China's Sustainable Fashion Paradox
Posted by : Mary Wutz /
"SHANGHAI, China — There are few places that arouse a more visceral reaction to the environment than China’s biggest cities. A mere glance out the window of a shiny new skyscraper in downtown Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou or Shenzhen is enough to understand the reality of unchecked environmental degradation.
For many of China’s urbanites, daily conversation with friends and colleagues often revolves around something called PM 2.5 levels, which is a fine particulate matter small enough to penetrate deep into a person’s lungs, with a “good” day showing a reading under 150 and a “bad” day reaching over 250. Here, people speak of air pollution the way people in other countries talk about the weather.
A decade of poisoned food and water scandals and unbounded mass manufacturing to fuel economic growth has culminated in Beijing’s now seasonal “airpocalypse”, a term coined in 2012. Since then, China’s central government and party leaders have worked hard to promote environmental stewardship as a national priority.
Most famously, President Xi Jinping — who is about to start his second five-year term — was a vocal supporter of the Paris Agreement on climate change, following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the world’s largest economy would not honour the accord, leading many to question whether China is the new sustainability superpower the world should be looking to for leadership.
China certainly has a long way to go before it can legitimately claim the environmentally friendly upper hand. Take the textile industry as a snapshot. According to Green Initiatives, a non-profit focused on environmental education and solutions in China, 53 percent of the world’s textile production waste comes from China, an estimated 70,000 tonnes every day, with 2.5 billion tonnes of polluted waste water produced annually.
To combat this, the Chinese government’s 13th five-year plan for economic and social development, released in 2016, set a target of 4.5 million tonnes for recycled textile production by 2020. “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,” says Michael Beutler, Kering’s sustainability operations director.
The Chinese consumer is clearly waking up to sustainability issues too. According to a report released in August by the China Chain Store and Franchise Association, having surveyed almost 10,000 consumers in ten Chinese cities, more than 70 percent of respondents agreed that “personal consumption has a direct impact on the environment.”
"Safety and health" was the top reason for choosing sustainable products and services, while environmental friendliness and quality were the next two most popular reasons.
Filling fashion’s leadership vacuum
Sustainability is prominent on the agenda of the government and consumers, but when you have a candid conversation about sustainability with fashion business leaders in China, the refrain is all too often the same. Apart from a few very notable exceptions and specialist brands, most insiders will confide that they simply “don’t care”.
“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 about our industry’s unique sustainability issues,” says Shaway Yeh, group style editorial director of Modern Media Group..."