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Sustainability Finally Takes Centre Stage in Shanghai

Shan Future Forum is driving the sustainability agenda in Shanghai alongside initiatives from Stella McCartney, Kering and Prada. But will China’s big industry players follow suit and take meaningful action in luxury’s biggest market?
Designer Zhang Na’s Reclothing Bank Spring/ Summer 2020 Collection | Source: Courtesy
  • Casey Hall

SHANGHAI, China — From whichever way you examine China's place in the global fashion industry — consumer, supplier or manufacturer — it is clear that the country is a linchpin for making progress on the sustainability front.

As Kering Chief Executive and leader of the "Fashion Pact" initiative François-Henri Pinault put it during an event held in conjunction with Shanghai Fashion Week (SHFW), "there is no luxury without sustainability and there is no sustainability without China. It's as simple as that."

Kering’s K Generation awards, in which three start-ups were awarded on the basis of their green-tech innovations with fashion industry applications, was just one of the sustainability-focused pushes at this season’s SHFW, which spanned October 9 to 16. The local sustainability focus follows that of recent fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, in which carbon neutrality, pared-back shows and the circular economy were the talk of the town.

However, as the case has been made in other markets, talk isn’t enough; in a market obsessed with novelty and convenience, will Shanghai’s sustainable fashion ambition translate to real action?

Sustainability’s New Landing Ground

Both luxury brands and emerging players have raised the issue of Shanghai’s sustainability credentials.

Stella McCartney, a long-time advocate of animal rights and environmental protection, chose China's biggest fashion week to launch a sustainable capsule collection with luxury e-tailer MyTheresa, marked with a talk at Tongji University's school of design, one of the fashion capital's top design institutions.

“What I’m trying to do is encourage it not to be a trend and to be something that sticks,” McCartney told the room packed with students.

“I believe it can because I believe it’s something the future generations are hugely passionate about and engaged in,” she added, alluding not only to the young people in the room, but those around the world who have added their voices to the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement.

McCartney isn’t the only global luxury stalwart bringing her sustainability efforts east. Prada is today hosting an event at their Rong Zhai mansion in downtown Shanghai to discuss the brand’s ongoing “Re-Nylon” initiative.

Shaway Yeh on stage with Wendy Yu and Caroline Rush at Shan Future Forum | Courtesy

As China has moved from the fashion producing hub of the world, to the fashion consumption centre, Pinault said its ability to lead the way on issues, such as sustainability, is becoming greater.

On the runways, designer Zhang Na's Reclothing Bank once again flew the sustainability flag with enthusiasm. Stemming from a personal project started in 2012 to upcycle old clothes and educate consumers about more conscious consumption, recent advances in fabric technology have enabled Zhang to turn the project into a fully-fledged brand, with garments made from Tencel, recycled bottles, plastics, corn and coffee beans.

“[When I first started] I could not have imagined what technology would be discovered,” Zhang said, noting that people here have begun to think about sustainability as a moral imperative as well as a business proposition. “The materials have improved so much [that it makes business sense].”

Demand for Development

This groundswell in sustainability-focused dialogue and design at the top is having a trickle-down effect. Fashion investor, Founder and CEO of Yu Holdings Wendy Yu has observed a whole new generation of Chinese designers, who, like Zhang, are putting social consciousness and responsibility at the forefront of their business.

As China’s strong manufacturing base sees much of its low-end business moving offshore, the shift is empowering designers while incentivising manufacturers to become more flexible and innovative in their approach in order to appeal to China’s sustainability-minded talents.

“[Young Chinese designers] are really thinking more carefully about their supply chain and sustainability isn’t just marketing for them, they are really being careful about what they stand for,” Yu said.

One of China’s leading voices promoting and creating solutions for a more sustainable fashion industry is Shaway Yeh, founder of sustainable innovation agency Yehyehyeh and Special Advisor to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Yeh served as a moderator at the Kering, Stella McCartney and Prada events, alongside organising her own sustainability conference, Shan Future Forum, during SHFW.
This season marked the second time Yeh has hosted Shan, but she has gone from welcoming a little over 100 attendees to turning away over 400 applicants — proof to Yeh of a sea change in how China’s fashion industry is beginning to prioritise sustainability.
The international array of speakers at the conference included British Fashion Council Chief Executive Officer Caroline Rush, Jane Wang, General Manager of Cashmere giant Erdos, and Kyung-Ae Han, Vice Chairwoman of the Kolon Group, a prominent Korean sportswear manufacturer.
“There’s demand from the [Chinese] government, there’s demand from [Chinese] consumers. We are all being affected by climate change more and more. There’s a reason people are talking about it,” Yeh says.

Considering that fashion weeks are inherently ephemeral and resource-intensive, Yeh said SHFW and other organisations around the world have a vital role to play as platforms that give a voice to sustainability advocates.

Another panellist at Shan was Lv Xiaolei, vice secretary of the SHFW Committee. She pointed out that an increasing focus on green initiatives over the past four years has helped frame the fashion conversation in China for both consumers and the wider the industry, with the former increasingly demanding action. Lv and Yeh both reference local cashmere giant Erdos, a regular at SHFW, which has committed to implementing sustainable agriculture and production processes, as a prime example.

“We must now make more noise, throw out the old ways the industry has been practising and [move forward] practising sustainable development,” said Lv.

A Top-Down Push for Mass Appeal

For all the talk at SHFW, the gap between awareness and action is the industry’s biggest obstacle. “Talking about it doesn’t mean they know what to do about it,” said Yeh.

Indeed, at this year’s edition of the Redress Awards for sustainable design held in Hong Kong, Redress NGO founder and CEO Christina Dean said Mainland China supplied the bulk of entrants. However, Dean notes that sustainability hasn’t quite become a priority in the country’s wider consumer culture.

“I look out the window here [in Shanghai] and I don’t really see it. I’m always relatively optimistic because I think there’s only one way consumers will go, but awareness to action is still quite slow,” she said.

Candy Li helped pioneer the city’s sustainability initiatives by organising consumer-facing platform Green Code alongside luxury retailer Lane Crawford and SHFW for a number of seasons. However, she was forced to shutter the platform because of a lack of interest.

K-Generation award winners | Source: Courtesy

“My company lost millions on this project, so I can’t afford to do it anymore,” Li explained, adding that Green Code was unable to attract investors, sponsors or a stable roster of sustainable fashion brands able to stay afloat in China’s ultra-competitive and crowded marketplace.

Li notes that consumers may care more about sustainability but estimates that those who consider it as a major factor when shopping probably make up 1 to 5 percent of the population. As is the case with global fashion brands and consumers, shoppers will prioritise style and design over sustainability, which is often perceived as a bonus.

Even so, some insiders remain optimistic, as China’s colossal size means small progress is still significant in the wider scheme of things. “China is a planet, it’s not like a country,” said French fashion designer Jonathan Riss, who moved to Beijing in 2005.

Riss’ recent collection of upcycled vintage Louis Vuitton keep-alls, priced between $10,000 and $15,000, sold out in stores such as Lane Crawford, and Riss notes that a number of buyers were from China.

“There all types of people and not everyone will be interested [in upcycled and vintage products] but many people will love it,” he added.

And whether the movement toward sustainable fashion is pushed forward by consumers or not, there are signs the government wants it.

“In terms of government policies, the Chinese government is quite progressive in pushing an environmental agenda,” Yeh said. Lv Xiaolei points to a government initiative in Shanghai which turned the city’s 26 million residents into diligent recyclers virtually overnight, using a combination of social pressure (those who incorrectly sort their rubbish are named and shamed among their neighbours) and technology.

And, this being China, the central government’s desires tend to become a reality, signalling positive signs for action on sustainability in the Chinese fashion industry sooner rather than later.

“Inside this country you have the consumers, the producers, and a government that is willing to move proactively toward sustainability,” Pinault said. “We need that leadership from the Chinese government because if China can make its fashion industry sustainable, the rest of the world will follow.”


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Two stars are being digitally removed from the "Win the World" drama series | Source: Courtesy

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Chinese Drama Digitally Erases Its Scandal-Prone Actors

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A Fila store | Source: Courtesy of Anta

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Carrie Lam spoke out against the Hong Kong protests | Source: Shutterstock

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China Decoded wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to our Shanghai-based Asia Correspondent

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