The fashion entrepreneurs cleaning up Asia’s clothing industry

From upcycled designs to circular supply chains, these pioneers are paving the way for a greener future

Just picture this: Every second, a garbage truck full of discarded textiles is put to waste, either dumped in a landfill or destroyed by incineration. From exorbitant refuse to water pollution, fashion has a well-earned reputation of being one of the most environmentally damaging industries. It already accounts for 10 percent of the world’s carbon footprint and 20 percent of wastewater, according to United Nations Climate Change. By 2050, the industry is on track to consume a quarter of global resources if its trajectory doesn’t change.

Nowhere is fashion pollution more prevalent than in Asia. The region has long been the largest manufacturer and exporter of clothing and textiles, with the the majority of production taking place in China. The country’s clothing production accounts for an estimated third of the industry’s global carbon footprint, primarily because of a reliance on coal-powered plants.

Carbon-dioxide emissions, linked with climate change and rising sea levels, are just the beginning. Dyes and pesticides containing deadly chemicals make their way into local rivers and drinking water; synthetic microfibers poison marine life; and the cultivation of raw materials, particularly cotton, depletes natural resources like land and water. Similar consequences have been documented in manufacturing hubs all throughout Asia, including India, Bangladesh, and Cambodia.

But there are solutions on the horizon. A crop of eco-minded entrepreneurs in Asia is tackling the issue from every angle, from education all the way to supply-chain solutions and elegant “trashion” collections made from waste. Below, learn how three forward-looking founders are cleaning up the industry.

Leading the pack

While working as a journalist in Hong Kong, Christina Dean discovered that more than 75 percent of the world’s top-polluting cities were in China, thanks to the high numbers of textile producers and clothing factories located there.

Devastated by her findings, Dean founded Redress, a Hong Kong-based NGO, in 2007. As the first environmental NGO focused on the fashion industry, Redress works with global brands and organizations to reduce textile waste and introduce circular principles such as producing and using renewable resources, recycling waste, and increasing products’ longevity.

The nonprofit also produces Frontline Fashion, an online docu-series, and the annual Redress Design Awards (formerly known as the EcoChic Design Awards). Today, Redress is conventionally referred to as the largest sustainable-design competition in the world.

While still involved with Redress, Dean has embarked on a brand-new venture, a pioneering upcycled-fashion brand and social-impact business called The R Collective. Launched in February, the label aims to reduce waste and pollution in its supply chain; it also has plans to donate 25 percent of profits to Redress.

The brand turns trash to treasure, quite literally. The R Collective’s inaugural “Start From Zero” collection is made entirely from rescued waste from textile mills in Italy and Japan upcycled into pieces like artistic, architectural dresses and sharply tailored blazers.

“The goal is for this brand to be the best sustainable-fashion brand in the world,” says Dean. “It’s a completely audacious plan, but that’s the dream.”

Closing the cycle in China

China’s appetite for fashion has grown enormously over the past few decades and has shown no signs of slowing. Per McKinsey & Co. and Business of Fashion’s joint report, the 2019 State of Fashion—which was issued in November—China is expected to become the world’s largest apparel market this year. But as the Chinese consumer’s appetites explode, so does the industry’s waste problem. Already, China produces 26 million tons of textile waste a year, compared with 16 million tons in the U.S, 1 million in India, and roughly 500,000 in Bangladesh.

“These are very, very valuable resources,” says Sissi Chao, a member at Shanghai’s WeWork 819 West Nanjing Rd. “Every textile we throw away could be turned into a new yarn or woven into a new fabric.”

Chao grew up in Shaoxing, a hub of fashion production two hours southwest of Shanghai. Her parents have operated a clothing factory, producing fast fashion for brands like H&M and Gap, for more than 20 years, and they expected her to take over the family business.

“I did my first internship in their factory and quickly realized that this industry is not as beautiful as the clothes and ads we see,” says Chao. “I saw so much pollution and waste everywhere. I felt like it was my honor and duty to clean it up. I don’t want to see, in 2050, a landscape that’s covered in trash.”  

Chao challenged her parents and proposed a plan. “I said, ‘I’m not going to be a polluter anymore. I have to be the solution.’”

In 2018, she brought her mission to life with RemakeHub, a business-to-business social enterprise platform that provides waste-management solutions to fashion and lifestyle clients. The team has cultivated roughly 50 new sustainable materials, all recycled from trash. Some are derived from single-use plastic bottles, while others come from discarded coffee grounds, cloth, fishnets, waste milk, and more.

“We turns waste into usable textiles through high-tech processes,” explains Chao. “We then work with brands to provide creative solutions using these sustainable materials.” In April 2018, the company teamed up with Futian Environment Charity, which collects used clothes to distribute to children in need, recycling roughly 2,500 donated T-shirts into backpacks for underprivileged children in China’s western Qinghai Province. They’re also finalizing details on a collaboration with a well-known charity to convert 500 kilograms of abandoned fishnets in Australia into sunglasses.  

Nicknamed the “Princess of Trash,” Chao has been lauded for her green ambitions. Last year, she won the United Nations Development Program’s Asia-Pacific Young Innovative Award; Forbes named her to its 30 Under 30 China List. While Chao’s mission gains momentum every day, she remains adamant that consumers can’t be rushed to change.

“From my point of view, we can’t just force consumers to buy our products or stop shopping altogether. That’s not sustainable,” says Chao. “We have to create really beautiful, sexy products that people actually want to buy. We want them to feel good, not guilty.”

Slow fashion in India

In India, where the textile industry is among the country’s largest exports (in addition to gems, metals, minerals, and machinery), environmental issues abound. As in China, India’s garment industry has been known to pollute land and water, as well as generate enormous amounts of waste. Being the world’s largest producer of cotton, India also faces serious problems such as health issues among farmers exposed to insecticides and devastating droughts.

Mahima Gujral hopes to be part of the change. Growing up in New Delhi, where her grandmother founded luxury womenswear brand Sue Mue, it seemed natural to Gujral that she would grow up to join the industry. In 2008, she moved to Singapore to study fashion management. A few years later, in 2015, Gujral relocated to Milan to pursue a master’s degree with a concentration called “Fashion, Experience, and Design Management.

“When I went to Italy, I was taken aback by how the Italians love craftsmanship so much but, at the same time, you’re surrounded by consumerism,” says Gujral. “Even though I was a fast-fashion consumer myself, I knew I had to make a change.”

In 2018, Gujral—who splits her time between India and Singapore, where she’s a member at Singapore’s WeWork 15 Beach Rd.—launched Sui (“needle” in Hindi), a sustainable spinoff of her family’s business. The collection comprises natural-toned basics, feminine sundresses, and cropped trousers, and each piece also showcases flora and fauna like embroidered palm trees, seagulls, and wildflowers.

“It’s our way of putting a little touch of nature on every piece,” adds Gujral.

Sui pays homage to nature in another, less-design-centric way, as well, with a closed-loop production process in which the brand’s waste is recycled into new products. Sui recycles its packaging and upcycled fabric scraps (or “deadstock”) into accessories like mobile phone holders and headbands.

Instead of using conventional cotton, which requires large amounts of water and insecticides to cultivate, Gujral sources pesticide-free hemp and organic cotton that’s been certified by international verification organization Global Organic Textile Standard. The latter, for instance, requires 71 percent less water and 62 percent less energy to produce as compared to traditional cotton.

Gujral says that one of Sui’s most effective decisions was to implement a “slow fashion” model, in which brands craft made-to-order garments one-by-one to avoid overstock. Instead of low-cost, mass-produced clothing quickly created to copy the latest catwalk looks, Sui typically waits until an order arrives before making each item, thus minimizing waste and enhancing clothing’s longevity. “Every piece is a little bit unique that way,” says Gujral. “We want the customer to know it’s been made ethically, sustainably, and beautifully—just for them.”

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