The Production Chain: How Sustainable Clothes Are Made In Hong Kong
Hong Kong is Asia’s second most sustainable city according to the Sustainable Cities Index, and for good reason – even in the urban jungle, there’s a growing community that consumers aren't aware of.
Tatler dives into just how local designers and manufacturers are spearheading a sustainable fashion movement in Hong Kong – exploring how these clothes are being designed, manufactured, and marketed sustainably; and the challenges that arise within this production chain.
Although it seems logical in retrospect, consumers often don’t realise that the sustainability of a product is locked in the design stage: this includes the fabric used, or details within the garment – if garments can avoid buttons or even a polyester label sewn in; the ability for a garment to be recycled becomes significantly easier.
Designers are minimising fabric wastage via more efficient patterns – which refers to the template of each garment: such as the sleeve, front, and back of a shirt. When cut on fabric, the pattern will often leave gaps between each piece, leaving behind an abundance of textile waste, especially if clothes are produced on a large scale. Patterns can then be adjusted to make better use of the fabric given, allowing for less textile waste.
When creating fabrics for designers, factories in Hong Kong are including more environmentally-friendly fibres – alpaca wool being a favourite. Wool, in general, is significantly more sustainable as clothes can be unravelled after their use is finished. Local factories such as UPW Limited are beginning to include information on their colour cards for designers who aren’t as knowledgeable about fibres, allowing them to choose more sustainable options even if their garment were to be produced in large quantities – scalability being a problem that many larger brands face.
However, sustainable designers cannot mix fibres – even a 2% nylon and 98% cotton shirt is no longer biodegradable. “As soon as you blend fibres like that, it becomes almost impossible to recycle, whereas 100% wool is widely recyclable,” says Grace, a Redress Design Award finalist and knitwear designer at UPW Limited, a factory based in Guangdong.
"My general policy is that I will only use fabrics or yarn that are 100% natural fibres: either plant or animal. At the end of the day, if somebody purchased that, and threw it away – within time, that garment can disintegrate. Even if you can advise on better recycling reuse techniques, a consumer may not be not interested nor have the time to do that … and a designer should have the conscience to do this instead."
Even if you can advise on better recycling reuse techniques, a consumer may not be not interested nor have the time to do that … and a designer should have the conscience to do this instead.
— Grace Lant
“Everyone knows the Italian mills: you can say five or six mills and everybody knows them. At that point, I didn’t even realise that mills in Hong Kong existed. Novetex, UPW, Consigne, Wintex – they’re all based in Hong Kong and have factories just across the border. Which is the case for most things in Hong Kong; they’ll have an office in Hong Kong but the actual manufacturing is across the border.”
As Grace carefully notes, everyone – from the consumers to the designers themselves – seems to underestimate the power of the manufacturers in Hong Kong; textile production being one of the foundations of Hong Kong’s wealth.
Many brands own offices in Hong Kong, and produce their clothing at factories across the border in cities like Shenzhen, Guangdong, and Dongguan. “I had no idea how big the industry is here. It’s the center. If you’re not a luxury brand and go to Italy, you will have collections sourced [in Hong Kong] and made in China,” Grace continues. “Every brand. At UPW, I think we have 10,000 clients around the world – and you can name anyone, and they’ve bought yarn from [UPW] at some point.”
Once given the design, manufacturers can then begin to work on sourcing the right yarn to create sustainable fabrics from scratch, and then producing the garments using the given patterns on a large scale.
However, involving manufacturers from the beginning is a step that many unwittingly disregard; manufacturers are the ones with the knowledge of the right fabrics or techniques to make a garment as sustainable as possible.
Hong Kong manufacturers and tailors are much more open to sharing their resources than people realise, or even helping up-and-coming sustainable designers – it’s just a matter of reaching out. “All the scraps I’m using are from Hong Kong tailors,” says Grace. “If you were in London, England, and bought a metre of 100% cotton with a print from a local designer on it too, you’re looking at $300 HKD … and yet, here it’s for free."
Designing a sustainable garment is closer to product design than fashion design. It’s a different way of making your mind work.
— Grace Lant
However, even with good intentions, there are always obstacles to cross – for example, a 100% recycled wool had been produced at the UPW mill in Guangdong, but a certificate couldn’t be attained. Despite interest from clients, it simply couldn’t be sold.
Regardless, beneath the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s biggest urban jungles, Hong Kong manufacturers are pushing for change. “They are increasingly saying to brands ‘No, I don’t want to do that’, or ‘No, this is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is how we work’,” notes Christina; founder of Redress, an environmental NGO centered around textile waste.
In a city that is heavily focused on brand names, marketing sustainability in Hong Kong can be difficult. Why buy into sustainable fashion when you can buy a shirt for half the price? “I think it’s hard because there are a lot of people who are really trying and love when they discover new, sustainable brands; like PMQ which champions local, sustainable brands,” says Grace.
Sustainable brands also have to compete with the greenwashing of larger companies – especially in a city like Hong Kong which is overwhelmed with big labels. “A company puts a marketing message on the product that makes the average consumer really believe that they’re really buying better – but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of that product, it really isn’t good,” says Grace. “There might be one tiny aspect about it that is slightly better, and the company's only done that to market it.”
See also: Top Eco-Friendly Athleisure Brands In Hong Kong
I just don’t see it’s necessary to make a big deal about it being sustainable. If it’s a good product, I think sometimes shouting about sustainability might give a perception that people don’t want.
— Grace Lant
Regardless of how sustainable it is, designers are beginning to detract from marketing it as such – consumers may shy away from clothes labelled as “sustainable” or simply not see the value in it, and any stigma distracts from how unique or beautiful the product really is.
“I just don’t see it’s necessary to make a big deal about it being sustainable. If it’s a good product, I think sometimes shouting about sustainability might give a perception that people don’t want. It’s definitely something I’m thinking about," says Grace. "Some people would argue that it adds to the value, but I think as a brand – the core of everything you do should be sustainability. But it shouldn’t necessarily be the only thing you rely on."
However, there is hope for the sustainable fashion market in Hong Kong – especially with the number of designers and manufacturers pushing for it, there is a lot room for growth.
“Everything you can possibly need is in Hong Kong. It’s here, it’s available. Especially if you include Shenzhen and Guangdong in that bubble. Everyone is willing to help everyone. There’s a sense of collaboration that gives Hong Kong a really huge potential to really come together and really dedicate itself to the sustainable movement. Even in Italy there was a sense of secrecy… they couldn’t show you something because it was a family secret. I’m quite optimistic in the potential in Hong Kong.”
See also: Sustainability Roundtable: 6 Trailblazers On Fashion's Footprints