Sustainable Fashion Pioneer Christina Dean Is Running Out Of Patience

Leadership

June 26, 2018 | BY Rachel Duffell

Redress founder Christina Dean on the progress of Hong Kong’s fashion industry, the urgency surrounding its transformation and how many its problems are in our hands

Christina Dean is running out of patience. And rightly so. The founder of Redress, a Hong Kong-based NGO that strives to change the way we consume clothes, has seen the destruction caused by the fashion industry first-hand—namely indescribable amounts of waste.

Despite Dean’s efforts, the levels of waste in Hong Kong seem to be rising. In 2016, approximately 125,195 tonnes of textiles were sent into Hong Kong’s landfills—and this number is not yet showing signs of slowing down.

More to the point, most of this textile waste is unnecessary. Shirts are thrown away because they are missing a button. There’s the skirt discarded for its broken zipper, a dress dumped because its hem has dropped or that t-shirt abandoned for a small stain. The average person buys 60 per cent more items of clothing and keeps them for half as long as they did just 15 years ago.

To prove that clothes such as these didn’t need to be thrown away, Dean embarked on The 365 Challenge in 2013, where she took discarded clothes and wore them, each day something different, to show that she could.

Taking action

The campaign inspired many—not least Dean herself. “I experienced the frustration of finding all these perfectly good clothes. What came out of that project was really trying to connect consumers with their wardrobes and inspire them to keep and love their clothes for longer,” she says. Dean’s own relationship with fashion changed irreversibly as a result of the project. “I have seen so much waste that I know there’s no need to consume virgin fibres anymore. I personally only buy second-hand clothes or clothes made with recycled fibres or upcycled waste.”

And you can too, in one way or another—and in Hong Kong that’s mostly thanks to Redress. Dean founded Redress in 2007, focusing the NGO’s priorities on reducing textile waste, one of the fashion industry’s biggest issues—particularly in Asia, which is both a consumption and production hub.

"Hong Kong is a hotbed for sustainable fashion"

To address over-consumption, Dean organises pop-up shops featuring past season and pre-loved clothing, DIY workshops to reinvent clothes, and clothing drives to collect and redistribute unwanted apparel to charities. Most recently, Redress has partnered with Zara on an unwanted clothes collection programme. Consumers can drop off old clothes at a Zara store for the textiles to be re-used, upcycled, recycled or down-cycled. 

Dean is also supporting sustainable fashion designers through the Redress Design Award (formerly the EcoChic Design Award). The programme, now in its eighth cycle, is the world’s largest sustainable design competition, receiving entries from more than 50 countries this year. It is of huge importance to the industry because it trains the next generation of designers to consider the sustainability of their products—80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the design stage.

See also: Architect Betty Ng's Design Process Isn't For Everyone

“That’s probably what I’m most proud about, is that 56 countries are trying to come to Hong Kong to prove what they’ve got,” says Dean. “There is an understanding in Hong Kong that in order to be competitive you have to understand sustainable fashion and how to deliver that. I’m really proud because I’ve seen that happen and been part of that as it’s changed over the last 11 years. I would say Hong Kong is definitely the best in the whole of Asia around the expertise, the knowledge, the research, and the industry associations that are really pushing this. It’s a hotbed for sustainable fashion.” 

It’s Hong Kong’s growth as a hub for sustainable fashion that provides some hope for Dean. “Despite the fact that sometimes I feel overwhelmed, if you look at these young designers they are absolutely passionately wanting to contribute to a better industry. They really care. I just wish it would happen quicker.”

Dean has produced two feature-length documentaries, Frontline Fashion, charting the last two competitions in an effort to highlight the innovation that’s happening in the fashion world through the medium of entertainment. A third edition of Frontline Fashion will follow the finals of the 2018 Redress Design Awards in September, with aims to transform it into a television series for greater impact. 

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Each year, the Awards produce 30 alumni and a large number of these designers have gone on to set up their own sustainable fashion labels. Redress continues to help them on an ongoing basis.

Additionally, there’s The R Collective, of which Dean is a co-founder. The social impact fashion brand upcycles luxury brands’ waste. Many of the designers for The R Collective are also alumni from the Redress Design Award and have included such names as Hong Kong designer Victor Chu.

Small steps

Always one to lead by example, when Dean meets with Generation T she is wearing a coatigan designed by Kate Morris, winner of the 2017 Redress Design Award, for The R Collective. “We are a start-up brand and we’ve already made a big wave in the sustainable fashion arena,” says Dean, whose coatigan is crafted from upcycled yarn waste and is available at Lane Crawford, which, along with Barneys New York, has bought up each one of The R Collective’s collections.

Even with significant progress being made, Dean remains frustrated by the fact that things are not happening fast enough. “People need to get on with it now,” she says. “We all know that the environment is screwed and people know that consumption can’t carry on anymore. It’s just not urgent enough.”

"Shop your way into a better fashion future by supporting sustainable brands"

But there are promising developments, and they are happening right here in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) is pioneering textile recycling, looking at chemical solutions that can turn blended fibres into new fabrics. “It’s all very optimistic and I’m very excited, but can you move it out of a test tube and into the big bad world where you’ve got 92 million tonnes of textile waste being created every year from the fashion industry?” she questions. “I’m just concerned about how long it’s going to take to scale up.”

For now, there are simple ways for everyone to get involved. “Ultimately it’s about reducing consumption, buying better quality and wearing clothes for longer,” says Dean. “It’s about re-engaging with clothes, what they mean to you and how you want to associate with your closet. Shop your way into a better fashion future by supporting sustainable brands, by buying second-hand, by buying vintage, by buying upcycled, recycled or organic. So many people are so focused on what they look like when they go out, but do they actually think about what a garment represents? I think we can really fall in love with having a sense of style that reflects your ethics and your values.”

Christina Dean is on the Generation T List 2017

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