Green lanterns

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am


You'd have to be hiding under a rock not to realise that eco-fashion is a hot topic around the world, especially in the US and Europe.

It's become the norm for designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Isabel Marant to voice their views on the evils of fashion consumption and waste, while brands such as Stella McCartney and Edun have been educating consumers about 'sustainable' fashion for years.

Even mass retailers such as H&M, which has an organic cotton line, are doing their part.

Hong Kong, too, has jostled for a place in the eco-fashion arena. In recent years, independent designers such as Magnan & Tse, Kanchan Couture and Johanna Ho have launched one-off collections made from recycled materials.

Then there's the EcoChic Design Award, the sustainable design competition presented earlier this month at Hong Kong Fashion Week. It was founded two years ago to encourage emerging Asian designers to create collections with minimal textile waste.

But customers are still hard-pressed to find eco-friendly clothes on sale in the city's hip boutiques and high-end department stores. Insiders blame a lack of demand.

'Local fashion consumers have got a better understanding of the concept and its objective over the past few years, but they are not as mature in this sense as those in the US or Europe. It's not a priority for them. People are more concerned about prices and style when they select fashion items,' says Dodo Yeung, publisher of Elle Hong Kong.

'What Asia needs is for consumers to demand it - if there is no demand, no industry can grow to support it,' says EcoChic judge and renowned British sustainable designer Orsola de Castro.

'There is certainly an eagerness and willingness here in Hong Kong. I teach at [Britain's] Central Saint Martins and about 35 out of 80 of my students are from Asia,' adds de Castro.

Critics have long argued that one of the biggest obstacles for eco-fashion around the world is the ambiguity of the term. For some brands, it's an emphasis on using traditional techniques or employing artisans in local communities.

For others, it's about using eco-friendly fabrics or reducing their carbon footprint.

For Hong Kong and the mainland, in particular, the biggest concern is textile waste. It is estimated that, on average, 234 tonnes of textiles were discarded every day into Hong Kong landfills in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Department. That is why 'upcycling', a technique that uses recycled material or fabric waste to create a high-end product, has become popular in the city.

Local designer Janko Lam is known for her modern qipaos and launched her own fashion label after winning the first EcoChic Award last year.

While her designs are beautiful, local customers won't find them hanging in boutiques because she cannot produce enough of them - a problem common among designers who use recycled fabrics. 'It takes much longer to produce everything because my designs are tailor-made,' Lam says. 'I also have to make sure the scraps I use fit well together. Because I can't produce collections consistently, I have a problem finding a retailer.'

'The biggest challenge in Hong Kong is the fact that true eco-brands are limited in the market. Not many brands produce items on a regular basis. We can't educate consumers when there's little to show them. It's all about consistency,' says Yeung.

Because quantities are limited, sustainable fashion is also perceived as more expensive, making it less appealing to many local customers.

'Too many people are fixed on, for example, the higher cost of organic cotton. They repeatedly cite this as an over-arching obstacle that stops them searching for new ideas to achieve sustainability within the fashion industry,' says Christina Dean, founder of NGO Redress, which works to promote environmental sustainability in Asia's fashion industry.

In a bid to change this, Redress approached Hong Kong-based brand Esprit. The brand launched its first ever Recycled fashion collection in May featuring denim and T-shirts made from recycled offcuts from Esprit's factories.

Esprit will also produce a line by an EcoChic Award winner next year, while continuing to develop its own recycled fabrics. 'Reducing waste is an area that is becoming more important to every high street fashion retailer, so it made sense to start examining what we create.

'So far, the line has done better than our regular product and it doesn't cost more. We want to continue it with the view of taking it global,' says Margaret Kutt, Esprit's project manager for sustainability.

Of course, the biggest hurdle in the eco-awareness battle is the matter of style. In the fashion world, looks certainly matter. Eco-brands are more closely associated with hessian and ill-fitting clothes than high fashion on the Paris runways.

'I don't typically think about being 'green' when it comes to fashion. But if I come across something I like, and it happens to be made from sustainable materials, then I am all for it.

'If eco-fashion can look nice and stylish, Hong Kong is definitely ready for it,' says 22-year-old fashion graduate Theresa Chau.

'I think clothes made by sustainable techniques or materials can also look cool,' says 20-year-old student Angus Tsui, a winner at the recent EcoChic Design Award. He wowed the crowds with his pleated and structured PVC pieces.

'I created a few pieces before the competition, like a bodice made from elastic tape. That showed me how interesting eco-fashion can be. The important thing is to make the fabric more interesting by using different techniques,' says Tsui.

So, what can we do to educate locals about the importance of eco-fashion? Lam says it depends on the support of the media and retailers.

'Retailers should do more crossovers with local designers to raise awareness, especially if they are wary of carrying an eco-friendly line. The media should educate people about local brands and emphasise the craftsmanship in eco-fashion, so people don't get put off by prices,' says Lam.

Although many challenges lie ahead, the future seems brighter for Hong Kong's next generation.

'Eco-fashion is an area that will grow. Younger people are more aware of it than the generation before. They want this new-found awareness translated into what they buy, eat and wear,' says Kutt.

'The problem is that the fashion world is all about fast fashion. We need to demand slow fashion, where the industry changes from cheap to well-made quality products with a point of view,' comments de Castro. 'Yes, we consume a lot, but why can't we be more discerning about fashion?

'Our generation may not be concerned, but for the new generation it's not just essential, it's the latest trend. The stigma surrounding eco-fashion is gone. People think it's cool and political. Let the kids speak - they are the buyers of the future, and they will help establish it.'