Agenda for 2016: Save the whales, eat healthy, fight for women’s rights, save the Great Barrier Reef, adopt an animal, volunteer for the less fortunate, save the trees and the forests, help the baby pandas, save water AND... somehow manage to keep job, have a social life and shave my legs in between all that.

Feel overwhelmed sometimes by all the causes we’re meant be contributing to and fighting for these days? Can’t figure out where in your day you’re going to manage to think about something other than the pile of work on your desk? Or maybe you’re sitting at your desk daydreaming about how you can make a positive change to your life and the planet amidst all these environmental initiative talks going on after the Paris summit?

Fashion isn’t necessarily the first word you think of when you hear environmentally friendly and ethical right? You might not be surprised to find out that the fashion industry is in fact the second ‘dirtiest’ industry in the world following oil. For many of us, fashion is something we love. Some people live and breath it, can’t get enough, and others, nonchalant and couldn’t care less about it, but either way, we all wear clothes (unless you’re reading this from a nudist beach in Barbados in which case I say congrats to you- living the dream). Living in a city at the doorstep to the world’s most prominent manufacturing country, it’s important to think about the impacts our favourite brands have on the environment and society and talk about how we as consumers, whether as regular shopaholics or the casual buyer, can reduce these impacts through our consumer behaviour.

In line with Hong Kong’s Zero Waste Week and the Rug Lane Vintage and Secondhand Markets this weekend, we are chiming in on the discussion about sustainable fashion and why there are so many benefits to being more sustainable and ethically conscious when on your next shopping spree, because whoever says you can’t look good, feel good AND do good for the environment and society is wrong.

What is the definition of “Sustainability” and what does it mean in terms of fashion?

Sustainability could easily be the most overused word of the decade. So underrated, yet too often dropped into branding to fill a quota of keywords, the term sustainable has in some ways become redundant in this day and age. However don’t tune out yet.

At university the words Triple Bottom Line were ingrained in my brain more than anything else. The basic definition of a triple bottom line is balancing social, environmental and economic use and impact. I didn’t study fashion but this framework can really apply to any industry. It’s a great benchmark to evaluate and assess a company or brand. The definition of sustainability differs greatly between retail companies as each has a different benchmark to classify a product as sustainable. Ideally, sustainability should be optimizing the company triple bottom line.

Another approach to sustainability that is filtering through the industry now is the Circular Economy concept.

What is a Circular Economy?

A Circular Economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy which follows the principle of make, use, dispose. A Circular Economy instead focuses on a cradle to cradle concept, keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

What is the difference between Sustainable and Ethical and how do I know what to care about?

This is probably the hardest part as a consumer to overcome; the struggle with your love of fashion and desire to be both environmentally and socially conscious.

On a human level, garments are often manufactured in developing countries due to the cheaper labour costs in those countries. This often means that there are lack of sufficient labour laws and systems in place to ensure that workers are paid fairly and work in safe conditions. In terms of the environment, consumption of clothing has a huge impact on the waste generated, pollution levels and strain on natural resources.

Ideally we as consumers and brands should be caring about both these things but that's not always the case.

What is “Fast Fashion”?

The term “fast fashion” really came into play in the mid 2000s and is based on the idea of fashion brands taking trends straight from the catwalk to manufacturing for the masses quickly. With brands like Zara, H&M, Topshop, Cotton On, Mango and Forever 21 taking over the way we shop, our focus as consumers switched from money conscious driven to mass product driven where, as consumers, we can buy high end fashion trends now more cheaply and regularly. This whole movement however has lead to overconsumption and overproduction of items that has impacts on our natural resources, textile materials, energy, water, pollution levels and not to mention the working standards for garment makers.

So what is actually wrong with overconsumption and overproduction and why should you care?

Put simply, the more consumed, the more manufactured, the more waste and pollution produced.

With an increase in spending as consumers, we have driven manufacturing rates up exponentially over the last 10 -15 years. In 2014 in the UK, households spent approximately £57.2 billion total on clothing across the country (WRAP, 2015). According to a report released by Green Peace, in Hong Kong in the same year, the average spend per person per year was HK$9,420 (equal to approximately $219hkd billion per year). As a result of these high consumption and manufacturing rates, the fast fashion trend has caused an increase in textile waste, pollution levels and energy and water consumption.

Fast Facts:

Textile Waste:

  • According to Forbes Magazine, more than 150 billion garments are produced annually, enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet, every year.

  • In 2014 alone, 293 tonnes per day of textiles was sent to landfill in Hong Kong (EPD, 2014), the equivalent of 97 average size cars.

Natural Resources:

  • Cotton is the world’s single largest pesticide-consuming crop, using 24% of all insecticides and 11% of all pesticides globally, adversely affecting soil and water. (Forbes, 2015)

  • According to WWF, it can take up to 2,700 litres to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. The Better Cotton Initiative by WWF is trying to minimise this environmental impact by educating farmers on reducing water and pesticide use.

  • In terms of water consumption, 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced every year, and a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. For a T-shirt and a pair of jeans then, that’s the amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days (Green Peace, 2016)

  • Textile bleaching and dyeing treatment uses 1.7 million tonnes of various chemicals, not to mention the hazardous chemicals like PFCs that leave a permanent impact on our environment (Green Peace, 2016). Many of these chemicals can be toxic to aquatic environment and may pass up through the food chain to humans.

  • Some 17% to 20% of industrial water pollution is from textile dyeing and treatment. (China Water Risk, 2011)

  • Fashion and textile industries are the highest energy users globally.

Brands manufacturing mass products quickly are not necessarily thinking about where their materials are sourced from, the lifestyle of their workers, the consumption of water and energy used to make their products and the pollution and waste produced from manufacturing. The focus of most of these large companies is to keep costs down and make money fast. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to shop at fast fashion outlets with a high turnover focus, I’m are merely trying to help you become aware of the impact every shirt we buy from these kind of companies has on the way we live. Changing consumer behaviour is one of the most vital steps in the process of reducing waste and strain on natural resources .

Are there any sustainable and ethical companies out there then?

Yes, in fact a lot of large fast fashion companies are jumping on board the sustainable fashion train and pledging to be more ethical in their practice of manufacturing garments.

Each year Forbes Magazine releases a list of the Top 50 Companies globally ranked on sustainability and ethical practices separately. More often than not, the two don’t seem to go hand in hand. Company's overarching objectives seem to vary drastically as shown in companies that rank highly for sustainability and poorly in ethical index or vice versa. For example, in 2016 Adidas was named by Forbes as No. 5 in the World's 50 Most Sustainable Companies but also received an ethical index rating of which falls under the category of “Avoid”.

In terms of a sustainability ranking, companies are assessed on whether they are getting the most out of their capital, maximizing employee performance, and making careful use of resources. For their ethical index score, companies across a number of industries are asked 180 questions to form Ethisphere’s proprietary “Ethics Quotient“ score—part of a vetting process that evaluates them in categories including ethics and compliance programs, corporate citizenship and responsibility, culture of ethics, governance, and leadership, innovation and reputation. Note though that the Ethisphere Institute’s annual ranking is made up of companies that have submitted to be vetted for the chance to become an honouree. In 2016 H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB and Marks and Spencer PLC both received high ranks for apparel brands.

H&M have had their Conscious Collection in stores since 2011 and also encourage recycling through their garment recycle scheme where customers can bring clothes to recycle and receive a voucher or discount of another purchase. The H&M Group’s other brands also offer extra sustainable choices, like Weekday’s Remains, a capsule collection that started in 2016 made from leftover denim materials which minimises waste.

Zara (part of the Inditex group) have released their “Join Life” sustainable clothing collection and followed H&M’s footsteps in doing a recycle campaign where they allow customers to drop off secondhand clothing for recycle. The Zara "Join Life" garments can be deemed sustainable if it meets a series of internal criteria including the following: All the products are made using more sustainable raw materials such as organic cotton, TENCEL® lyocell or recycled fibers. Products must be made using water-saving technology and also made in factories that use renewable energy (further info here )

You can see the push for these brands to think about their products and the clients in terms of sustainability and ethical standards. They are trying to be more conscious of their material sourcing, their waste emissions and standards of work conditions for their employees. On their website, H&M state that “Every year, we work intensely to increase the share of sustainably sourced fabrics and materials in our clothes - by improving working conditions at our suppliers, and reduce any negative impacts our business might have along our value chain. By making conscious choices in each step of a garment’s life – from cotton farms to customers – together, we can make a difference”.

With the manufacturing industry spreading from China to other parts of Asia more rapidly in the hope of reducing costs, It’s important to think about sustainable and ethical solutions that companies can adopt in manufacturing and production to reduce their natural resource consumption, increase the work life standards of their employees and ways in which we as a consumer can impact these rising waste and pollution levels as well. Because really, the diminishing of natural resources and increased waste and pollution levels affects each and every one of us even if it is not in our face day to day. In the long run we will all be affected as a result of the decisions we make now for our planet.

How can fashion companies reduce their environmental and social impact?

Brands can reduce their negative impact on the environment and society through a number of steps. Firstly through their manufacturing procedures and locations, their choice of material and sourcing, and the work systems they have in place to protect and care for their employees. Recycling is one way to help the environment but fashion brands can do more and strive to encompass the concept of a circular economy and create a more sustainable system whereby the production, use and reproduction of their garment should be a main focus.

There are a number of technologies that have been introduced over recent years with the aim of reducing the environmental impact. Some examples include:

  • AirDye are water-free printers that it claims can save up to 95% of the water, 86% of the energy and 84% of the greenhouse gases used in conventional print and dye methods.

  • Anke Domaske, a German microbiology-student-turned-designer created a way to use milk in an "Eco Milk Fiber" called QMilch.

  • Sports clothing company Virus has taken to using recycled coffee beans for their Stay Warm line of cold-weather performance apparel.

  • Suzanne Lee, fashion designer and TED Senior Fellow, has been making fabric and vegetable leather out fermented kombucha tea

  • Digital printing

  • With digital printing, prints are directly applied to fabrics with printers, reducing water usage by 95 percent, energy reduction of 75 percent, and minimizing textile waste. This technique has been used by designers like Mary Katrantzou, Alexander McQueen and Basso & Brooke.

  • Recycled synthetics, made with everything from plastic bags to beer bottles continue to make a splash. In much the same way that other materials and bamboo are transformed into thread, the upcycled synthetics are broken down into a fine particulate, melted, and extruded into fiber.

  • The I Am Not A Virgin jeans use a mix of 25 percent bottle fiber and 75 percent cotton, the resulting material is soft to the hand, yet is durable and performs as denim should.

  • Material scientists at Hong Kong’s flagship textile research institute and City University have been able to find a way to convert food waste into polylactic acid, which can then be spun into fibres for use in textiles.

  • Novozymes has been working on creating water savings in textile processing and its global marketing director Peter Faaborg, says that enzymatic textile processing can save up to 25% of the water traditionally used in cotton textile manufacturing.

None of these methods are standard practice however and currently only offer a slight glimpse into the hope of having a more positive effect on the environment. Without having a greater understanding of the multifaceted effects the fashion industry has on the environment and more push for innovative technologies to become the norm, change wont occur and we won’t see reductions in the impact.

So what exactly should I look for when shopping?

As mentioned before, the standards across companies change in terms of what classifies a garment as sustainable or not but we have a couple of basic rules you can follow and look out for when making your next purchase:

1. Branding: This can be hard to do sometimes when you are out and about and see that bag you just have to have but ideally before making a purchase, read up about the brand. Most good brands will have a company profile on their website and you can gauge a lot about their commitment to sustainability and ethical fashion from their website. A company who just drops a line “we focus on sustainability” with no further back up statements has generally just added in the word sustainability because their marketing manager told them to. The companies who actually care and make a difference will give you a good background as to how they actually achieve this.

2. Make: A lot can be told from the make or a garment. Those products with better quality stitching and finishing are quite obvious. Also keep a lookout for where they are made. If they are made domestically they are generally better but also the better a company is at caring for the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers and the more they want to shout it from the rooftops.

3. Material: Another obvious sign is the material. As stated earlier, material is a big environmental impactor and the companies more aware of this and doing something about the make of their material will generally state it or at least publish so on their website and promote their conscious effort to do so. Some more responsible materials include linen, hemp, Tencel (lyocell), organic cotton, alpaca and recycled or organic non-mulesed wool. To reduce their impact on the environment, some companies also use vintage or deadstock material and will generally state if doing so.

4. Sustainability Report: A little harder to assess while shopping, but companies should produce a ‘Sustainability Report’ as part of their annual or quarterly reporting systems in which the public can access. The reports which are generally available online, are often a good indication of the progress a company makes and their intended goals in the area of sustainability. For example you can find H and M 2015 Sustainability Report here.

We’ve also made it easy for you and compiled a list of some great brands and initiatives you can get behind.

What else can I do to be more sustainable?

Six simple steps you can follow to becoming more fashion conscious and sustainable.

1. Get Informed: The first step in the process is becoming more aware and learning more about brands and companies that are focused on ‘green’ and ethical clothing.

2. Buy Less but Invest More: Start by slowing down your purchase rate at fast fashion outlets and put the money you would normally spend on a weekly shop at your favourite store into one item a month or every few months maybe that you will truly care for and cherish.

3. Buy Handmade and Support Local Brands: Buying from the big chains means your clothes are most likely made in large factories in China or India in poor working conditions. Buying locally from a designer means you can talk with the designer on their working practices in person and most likely the products will be handmade or made locally in small industrial areas with more concentration on the lifestyle of the workers.

4. Care: By caring for your clothes you provide a longer garment life. It takes a lot of energy to grow, manufacture and transport that cotton t-shirt—but did you know that the most energy goes into caring for it? One load of washing uses 151 litres of water. One load of drying uses 5 times more energy than washing. In saying this you can therefore also reduce your environmental impact by thinking about how you launder your garment. More info here.

5. Rewear: Rather than throwing your old clothes away, sell or give away those pieces that can be reworn. Someone will love getting a new piece to their wardrobe and it will give the garment a whole new life wear. There are a number of companies set up locally and globally to collect clothes and old textiles to aid these processes.

6. Reuse: Clothes and textiles that cannot be reworn can be turned into other products such as cleaning cloths.

7. Recycle: Recycling is a great way to help reduce the natural material sourcing. Recycled clothes are those unable to be reworn or reused and turned into into textile fibres then used for things such as insulation.

A zero-waste fashion industry seems unlikely but as a consumer you can help reduce the tonnage of textiles sent to landfill each year and the natural resources consumption through these simple steps. With more global companies getting on board the sustainable train, we will hopefully see a reduction in waste and pollution numbers and reduce the impact of the industry on the environment. We also hope to see more companies pledging to me more ethical in their treatment of workers.


Rug Lane supports sustainable fashion and shopping and aims to promote ways to reuse, rewear, reduce and recycle in Hong Kong. Come join us at the upcoming Rug Lane Vintage and Secondhand Clothing Market on November 12 at Ethos Gallery in Kennedy Town where you can sell and purchase secondhand clothing and accessories. Details can be found here. You can also pledge your ZERO WASTE WEEK goals on the Zero Waste Week website.

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