Reduce, reuse, upcycle – Chinese fashion retailers go the extra mile to help cut down on textile waste
From Taobao online orders to fast-fashion shops, retailing in China is booming, but what happens to those jeans and jackets once they’re no longer trendy? We look at companies pushing recycling and environmental awareness
Mass-produced fashion and fakes are rampant in the mom-and-pop shops lining the road to Beijing’s Drum and Bell Towers, all vying for the eyes and wallets of millennial tourists. In one pocket-sized store, however, the clothes tell a different story.
At The Bulk House, a zero-waste shop founded by Carrie Yu and co-managed by her partner Joe Harvey, shoppers are encouraged to buy items that will contribute to sustainable lifestyles. The front half of the shop features products made from organic materials that can be reused, like cotton bags.
Customers can also exchange unwanted clothing for a new item, and Harvey has a clear message for consumers.
“The first solution is to get people to slow down a bit, and then they’ll know how important the environment is,” says Harvey. “If you can’t open your windows in the morning and get some fresh air, then all of that grind in the office is not worth it. There’s no point in having a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes and a nice car and a huge house if you can’t go outside.”
Waste and pollution associated with the textile and clothing industries is a growing issue, especially in China. A 2017 international fashion consumption survey by Greenpeace showed that in 2014, China had already begun to exceed the global average consumption of new clothes, which was five kilograms per person – Chinese shoppers bought 6.5 kilograms each that year.
Meanwhile, the survey, conducted among Chinese aged 20 to 45 in early 2017, showed that about half of consumers buy more than they can afford. About 40 per cent made compulsive purchases more than once a week, with “young, high income women” being the most “vulnerable”.
Such shopping habits make eco-friendly fashion a tough sell, says Xenia Sidorenko, founder of UseDem, a Shanghai-based brand that produces denim backpacks from used jeans.
“I think this is the hardest market,” she says. “It’s the era of Chinese consumption. This, plus easy access to all of these clothes – you can order anything on Taobao and it will be delivered the next day – how can people change their behaviour and stop buying things?”
Sidorenko says her business has been growing but potential customers, wary of used clothing, needed convincing that items had been thoroughly disinfected.
The first wave of UseDem enthusiasts were more hard core environmentalists, but the second wave – mainly millennial consumers “who care about what the wear, what they eat, and how they spend their free time” – have been buying because they think bags are trendy and if they can do a little to help, then why not?
She is talking with a Chinese e-commerce company about upcycling old delivery uniforms into company bags.
Sidorenko also supports fashion giants who have introduced clothing recycling programmes, are transparent about their textile manufacturing process, or have released clothing collections that have rebranded sustainable consumption as fashionable.
H&M, for example, has collected more than 61,000 tonnes of garments globally since its clothing recycling programme launched in 2013. More than 2,200 tonnes of the clothing collected was in China.
A spokesman for H&M says more Chinese are joining its programme every year and last month it launched a WeChat mini programme for its garment collection initiative.
Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com has been following suit since 2016, offering customer discounts and donating clothes to local charities. Libo Ma, the head of the corporate social responsibility department, says JD has collected more than 1.3 million pieces of clothing since launching its recycling programme. JD collects donations from online shoppers’ homes at no extra charge and has expanded services to 14 cities across China.
“We think participants’ passion and key motivation is to help people in poor areas, especially elderly people and children,” Ma says. “But our customers on JD are paying more attention to sustainability than ever before.” Earlier this year, the company officially partnered with the United Nations Development Programme, agreeing to use its platform to promote the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
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Critics of big retailers say the companies should be more discouraging of fast fashion. “They want to be seen to be green because it’s fashionable,” Harvey says. “Being seen to be green because it’s fashionable if you are green, that’s great. But being seen to be green because it’s fashionable, but you’re not green in any way, that’s a huge problem.
“Companies like The Bulk House would advise [you] to stop buying fast fashion, but these [recycling] incentives are going to have people going back and buying from them again.”
Platforms such as Green Everyday, which debuted at Shanghai Fashion Week, have started placing clothing collection boxes at different shopping malls once a month.
Feimayi, a Shanghai-based NGO active in the clothing recycling since 2015, already has 1.8 million fans active on WeChat and Weibo platforms, which offer blog posts to inspire low-carbon habits.
“Although in China, it’s especially convenient to simply throw clothes away, we believe many people are willing to help others to the best of their ability,” Li Xiuqing, a spokesman for the app, says.
Through Feimayi’s programme, consumers get discounts for various green food and agricultural products through partnering brands.
Feimayi founder Ma Yun says the changes need to start with the system.
“The Chinese demand for textiles is so great that we cannot fundamentally change the way people consume at present,” Ma says. “But we can guide them to practise environmental protection.”