Clothes with a Conscience
From zero waste to organic cotton, some of Hong Kong’s up-and-coming fashion companies help customers look and feel good.
04 June 2015
The white cotton is soft to touch and its high quality is ideal for polo shirts. But this isn’t a designer fabric produced by a big-name clothing manufacturer; it’s a bolt of organic fabric produced by Hong Kong-based Krop, a sustainable clothing company that works with farmers in the Chinese mainland to produce sustainably grown cotton.
Across town, in its showroom in Sheung Wan, designs are being finished for a new line of Krop shirts to be sold in Bonham Strand, a bespoke menswear store and social enterprise. Bonham Strand employs rehabilitating drug users, making custom suits under the guidance of experienced tailors who train and mentor the former addicts. When Bonham Strand founder Jong Lee saw Krop’s cottons, he was astounded. “It was some of the best shirt-fabric we’d seen,” he recalled.
The two companies are leaders among Hong Kong fashion companies building environmentally sustainable businesses. Krop draws experience from a sister company, which has a decades-long history in Hong Kong’s clothing manufacturing, before moving across the border. Bonham Strand, launched in 2012, aims to revive the tailoring tradition that was once at the core of Hong Kong’s economic development. Both companies share a goal of delivering more ethically sound clothing.
According to these companies, the trend towards sustainability is building in Hong Kong. “The customer is much more socially aware,” says Mr Lee.
Krop recently launched its online store and started selling on the mainland, where green products are seen as high-status purchases and usually carry a higher price tag. Krop products are sold in eco-malls and green supermarkets on the mainland.
The China market is starting to catch up with the West, where sustainable fashion has long been a hot trend in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, says Joyce Wong, co-founder of Wan & Wong, which upcycles and recycles fabric, and works with zero-waste patterns on its clothing and accessory collections.
“Hong Kong consumers don’t have that same sensibility,” she notes. Yet local shopping habits are changing. “Over the last five years, people have put more focus on it,” says Ms Wong.
Much of the change in consumer thinking has been influenced by global brands. Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M positions itself as an ethical fashion supplier, pledging to use only sustainable cotton by 2020. Meanwhile, leading Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo says all hazardous emissions in its supply chain will be eradicated by 2020. With other international brands implementing similar targets, the trend has “really swayed public thinking,” says Ms Wong.
A venture capitalist, Mr Lee worked with luxury retailers and specialist fabric suppliers when setting up Bonham Strand. He says that he has seen first-hand how attitudes to textile waste and toxic production are changing. With diminishing resources and rising demand, sustainability is now seen as key to a fashion brand’s viability. Cutting cloth efficiently, for instance, reduces waste and saves money.
“I remember when everyone thought it was a burden to be sustainable, to run these practices, but over the last five years, it has really changed. People see how they have to adapt, how they need to reduce waste in order to survive,” he says.
Hong Kong-based Redress, a local non-governmental group that promotes textile waste reduction in the fashion industry, set up the annual EcoChic Design Award five years ago. The competition promotes sustainable design and challenges young fashion designers to create collections using minimal waste. Past winners have had the opportunity to work for mainstream fashion brands, including Esprit, while this year’s winners will design a capsule collection for Shanghai Tang. The awards have spawned an awakening among design students, says Ms Wong, who holds seminars in Hong Kong for design students. Wan & Wong was EcoChic’s Most Promising Student Award Winner in 2012.
“If there are two almost identical products, and one has a sustainability angle, then nine times out of 10 the customer will choose that better story.”
Hong Kong’s burgeoning sustainable fashion brands are partnering with larger companies looking to bolster their green credentials. Since winning in 2012, Wan & Wong has collaborated with both Hong Kong NGOs and big business. One project involved upcycling old uniforms for cosmetics giants Sa Sa International Holdings Ltd.
Redress has reported a slight drop in textiles waste going to Hong Kong landfills, suggesting that such efforts are having an impact. That’s good news for sustainable fashion start-ups. At Shoe Artistry, a local Hong Kong initiative launched in 2012 to revive another fading Hong Kong industry, business is going well. The company has produced a line of shoes sold online, and runs shoemaking workshops in Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia. The race is on to pass down skills from older generation cobblers to younger apprentices, says Jeff Wan, Shoe Artistry’s founder.
The cobbler’s clientele is split fairly evenly between those who come to have shoes made and those who come to make shoes. “We really see all walks of life,” says Mr Wan. “They can be design students or accountants. What they share is being part of this new movement happening across the world; people who are eager to go back to the fundamentals of using their hands to make something useful and useable; to own something made with care. That’s almost a primitive desire.”
Desire plays an essential role in any fashion success story, and Jong Lee at Bonham Strand says it cannot be won with a sustainable story alone. “We know that people are not willing to spend more on organic or upcycled products just because. And they won’t pay for low-quality goods at extortionate prices because they are being asked to do the right thing. We call that fair trade extortion. What we see is that if there are two almost identical products, and one has a sustainability angle, then nine times out of 10 the customer will choose that better story.”
- Garments, Textiles & Accessories
- Hong Kong