When it comes to writing about fashion, I’m probably not your typical columnist. I’m an ex-dentist (I’ve drilled and filled my way through London’s well-heeled Harley Street jet setters before moving to Hong Kong 11 years ago) and an ex-journalist (I’ve written about anything from the state of my sex life at eight months of pregnancy to how to spend the entire weekend naked in Tokyo). When not authoring carnally focussed articles, I’ve also written extensively about environmental matters; from China’s rampant environmental crisis to the appalling eco-footprint that the fashion and textile industry is tramping across the planet. Naturally, it was this line of journalism that led me 10 years ago to start Redress, a Hong Kong-based NGO with a mission to reduce waste in the fashion industry. I’ve never looked back.
The fashion landscape has changed. The world has finally woken up to the fact that the fashion industry is one of the biggest environmental polluters and that consumption and waste has hit an unacceptable ceiling. Sustainable fashion, once the reserve of tree huggers and ex-dentists, is now mainstream.
But when it comes to Hong Kong consumers’ behaviour towards fashion, there’s a huge divide between the ethically conscious and the ethically comatose, filling me as much with hope as despair.
These feelings are wildly accentuated between December and Chinese New Year. Imagine the scene. Rampant fashion consumption hits Christmas (a sobering thought is that clothing, as one of the most popular items to give, is also the most frequently unwanted Christmas gift to receive); then we endure the hard-core sales, at which many succumb to tantalisingly cheap deals, and our closets are rammed with new clothes, which at best we might wear a few times and at worst not at all. Now for Chinese New Year, during which our cupboards and cabinets get a radical clear out, including, no doubt, a huge chunk of “old” clothing, coupled with yet another round of consumption for the new clothes worn on the first day of the year. If December’s closet bingeing and Chinese New Year’s closet purging were an illness, bulimia springs to mind.
But before we hide behind the “Oh, it’s the cultural norm and a tradition” excuse, we have to take a bigger view and question if this sort of clothing behaviour is still befitting for a city like Hong Kong, which otherwise prides itself on being a leader at promoting sustainable fashion regionally and globally. Over the last 10 years I’ve witnessed an explosion in organisations, initiatives and businesses that are making our fashion industry a regional pioneer. A bevy of high-impact players pushing for better practices, from Redress to the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium to the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, has been joined by grassroots organisations peddling less wasteful fashion, such as Hula and Guiltless (both online shops for second-hand designer clothes), Luxarity, (a pop-up shop selling pre-loved designer clothes) and Yeechoo (an online clothing rental company), as well as a spattering of local upcycled brands created by emerging designers. With so much local activity, you’d be forgiven for believing that our entire clothing ethos bears a halo.
But this is certainly not the case.
While the engaged fight on the front line to make fashion better, the majority of consumers are recklessly shopping and dumping their clothes. Every day, Hong Kong discards approximately 306 tonnes of textiles into our rammed landfills. By Redress’s own calculations, this represents the textile equivalent of 15,000 garments entering our landfills every single hour. These waste numbers are simply disgraceful when you consider the extraordinary environmental impact caused by clothes – and that clothes are almost 100 percent recyclable.
It’s around clothing waste where we really need to wake up, as there are no excuses for these high textiles waste rates. There are clothing-donation bins all over the city, with more than 200 recycling containers recognised by the Home Affairs Department website, albeit some tucked behind hospitals or parks, well away from the hangouts of the well heeled. But as well as this, many brands now have clothing containers in store. Zara has just installed slick-looking clothing-collection containers in its Hong Kong and Macau stores (all clothes donated come to Redress, where we sort and redistribute them). Then there’s H&M and Marks & Spencer, which also have containers. And the list goes on.
So, really, come on, if we’re going to binge and purge our clothes, the least we can do is live up to a greater calling in being a fashion citizen and drop our unwanted clothes into recycling containers and not into landfill.