Retail in Asia


A big step towards sustainability – EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Redress Design Award Founder

Fashion is one of the industries that proudly touts its sustainability credentials. As consumers become more conscious of the impact of their actions on the environment, brands are marketing their products as carbon positive, organic, or vegan; while yoga mats made from mushrooms and sneakers made from sugar cane are dominating retail shelves worldwide.

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A more environmentally friendly approach in fashion has been offered by brands everywhere, even one of fashion’s biggest polluters – H&M is coming up with new measures to give meaning to its USD 4.1 billion worth of unsold garments – some of which are now sent off to Sweden, and being used as fuel for a power station. But is that the answer to a 100 percent sustainable future? Redress says it’s not enough.

Established in 2007, Redress has successfully organised the Redress Design Award to educate emerging fashion designers around the world about sustainable design theories and techniques in order to drive growth towards a circular fashion system. Only by educating the younger generation will the industry truly improve, and with a more environmentally-conscious group of young consumers, fashion companies will finally reflect on the problematic practice that has been the root cause all along.

Retail in Asia had the opportunity to interview Christina Dean, Founder and Board Chair of the Redress Design Award, together we discussed the concept behind non-chemically treated fabrics, “ultra-fast fashion” phenomenon intertwining with Gen Z’s obsession with social media and the future of fashion’s sustainability scene.

RiA: What will be the theme for the Redress Design Award 2022? What can the audience expect from the competition this year?

Dean: Our underlying ‘theme’ has always been to scour the world and then spotlight creativity in sustainable and circular design, which itself takes on such a wide kaleidoscope of design techniques, sourcing and innovative ideas that it’s hard to bottle this work into one theme!

That said, underpinning this 2022 cycle’s concept is the competition’s creative brief, which is to design a contemporary collection for modern, fashion-forward adults who are concerned about the environment and actively seek comfort and style whether in the city or exploring the big outdoors, which in part reflects our prize sponsor, VF’s Timberland brand.

So we’ve seen some incredible collections pass through the judges’ critical eyes, resulting in our finalists’ final competition looks that will soon hit the runway. There, audiences can expect to be wowed by creativity, sustainability, marketability and workmanship, which are the criteria that our esteemed panel of international judges from across the fashion industry are looking for.

The finalists’ looks are also featured in a photoshoot and lookbook, this year titled ‘Repackaged’ and inspired by the raw aesthetics of paper and cardboard industrial packaging. The creative theme of the shoot is intended to both remind us of the vast journey our clothing takes to get to us and showcase the potential for textile waste to be turned into something beautiful and new – reflecting the competition’s creative legacy of revaluing waste.

RiA: What kind of support/prizes will be offered to the winners from the competition?

Dean: The runway champion will receive an exclusive opportunity to collaborate with the VF Timberland team on a design project, working closely with the VF Corporation Sustainability & Responsibility team, gaining insight into sustainable production and marketing strategies in a supply chain. The runner-up will receive a tailored mentorship with distinguished sustainable fashion designer and competition judge, Orsola de Castro. Other prizes available include development funds, books on sustainable design from Bloomsbury, and much more.

All semi-finalists and finalists join the Redress Design Award Alumni Network, offering exciting industry opportunities to develop careers in sustainable fashion design, including brand collaborations, networking with industry professionals, and other support.

Source: Redress Design Award

RiA: The concept of non-chemically treated fabrics was introduced to promote sustainability at the source of the fashion industry. How are brands taking chemicals out of the equation?

Dean: All fabrics require some sort of chemical treatment throughout production – even if the final dyes are ‘natural’ dyes or the fabrics are ‘organic’ – so chemicals and fashion go hand in hand along the long process from crop to shop.  It is estimated over 8000 synthetic chemicals are used in the fashion manufacturing process; their names as terrifying as their potential side effects.

It goes without saying that there is a great push to transition to use less harmful chemicals. We’re seeing some brands and manufacturers moving towards using alternative, safer dyes or natural dyes and processing methods, including seeking dyes, finishes that meet and go beyond international regulations, such as REACH, a regulation of the European Union restricting the use of hazardous chemicals for any company that manufactures or sells in the EU market, to using third party certification standards (like Oeko-Tex Standard 100, bluesign® or the EU Ecolabel) to preferentially working with suppliers who are signed up to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC).

But it’s not realistic to ‘take chemicals out of fashion’ because of the complexity of turning raw materials into, say, a soft and silky fabric, which is a lengthy process that will always require chemicals. This is why Redress is so intent on driving the circular economy – which has a key starting point of designing pollution out and making sure materials are safe, so that we have safe materials to reuse and recycle – and essentially recicularate materials – in an ongoing system of use, rather than condemning fabrics and fashion to landfills and incinerators whilst we then simultaneously demand virgin material production to satisfy fashion’s greedy raw material needs.

We acknowledge that making fashion cleaner is part of the circular economy and it is extremely important. That said, whilst advances are done to chemicals and processes, given the vast amount of discarded textiles at the moment, there is a huge urgency to find ways to circulate these products now to immediately lighten fashion’s load.

RiA: The trend in “ultra-fast fashion” is intertwined with Gen Z’s obsession with social media – where teens would purchase “disposable cheap outfits” online only for the sake of social media posting. How can brands fight against this phenomenon among the younger generation?

Dean: Many brands in this ultra-fast-fashion market don’t want to ‘fight against’ this desire and market segment; so there are many brands to whom this exact type of fashion consumption meets their business plan. That said, there is certainly a growing interest in attempting to lighten the otherwise huge environmental load of the ultra fast market products, through implementing design and supply chain and  material changes, where possible given the tight margins and nature of this market segment. Whilst these can be seen as positive moves – which I would never scoff at – the ultimate reality remains true; which is that over-consumption and under-utilisation of clothes is the huge ugly elephant in the room. Looking down the barrel of a gun and tackling over-consumption requires a huge amount of societal changes, and you won’t really find the ultra-fast-fashion brands leading the charge on this to cultivate a culture of ‘less’.

Source: Redress Design Award

As over-consumption relates to social media posting – i.e. temporarily buying, shooting and returning clothes without the intention to actually keep these clothes and wear them – well this is a huge financial and logistical pain for fashion brands, as is for the planet in terms of wasted packaging and carbon-inducing air freight and shipping.

Global fashion returns are hitting new highs. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine that many of these returns were likely spun around on social media for the sake of it before being packaged up and returned. This high return rate is certainly a big drain on businesses. In response to this, we’re seeing some fashion brands turn the tap off on free returns, notably with Zara in some markets stopping free returns, which may go some way to quelling the insatiable over-consumption and reckless, and lazy, shopping habits of all consumers, not just Gen Z.

We’re also seeing digital fashion offer an opportunity to “replace” the disposable items that have been bought for a one shot social media post, as we see people use digital fashion to dress themselves in the virtual world. That said, whilst we appreciate that this would theoretically reduce physical fashion consumption, the jury is still out as we’re not yet sure of the exact environmental impact in creating digital fashion – which still uses energy! – but at least digital fashion would decrease the demand for textile raw materials.

RiA: One of the main selling points of fast fashion is the appealing price point. In your opinion, will sustainable clothing brands ever beat that?

Dean: Dedicatedly sustainable clothing brands – who put innovation, sustainability and ethics at their core – are unlikely to ever beat fast fashion, and I don’t think that this is ever their intention. It’s like racing a cheetah with a peacock; these markets can’t be directly compared and therefore pitted against each other.

The cake of the global fashion industry is made of many slices, and sustainable fashion brands should compete to win over fashion consumers who are able to dig a little deeper into their pocket in order to support better materials, processes or approaches to people and planet.

That said, the often cheaper fast fashion industry has a big role to play in driving desire and demand for ‘more sustainable’, or perhaps more accurately described as ‘less polluting clothes’. That many of the big fast fashion players do offer ‘Sustainable’ capsules or lines is something to broadly celebrate.

RiA: Apart from upcycling and second hand fashion, how do you think the sustainability scene is going to play out in the future?

Dean: Reducing fashion’s carbon impact remains the master that will drive the C-suite for years and years to come, because carbon reduction is central to all stakeholders, and is also top of mind for most consumers who are concerned with ‘sustainability’.  As the fashion industry scratches its chin in confusion as to how to scale up quick enough with ways to reduce carbon impact, the real cure to reducing carbon emissions is to reduce consumption and promote and produce more durable and better quality clothes that will stay in use for longer. However, reducing the total number of products produced is not an easy pitch to win business growth within today’s largely linear fashion industry, and in an industry where consumers are price-sensitive, which is why change is so hard.

Source: Redress Design Award

RiA: What other initiatives can the public expect from Redress in the coming year?

Dean: Every October, we have our Get Redressed Month, an annual campaign that shines a spotlight on the issue of clothing waste for groups and individuals across Hong Kong. Our signature events encourage Hong Kongers to rethink how they consume, use and dispose of clothing. Companies, clubs, schools and individuals across the city give their unwanted clothes a new life by donating them in Hong Kong’s largest clothing drive, and some even go further by giving secondhand clothing a try.

In 2021, we were supported by 136 partners across 197 locations and collected over 20.5 tonnes of unwanted clothing. Then we held a three-day sort-a-thon with 288 corporate and community volunteers, where we sorted over 15 tonnes of clothing to be redistributed for resale, reuse and recycling including donating good quality clothing to ten local charity partners.

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RiA: Where do you see Redress in 5 years?

Dean: Still waving the flag with passion about believing in the ‘Positive Power of Fashion’!

The future of the fashion industry holds the potential opportunity to be a force for good – in far reaching areas like biodiversity conservation, poverty alleviation, climate change and so much more. So powerful is fashion, that over half of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be positively impacted by fashion.  So in five years’ time, we may see more damning reports about fashion’s costly planetary toll, but we will still be cheerleaders!