When most people think of changing fashion, they envision sweatshop labour and the bleeding hands of small children picking out erroneous stitches. Or rather, they try not to think about it as they hit the rails each weekend.
But I was shocked to learn that fashion is also one of the most polluting industries in the world, causing 20% of industrial water pollution and creating million tonnes of textile waste annually.
With such a huge human and environmental impact, what is being done in response? China, king of garment production, will soon reach 51.5 million tonnes of total fibre processing. The central government’s five-year plan, started in 2011, aims to achieve a 20-40% textile recycling rate and is on track to achieve this in 2015. These efforts are a step in the right direction and could herald a new era in government accountability and action.
Here in Hong Kong, NGO Redress is working to eliminate textile waste at the source, using designers’ influence to reduce pollution and fabric waste when creating garments.
Christina Dean, who started Redress in 2007, has seen a lot of pioneering change in recent years but remains focused on the future, bringing together the various power of consumers, designers, and the industry at large. “As we celebrate this new era for Hong Kong and Mainland China’s fashion industries and as we recalibrate our aspirations for an even bigger 2015, one ultimate question remains. If ‘fashion is a reflection of our times’, how are you contributing to better times ahead?”
Redress is working to affect change by running The EcoChic Design Award. Now in its fifth cycle, the competition challenges emerging designers in Asia and Europe to create a textile-waste reducing collection using techniques of zero-waste, upcycling, and reconstruction.
The competition extends across selected regions in Asia and Europe. This year’s finalists were from Scandanavia, France, UK, Hong Kong and China. The breadth of countries applying is testament to the growing appeal of the competition and sustainable fashion in general. In 2015 Redress hopes to expand this reach, opening the competition to all of Asia and Europe.
The 2014 finale in January was marked by a grand final fashion show at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The collections displayed by the 10 finalists felt fresh and exciting, whilst the show itself was well organized and informative. I left feeling more aware of the global problems of textile waste but also more inspired that change is possible.
Collections that drew inspiration from Chinese literature, porcelain, and ancient gods and goddesses, showed a myriad of breathtaking patterns and colours.
This year’s winner, UK finalist Kevin Germanier, up-cycled Swiss army blankets and polyethylene bags. The unusual shapes within his collection really made each piece stand out and embodied modern Chinese aesthetics of desirability, creating a long lean silhouette.
This design aesthetic, coupled with the high sustainability of his designs, led the judging panel to select him as the next collection designer for Shanghai Tang.
Dean agrees with the decision. “His use of upcycled old Swiss army blankets impressed the judges because he was able to demonstrate that ‘waste can be high fashion’ and he also used a steady waste stream for this collection, meaning that the collection had scalability as a consideration. He even constructed the garments with fewer seams in order to save energy during the production stage.”
As well as designing for China’s leading luxury brand Shanghai Tang, the competition awarded the opportunity to work with The Langham, designing a range of textile-waste-reducing staff uniforms as well as an educational trip to sustainable jewelry brand, John Hardy’s production facilities.
The former was won by Victor Chu (Hong Kong) whilst Laurensia Salim (Singapore) claimed the latter. Salim worked with denim; upcycling and reconstructing to create a collection that spoke of the ocean and the treasures within.
Chu used diverse patterns and cuts to reference his inspiration, Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong, and believes that “environmental protection is an art form.”
The show ended with a look at the award’s alumni and showcased some of their independent labels and collections. The commerciality of these young collections was inspiring and spoke to the growing demand for sustainable clothing.
As Dean surmised, “Our message is that sustainable fashion is moving from niche to norm. What you see on the runway may be one-off creations, but the opportunities for our emerging designers … proves that sustainable fashion is a viable option for the market.”
As the market changes so too must the spending habits of the everyday consumer. Supporting sustainable design talent is a simple and powerful decision that can change the world. Buy less and buy better. What more is there to think about?
To find out more about the positive power of fashion visit the Hong Kong Exhibition:
5 February – 8 March 2015
MTR Tiu Keng Leng Station
MTR Sai Wan Ho Station
13 March – 19 April 2015
MTR Tin Hau Station
MTR Sheung Wan Station