Sustainable fashion became something of a mantra in the luxury fashion world this year. With Gucci announcing its fur-free plan for 2018, fashion brands in Mainland China and Hong Kong are also setting up their own sustainable fashion initiatives, but do Chinese consumers care?
Zhang Na (张娜), an advocate for sustainable fashion in China, is the founder of Reclothing Bank. She began her fashion career after moving to Shanghai in 2004 and founded her first fashion brand, Fake Natoo, in 2008. Two years later, she created another new brand called “Reclothing Bank,” embarking on a journey into the sustainable fashion world.
Similar to the Los Angeles-based fashion brand Reformation, Reclothing Bank is a lifestyle brand that considers sustainability across the supply chain. What makes it different, however, is that Reclothing outfits are made from second-hand clothes.
“Our sales figures were poor at first because Chinese people generally don’t want used clothes,” Zhang said in an interview with Business of Fashion (Chinese version). Therefore, she had to reconsider the marketing strategy, redesign the used clothes, and describe them instead as “sustainable fashion (可循环的设计模式),” she said.
During Shanghai Fashion Week in October, Reclothing Bank debuted its 2017 collection, General Rejoicing (众乐). Reclothing Bank’s mission goes beyond “just recycling second-hand clothes,” Zhang said. “I would like to take this opportunity to remind people to stand in awe to nature.”
Another trailblazer in the sustainable fashion industry is the Hong Kong-based BYT, which uses leftover fabrics from luxury brands to create beautiful, trendy outfits. BYT made its debut at the EcoChic Design Award competition in Hong Kong in September.
BYT is co-founded by Christina Dean and Michelle Bang, who are both advocates for waste reduction in the fashion world, having worked at the NGO Redress.
According to the Redress website, “BYT has ambitious plans for its sustainability pillars – including up-cycling fashion’s excess, working with those disenfranchised in the industry and with Asia’s top sustainable manufacturing facilities, so that collectively, BYT’s collections are using the most innovative and sustainable processes available with their trusted partners.”
While there is plenty of supply side enthusiasm for more sustainable fashion, there’s still some resistance to it becoming a big trend in China in 2018.
The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world after oil. On one hand, traditional textile production requires massive quantities of water, which are contaminated with wastes harmful to the soil when they are discharged. Given the imminent threat of climate change, it's imperative that brands do better.
On the other hand, sustainable fashion costs more. A Reclothing Bank's woman outfit price usually ranges between ¥1360 (205) and ¥5960 (900), while the average BYT outfit costs around 2,000 HKD (255), neither of which is cheap.
Although brands such as Reclothing Bank and BYT are promoting sustainable fashion in China already, the full value of well-made, sustainable clothes is still a little abstract for most consumers. Why pay the same amount of money for a leftover, second-hand item when they could buy something brand-new for less?
There is a stigma against second-hand and upcycled items that is itself handed down from the previous generation, which endured decades of poverty.
Nonetheless, wearing sustainable fashion represents a new way of thinking — pursuing something simpler and more beneficial to everyone, not just the wearer, in the long run. As governments and global consumers demand more sustainable practices from industry, brands will need to convince Chinese consumers that it’s worth paying a little more for sustainable fashion. Luxury brands, with their greater attention to making quality, lasting clothes, are in a strong position to lead the charge.