A Battle Against Fast Fashion: Sewing Sustainability into What We Wear

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How fast can you enjoy the vogue of fashion?

By record in 2015, the Spanish fast-fashion pioneer Zara crowned to be the “fastest” from design to store—all in 25 days.

In the business world, conventional wisdom is that speed wins in every competition. From designing on papers to shelving in stores, fast fashion industry is branded to sell gluts of inexpensive clothing to customers at an ever faster rate. Standard delivery is eliminated from the equation of online shopping, replaced by express delivery for free that agile companies are determined to design a more efficient shopping experience.

Embroidered behind the shirts, however, the very existence of fast fashion is not as glamorous as its skyrocketing sales. In the era of mass production, the industry’s notorious reputation is synonymous with deplorable working exploitations like practising child labour. Among the many flaws commentators have blamed for, the cheaply labelled clothings attend at high environmental costs. In the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, it is found that a garbage truck loaded with clothes contributes into our excruciating waste catastrophe every second globally.

This is not only an issue hovering over Western countries like Australia or Britain solely, but also an arresting phenomenon happening in Hong Kong, where a raft of fast-fashion retailers is entering every district in our duplicated shopping arcades.


Greenpeace’s survey also finds that Hongkongers own more clothes than they actually need.

With so many clothes being displayed within arm’s reach, it would not be surprising to see residents in Hong Kong are lured by the glory of fast fashion industry. The city’s rampant consumerism of fashion is best presented in the environmental group Greenpeace’s latest survey conducted earlier this year, revealing that in total, the locals splurge on HK$25 billion over clothes every year, twice the value of our Taiwanese counterpart.

Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs is derived from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

At this mantra of moment, the gloominess of our strong appetite for fashion items is not without its silver lining – how should we curb with this issue in the uphill fight with money-savvy manufacturers and retailers? Buyerarchy of Needs, suggested by the Canadian illustrator Sarah Lazarovic, makes the lofty goal of sustainable fashion less hideous. Borrowed from the concepts of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that emphasises self-actualisation, the hierarchy here strives to give a new meaning to change people’s consumption behaviour. Giving the greatest consideration to what we have on hand, purchasing a brand new coat should always be the last resort.

Too imaginative? In fact, some locals have been making efforts to turn the castle in the air into reality:


Stitching back the Values in Shoe-repairing Business

So Wing-kuen gives new life to worn-out shoes in his 50-square-foot store under the stairwell in Mei Foo Sun Chuen every day.

Surrounded by the cacophony of audible traffic signals and yellings barked at the nearby pungent food quarters, the understair shoe-repairing store Gun Kee Shoes in Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Lai Chi Kok, appears to be one of the remaining traditional craftsmanship in Hong Kong. The work consists of creative muscles has been rekindling hopes for the community to fix any damaged footwear over the decades, ranging from old-fashioned leather shoes to today’s trendy slip-on sneakers.

Inheriting his father’s business 26 years ago, the cobbler, So Wing-kuen, has experienced the evolution of the fashion industry. “In the past, shoes were made of simple materials like rubber and leather. But now, they are produced in a wide variety of plastics,” Mr. So murmured when he was hammering the sole to the base of a boot. “At most, this kind of shoes can only be worn for 2 years. It’s simply not long-lasting.”

The fast fashion industry’s love affair of incorporating plastics into shoes is not something new. A diversified scope of synthetic plastics, including polyurethane (PU), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and thermoplastic elastomers (TPE), is commonly found in forming the base and surface of the shoes. This is down to the fact that the material stands out to be inexpensive and light. Attractive as it seems, it has wreaked havoc on our planet by polluting the marine ecology, let alone the overwhelming piles of short-lived shoes sent to landfills.

Mr. So believes that his job is more than merely fixing broken shoes.

For Mr. So, repairing shoes is beyond the act of mending damaged items that people own. It is a work that involves stitching humanity.

“To me, the shoes may of no value. But [to my customers,] each pair of shoes contains stories of their lives,” Mr. So giggled when he showed us a pair of worn-out ballet flats without soles. His mind fell back to the memory of a pair of unusual white canvas shoes. “A friend of mine loves strolling in country parks and wading across streams in his pair of white canvas shoes. As a result, it is likely to rip off after each hike. This is when my mind resembles to the idea of remodelling it into a pair of hiking boots for extending the life of the shoes.”

“The value of the shoes is not determined by the use of material after all; it is the story behind that makes the pair so special.”

Fashionistas’ Platform for Sharing, not Recycling

Katherine Ho is a volunteer at the organisation Jup Yeah, which organises clothes swapping party in different districts in the city regularly.

Devoting to cutting down the ominous connection of second-hand fashion to the Chinese traditional mindset, Jup Yeah, a local organisation that provides a swapping platform for local fashionistas, has been demonstrating how sustainable fashion can be an admirable goal to achieve since 2011. Little did its founders realise that their own private wardrobe swapping gathering can slowly become a fad for the ecologically minded in the community now.

“Sustainability marks a stark contradiction to fast fashion industry,” Katherine Ho, who joined Jup Yeah as a volunteer a year ago, commented on the forward-looking industry. “People’s consumption behaviour has changed. They never consider much about the quality before purchasing, and are also indulged into the pleasure of shopping. But do we actually need these clothes?”

Targeting the millennials as the majority of fast-fashion junkies, the industry is accused of constructing a topsy-turvy world. “Taking the advantage of e-commerce, youngsters can gain a transient sense of satisfaction because of its speedy delivery. Unlike the previous generations, they would not care about the longevity nor quality of the clothes in harmony with the seasonal changes.”

Against the odds, the organisation pins high hopes on the lifestyle of “consuming less, sharing better”, rather than encouraging participants to recycle the unwanted apparel. Although the government has assisted to foster the habit of recycling clothes by setting up the Community Used Clothes Recycling Bank in all 18 districts since 2006, the declining textile recycling rates in recent years have brought to light the fact that recycling prevails as an alienated concept in mind.

“Since the tender age, we have been exposed to the merit side of donating on television only. On second thought, why would African people need our used down jackets when they live with scorching heat all year round? You choose to donate the clothes only because you feel good,” said Katherine of the locals’ recycling habit.

Greenwashing: For Profits or the Environment?

Various fast fashion brands have been initiating green campaigns in repsonse to the growing environmental awareness.

Indeed, fast-fashion enterprises are wasting no time in exploring a more sustainable way ahead. Coined the campaigns as “greenwashing” by the environmentalists, the current textile industry has been trumpeting to innovate the economy into a more circular manner in order to transform discarded garments into something more valuable before they end up in landfills. Companies like Topshop and Uniqlo respond by embarking on green initiatives, such as allowing donors whom recycle their clothes in the shops to enjoy discounts for the next purchase. The H&M’s World Recycling Week illustrates as one of the many examples to display the green commitments of fast-fashion brands, though merely one percent of the collected clothing can be recycled as fibres in future production, according to Greenpeace.

“Let say [the companies] upcycle the donated clothes, resources are still sacrificed in the process. Or even in the example of offering these clothes to refugees, the pollution caused by transporting from one place to another adds up the carbon footprint. Why not develop a strategy to reduce the waste at source then?” as Katherine conceded to the greenwashing initiatives.

The reality is that while the fast fashion industry is creating our overflowing landfill nightmare, high-end consumption is part of the problem, too. “What we lack now is the green consciousness and the motivation to embed sustainability in the younger generation,” said Katherine. “Until society has reached the consensus, their burgeoning green awareness probably helps slow down the shopping spree in fast fashion.”

In collaboration with Jasmine Leung

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