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Main Image: 1436 Shushu/Tong at Shanghai Fashion Week, Courtesy Erdos

Where Does China Stand on Sustainability?

As sustainability continues to dominate the fashion conversation, ORDRE looks at China’s role in shaping industry practices.

“Sustainability has never been in the mainstream fashion vocabulary over the last 3 to 5 years, but many have the wrong opinion of China,” says Shaway Yeh, former media mogul, who through her new creative consultancy, Yehyehyeh, is highlighting issues around sustainability in China. An advisor to large luxury brands, including cashmere giant Erdos, Yeh also ran a workshop for luxury group Kering last season entitled Kering’s Innovation Luxury Lab.

“The industry has been facing a lot of changes, globalisation, fast fashion, production, over-consumption and so on, so I think everyone is thinking: Is this really what people need?” she said. “More and more brands are putting [sustainability] to the fore.” In fact, Chinese companies, given their proximity to supply chains, can help to transform industry practice. “Outside of China, [we know know about] cheap labour and air pollution, but in fact, that’s not the whole truth,” she explains. “This is what I’m trying to bring to people’s attention and why I invited Chinese brands to the forum. We have companies who are sustainable and want to be sustainable, as well as many willing consumers who want that too.”

At the forum, Can Fashion Be Sustainable?, held during Shanghai Fashion Week SS19, Caroline Chalmer, chief operating officer of the Global Fashion Agenda explained that Chinese companies’ advantage over their western counterparts lies in the fact that they can better control and manage each stage in the entire supply chain.

“We have what we call ‘green factories,’ — sustainability has been embedded in our DNA since the early days. ”

Tana Dai, Erdos

Tana Dai, executive general manager of Erdos Commercial, said that the cashmere giant, like many Chinese fashion and apparel companies, owns its resources and production facilities, and therefore the ability to reach right back to the farm — unlike so many brands in Europe. In fact, through careful planning, they have achieved on-demand production for e-commerce.

“We want to give something back and believe that sustainability is the future,” Dai explains. “We own the whole system, but it involves many small process changes, work behavior changes, and even complicated reverse logistics, reverse operations. We have what we call ‘green factories,’ — sustainability has been embedded in our DNA since the early days. It needs to be programmed in from the very start of the design process.”

The core of the issue lies in the fact that sustainability, while a very hot topic that the industry can no longer ignore, remains relatively undefined, making any global solution seem unattainable. Indeed this very issue was raised earlier this week by Claire Bergkamp, sustainability and innovation director at Stella McCartney speaking at the first in a series of House of Commons Select Committees in London this week. “Sustainability is not defined,” she says. “Claims aren’t checked and there needs to be accountability for the claims brands and companies are making.”

“It’s much easier for local brands to operate sustainably than the multinational companies”

Shaway Yeh, Yehyehyeh

The first session of the official hearing of parliament’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee included representatives from sustainable brands like Stella McCartney Ltd and Phoebe English, as well as industry activists like journalist Lucy Siegle and Livia Firth, creative director of Eco-Age. Bergkamp outlined how the company is still struggling to deal with supply chain issues, despite it being primarily based in Europe. “To build supply chains with integrity takes time, we are so far removed from garments,” said Bergkamp. “You need to get your hands dirty. Our biggest challenge is around [sourcing] high-quality materials — being transparent and traceable on some of our key materials.”

Designer Phoebe English outlined her own confusion as a small business owner. “There are many ways to be sustainable and it’s often hard to know where to begin,” she said. English went on to add that another issue is financial: “A lot of the biggest barriers come down to money and knowledge: tiny companies, compared to bigger brands, can’t afford to have consultancies come in and inform them about sustainability.”

Other fashion brands that Yeh’s consultancy group works with in mainland China include JNBY and Icicle. “It’s much easier for local brands to operate sustainably than the multinational companies,” Yeh says. “Kering or H&M are pioneering as they chase the supply chains, but they still don’t own them.” She also believes that the next generation of designers is prioritising sustainable practices: “Most of the emerging designers are all into it too. They know it’s coming and they are being responsible. The challenges lie not in the mindset but in the infrastructure.”

In terms of this supporting infrastructure, logistics and shipping is a key area where China, like other countries all over the world, is trying to address the issue. SF Express Group, featured in Yeh’s forum, has introduced a new green logistics initiative in the shape of a recycled, reusable shipping box that combines big data, innovation and technology. Additionally, in an effort to make its e-commerce more environmentally friendly, Chinese retail giant JD.com announced this week that it is expanding its eco-friendly packing programme, meaning customers can have small and medium-sized products delivered in reusable packing. These effort to promote sustainable consumption means that China’s topline companies are now striving to be more socially responsible.

Yeh highlights the production of fast fashion as the major obstacle facing the industry in China today. “There are just so many issues, but the way we produce and consume is a huge one,” she said. She also admits that although it’s a recent issue in China, as a global consumption leader, “the debate simply can’t omit China anymore.”

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