Fashion designers ‘agents of change’ for cutting waste and carbon

Sustainability Leaders Series: Redress chief executive Christina Dean speaks to Eco-Business on why she’s waging a war on waste in the fashion and textile industry

christina dean
Redress chief executive Christina Dean. Image: Luke Casey

First it was just one city, then last year, it was two. This year, Hong Kong non-profit Redress made a huge leap by launching its flagship EcoChic Design Award in eight locations across Asia and Europe – a competition for budding designers that encourages sustainable fashion

Waste reduction is the singular driver for Redress’s efforts, says chief executive Christina Dean, who passionately lists off the staggering statistics on the waste generated by the fashion and textile industry. 

About 15 per cent of all textiles meant for clothing end up on the cutting room floor, and globally, 8 billion garments are produced from natural resources each year, while 7.5 billion clothing items go to the landfill. The EcoChic Design Award wants to change this and requires designers to come up with innovative ways of making clothing using techniques of zero-waste, up-cycling and reconstruction.

The 35-year-old mother of three, who was a former dentist turned journalist turned eco-fashion activist, speaks to Eco-Business on why she feels so strongly about this cause, and why she believes that designers are agents of change who can trigger the wave of transformation the industry badly needs.

The awards are now in its fourth cycle and from Hong Kong and China, you’ve expanded it to Singapore, Taiwan, United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Germany. Why these countries and why now?

We’ve done work in many of these countries before, and they have vibrant retail sectors and a booming economy. The language – English and Mandarin – were also suitable for us. We decided to involve Europe this time because even though the fashion industry is mature there, sustainable fashion is not well developed. Also, there is a disconnect among European designers who do not see the waste that the industry generates because the manufacturing is often exported to poor, developing countries in Asia.

How many people enter the competition each year, and do you have a target for this year’s competition?

We don’t have a target and we are not focused on the numbers. We had about 100 to 150 participants for Hong Kong, for example. We’d like more, of course, but we are not defining success based on numbers. We only need a small number of applicants who are very good, but we want to reach as many as possible. The competition is designed to make it interesting for everyone, whether you apply or not. We have a lot of educational material about the industry that can be useful. 

How do you measure the effectiveness of your awards? 

Well, we launched it only as recently as 2011 so it’s difficult to give demonstrable impacts in the short amount of time. But where we are having a tangible impact is that we create an alumni from the awards. They keep going at this, they are launching their labels and are still engaged in the process. We have more than 30 universities that are our partners, and some of them even make our competition the final year project for their students, so we have an impact there. 

The amount of media coverage we get also go in some way to highlight the impact of the fashion industry. When brands launch a sustainable collection, that also affects the market. From the business perspective, sustainable fashion has a huge impact on the supply chain, because of the savings achieved in terms of resources and money. 

Mass market can produce reasonable clothes and at a competitive price. The brilliant thing is this is just a company cleaning up their own waste. They are mopping up what is theirs anyway. Every company should be doing this, it does not make sense not to.

Christina Dean

One example is Esprit’s inaugural R Certified ‘Recycled Collection’ launched last May in Hong Kong, which  includes a range of recycled denim and recycled cotton jersey pieces. They collected the waste fabric that ends up on their cutting floor and they blend it with virgin fabric. Our scheme, the R cert, provide a finished clothing standard, and we give a stamp of approval after going through complex auditing and supply chain tracing. The R-cert allows the consumer to see the supply chain process – the factories, the location, the process, the recycling and most importantly the environmental savings for the piece of clothing they are purchasing.

Audits of Esprit’s sustainable collection have found that when material is recycled, the savings from producing an item of clothing, for example the light blue denim, can be up to 74 per cent for water, 18 per cent electricity, and 53 per cent greenhouse gas emissions.

That is amazing. So we cut out the waste, and instead of it being ‘downcycled’into rags or mops, it is upcycled into clothing wear – and priced the same as normal clothes, so the business case is proven. Mass market can produce reasonable clothes and at a competitive price. The brilliant thing is this is just a company cleaning up their own waste. They are mopping up what is theirs anyway. Every company should be doing this, it does not make sense not to.

This is why we did the R-cert. We want consumers to think about the resources that go into their clothing, and we want to make recycled clothing seem much more appealing. It’s not dirty old clothes, it’s factory fresh. 

This competition comes in the wake of the high profile disaster in Bangladesh where hundreds of workers were killed when a garment factory collapsed. What do you think this incident says about the industry?

Well, I’m not surprised that the fashion industry is in a complete mess. Because we’ve wanted cheap, fast, and lots of it in the past decade, the mud has come spluttering out. We’ve been going at full speed, and no one stopped to consider the impact of the industry. The price point and production cycles are unsustainable. A lot of the manufacturing of cheap products have gone from China to Bangladesh, Vietnam and Laos. But while labour is cheap for now due to poor labour laws, this is unsustainable and eventually these developing economies will not want this type of work.

We hear about some brand name fashion retail brands throwing away or burning clothes because they want to protect their ‘ímage’ - this seems unacceptable given the world’s decreasing natural resources. Yet it still happens. What can the industry do? 

I know this practice happens a lot, as some brands want to protect their intellectual property. These companies are driven by profit and if they are listed, are answerable to their shareholders.

Some other brands, like Uniqlo, have gone the other way and actively given their clothes to refugees through the UN. We need more innovation in the industry, to find ways to regenerate or recycle unwanted clothes. Fibre is valuable – much more than paper – and 100 per cent of it is recyclable. There should be no excuse for wasting money. This is why I feel that designers are agents of change. They are able to influence not just the way materials are used in the supply chain, but they are also able to influence the consumer. That’s why we designed this competition.

You were a dental surgeon in the UK before becoming a magazine journalist in 2005 when you moved to Hong Kong. How did you go from doing that to starting Redress and fighting this cause? 

I didn’t enjoy being a dental surgeon in the UK and I had always wanted to be a journalist. So after some years of being a dentist, I decided to re-train as a journalist at the London School of Communications. Then I went to Hong Kong and started writing for consumer magazines. That was when I started asking questions about the industry, and realised that nothing was being done to address the waste problem. I couldn’t believe it. So that’s how it started.

The Sustainability Leaders Series is a weekly interview profiling sustainability leaders in the Asia Pacific region.


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