modern China Chic” theme this year, award organizers hope that it can help promote the mass popularity of sustainable fashion, especially among Chinese consumers. Its efforts are helped by strong corporate backing from a sponsor lineup including Richemont-owned Shanghai Tang, Ford, and The Langham Hong Kong. To learn more about the award and the sustainable fashion movement in China, we caught up with Christina Dean, the founder and CEO of EcoChic’s organizer Redress, an NGO which promotes environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. In the interview below, she discusses what needs to be done to make clothing production less wasteful and how the concept of eco-friendly fashion has been able to avoid a “granola-crunching hippy” image in Asia.

Christina Dean (L) with EcoChic 2014/2015 Hong Kong judge Janice Wong (R). (EcoChic Design Award)

Christina Dean (L) with EcoChic 2014/2015 Hong Kong judge Janice Wong (R). (EcoChic Design Award)

How does The EcoChic Design Award aim to promote environmentally friendly fashion?

The EcoChic Design Award is based the findings that “designers are thought to influence an estimated 80-90 percent of the environmental and economic costs of a product.” This indicates that fashion designers are very influential and powerful at influencing the sustainability of a product.

However, there is a general lack of education for fashion designers about sustainability, which is a huge issue because fashion designers today, in the face of huge environmental threat, must be more aware about sustainability and about textile waste issues. We organize The EcoChic Design Award for these reasons.

The EcoChic Design Award is a sustainable fashion design competition educating emerging designers to create mainstream clothing with minimal textile waste. The competition challenges emerging designers to cut waste out of fashion by using one or more of the sustainable design techniques of zero-waste, up-cycling and reconstruction. We provide information, resources, online tutorial videos and lectures throughout each 10-month competition cycle to provide emerging fashion designers with the inspiration and know-how about how to change the wasteful and polluting pattern of fashion.

But it’s not just those designers who are apply to the competition who benefit from this. The educational platform is open to all designers, regardless of whether they apply or not. In addition, we also support our previous alumni. I always say you are only as good as your alumni! We are excited to see that sustainable thinking is sticking with our previous finalists, with some having gone on to launch their own sustainable fashion brands. Although they are fledglings, their future is looking exciting and we will soon update their progress on our website.

An example of upcycling on a look by the award's 2013 third-place winner Alex Lam. (EcoChic Design Award)

An example of upcycling on a look by the award’s 2013 third-place winner Alex Lam. (EcoChic Design Award)

What are some of the main environmental problems currently created by textile production?

The textile industry is one of the world’s most polluting industries that heavily uses natural resources like oil, water, and soil and uses vast amounts of chemicals, also creating significant environmental impacts along the way, from CO2 emissions and wastage. For example, the production of one pair of jeans requires 3,625 liters of water, 3 kg of chemicals, 400 MJ of energy, and 13 square meters of harvested land.

These factors lead to environmental pollution and also to various diseases, which have a vast negative impact on societies. For example, in China, 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, according to The World Bank. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.

With this sad and real situation in mind, the problems get magnified when you consider the fashion and textile industries growth, stimulated in part by fast fashion and the underlying population growth. These growth factors increase the potency of the problem. Fashion consumption has increased significantly over the last few years, with an estimated 80 billion garments made from virgin resources being produced every year. And the population growth: it’s anticipated that by 2050 the global population will be nine billion, up from seven billion today. 

The program started in Hong Kong in 2011 and then opened a competition in mainland China the next year. How has the mainland response been so far to the award and to the concept of eco-friendly fashion?

Mainland China appears to be extremely receptive to the advent of a more sustainable fashion industry and we’ve had such a positive response from China’s fashion industry at large.

During the competition, we have experienced a rise in enquires from universities across mainland China as fashion institutions show growing interest in including sustainable design education into their curriculums. The response and connections with fashion lecturers on the mainland has been exceptionally high and welcoming.

At the designer level, we’re seeing mainland designers increase their understanding and technical abilities quickly. There is a genuine interest to grasp sustainable design as a key element of their design ethos and now we need to see this interest grow into innovation in their own design.

Elsewhere, our media coverage demonstrates the mainland’s broader and rising interest also. More publications are becoming interested in what we are doing as an organization as awareness about the environmental impact of the fashion industry becomes higher.

On the retail side, China has a very small and gradually flourishing sustainable fashion retail scene. Domestic fashion designers are making new waves in China’s cultural acceptance now as the next generation of fashion consumers views fashion through new eyes and fresh tastes that are moving away from the idolizing the big brands and logos and are now looking for more individualism that reflects China’s creativity.

Today’s fledgling new sustainable brands on the mainland are catering towards a very small market, but the mood seems upbeat and aspirational. Unlike elsewhere, we’re don’t need to shake off the old notion that “eco” is akin to the “granola-crunching hippy.” Instead, “eco” in mainland China is connected with health, well-being, and something to aspire to be able to afford for the safety of your family.

A look by 2013 second-place winner Louise de Testa. (EcoChic Design Award)

A look by 2013 second-place winner Louise de Testa. (EcoChic Design Award)

What needs to be done to make eco-fashion popular at a mass level in China?

The biggest challenge is the scale of the problem. Asia has the fastest-growing mass-market fashion retail growth predicted out of anywhere else in the world and a fast-growing middle class. These consumers, understandably, want to look good and are hitting the shops to pursue this.

However, China’s emerging consumers—just like many other consumers around the world—don’t yet understand the negative environmental impacts embedded in their clothes and their “new” reflections. In mainland China, the emerging consumers are generally already overwhelmed by the quantities of new fashion brands and designers surging on the retail scene, and so the concept of “sustainable fashion” is as alien to them as some of the new brand names. As a result, it’s quite challenging to educate Chinese consumers about the need to dress and care for clothes in a sustainable way.

Two main things need to be done to address these challenges. The industry needs to provide it and the consumers need to be educated to buy it!

On the industry side, the mass market in Asia could play an exciting role in bringing sustainable fashion to the emerging consumer here at a mass level. If the global fashion brands in the mass market can offer sustainable fashion options to these newly established consumers, we hope that this can inject better information and options at the onset of their consumer experiences with fashion. However, this requires strong leadership from the global fashion brands to drive more sustainable fashion products, at comparative prices to their conventional lines, into their Asian retail divisions. We strongly wish to break this old notion that sustainable fashion is a niche, because we believe that it will become the norm.

On the consumer side, consumers need to be educated and informed about why more sustainable fashion is better, for people and the planet.

People need to understand that they are influential for how the fashion industry operates through where and how they choose to spend their money and the relationship they have with the things they own. People must get informed about the issues around fashion and question their favorite brands and also make better buying decisions. For example, people must question themselves on how long they will use the item for? Is it made well? Where was it made? Can it be repaired and easily washed?

Who are some sustainable Chinese designers to watch in the coming years?

Xinyan Dai is our latest alumni member to come out of mainland China who is currently studying Fashion Design at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology in China. Her first sustainable collection for the competition was well received and we have our eyes firmly on her future career.

Another more established sustainable designer who is doing some interesting work in this area is Zhang Na.

On the Hong Kong side there are Wan & Wong Fashion, Eric Wong / Absurd Laboratory, and Glori Tsui.

The EcoChic Design Award 2014/15 is now open for application. More information can be found here.

 

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