China’s Paradox in Sustainable Fashion

Sustainability is a huge topic of discussion in today’s fashion era. The trend is finally becoming more recognized as the citizens of China express their interest to the government. Within this transition is a complicating barricade between governmental wishes and local business leaders.

Credit: Business of Fashion

As the weather is a common conversation amongst us Americans, topics of conversation in China revolve around the harsh truths of environmental waste and pollution. The conditions within the urban cities are so terrible and terrifying to humanity, that the term, “airpocalypse” was created in 2012 to even describe the torment. As the damage as progressed, China’s central government is now taking a stand to promote the up-keeping of the environment, making it a national priority amongst their people.

Although this may seem like an easy transition into environmentally-friendly causes, China does have a long way to go. At the rate of their damage, it will take quite some time for the country to make noticeable changes. Just in their textile industry, production waste is estimated to be at about 70,000 tons every single day, with an average of 2.5 billion tons of the following polluted wastewater annually. Not only is this polluting the earth, but imagine the air that these people are breathing in…

Credit: CNN

To take initial action, the government’s 13th five-year plan for econ/social development (2016) had set a goal of 4.5 million tons for textile waste by 2020. Kering’s sustainability operations director, Michael Beutler, states that “Since the US has seemed to step away from that, China is really stepping to the forefront, which makes it a very interesting place to be right now.” Doing further research, the China Chain Store had surveyed about 10,000 consumers in ten various cities. It was concluded that over 70 percent of the consumers had agreed that their personal consumption did have a direct impact on their surrounding environment, putting health and safety at the top of their concerns.

Sustainability is attractive to those who do not lead it, especially when money is in the picture. Creating this paradox within the movement of sustainability, local business leaders in China are refraining. Money is the motive within businesses and the issue among China is that many of the leaders have left their feedback on the change, and it is concluded that many simply “don’t care.” Style editorial director of Modern Media Group, Shaway Yeh, reported, “The majority of Chinese fashion people are not talking about it or they’re not at all interested in sustainability. Collectively, our fashion industry isn’t doing nearly enough and the fashion media isn’t doing anything about it either. So, naturally, the fashion consumer is going to be left uneducated and unaware of our industry’s unique sustainability issues.” She then adds in that the newest generation of fashion entrepreneurs are the only leaders to take charge with a genuine interest in sustainable fashion. Although this is a growing portion of the industry, more leaders within the fashion industries in China are necessary to make these major moves.

To spread further knowledge, Yeh has attempted to start a column on sustainable fashion on her editorial medium, the Modern Weekly magazine. As the column raised awareness, she began to collaborate with various popular brands such as H&M and Kering. Noticing that many global brands had rebuffed away from showcasing on the media, Yeh launched her own agency, Yehyehyeh, which brought sustainability to the forefront of China’s fashion eco-system, something that needed to be done. She realized that many people viewed the idea as its own, and not in relation to other functions within the industry that could make a difference overall.

As for fashion in China, social classes tend to adhere to various fashion dividends. Nitin Dani from Green Initiatives’ has noticed that Chinese consumers are starting to care with the raised awareness, especially for new families, but he says, “If you ask someone earning 5,000 RMB ($750) per month, he doesn’t care.” Although that is a decent portion of consumers, 62 percent of the upper middle class now actively seek out sustainable apparel, which is a dramatic increase from where the country was initially.

As for further actions to make sustainable fashion the norm in China, Yeh is attempting to bring bigger international fashion companies to promote the message themselves, in China. As many companies promote vastly around the world, China is a location left out most often for its previous lack of interest in the subject. Now with an emerging base on sustainability and a growing percentage of 26 sustainable materials, China will be able to prosper into sustainable fashion and lifestyles for both industry leaders and consumers.

Lianne Almeida

Fashion Content Writer

Fashion Marketing & Management Student