By  on April 22, 2008

HONG KONG — A dozen major players in Hong Kong's fashion industry have formed a consortium on sustainability, marking a significant effort to address environmental issues plaguing the Pearl River Delta, long the heart of China's manufacturing region.

The Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium, launched here today to coincide with Earth Day, will also look to develop ways to use more recycled products, increase energy efficiency and reduce the impact of manufacturing on the environment.

Pat-Nie Woo, director of denim maker Central Textiles, which has four factories — two each in Hong Kong and China — is chairman of the group, which includes Ace Group chairman Andrew Sia, Crystal Group chairman Kenneth Lo, Fountain Set Holdings Ltd. executive director Gordon Yen and TAl Apparel managing director Harry Lee.

Woo said the group's formation goes beyond just a marketing effort focused on organic products.

"Even at Prime Source, when we talked about sustainability, at the beginning there was a lot of focus on and a big bandwagon for organic textiles and bamboo," Woo said. "But that's only a very small part of the story. It's the processing of the textiles, that is where the impact comes in. It's not just at the material level, but all the processes in between — the dyeing, the spinning, weaving, knitting, fabric finishing and garment finishing. The supply chain is made up of three or four very different businesses and what best practices and sustainability means for each part is very different."

Woo believes marketing will happen in an organic way. He added the objective is "not to start from a marketing point, but on attaining measurable goals." To that end, the SFBC's early efforts will be placed in two areas: reusability and energy efficiency, which he notes is already bearing fruits in the form of recycled denim fabrics. He said 15 to 20 percent of fabric used in garment making is scrapped.

"A large garment house will use 100 million yards of fabric," he said. "That's 20 million yards wasted."

Central Textiles and other manufacturers have developed a way to collect the scrap, break it down, re-spin it and produce new fabric."We don't want to bleach, so right now it has to be 100 percent white or mostly white," he said of the recycled cotton being used for such items as workmen's gloves and duvet covers.

Energy efficiency is another focus of SFBC's initial efforts. Woo said, throughout the supply chain, a lot of cost can be attributed to energy.

"An average factory uses 35 million kilowatts each year compared to the average household, which uses 4,000 kilowatts," he said, pointing out that SFBC hopes to develop efficient energy usage, to reduce waste and to capture waste and reuse it again. "It's not difficult to save 20 percent of energy. That means saving 7 million kilowatt hours, enough to power 1,750 houses for a year."

One of the key aspects of SFBC's endeavors is the sharing of information, both among members and through dialogue with retailers and brands.

"We share our findings with the rest of the industry because only then can we get closer to sustainability," Woo said.

Members of the consortium are also sharing the costs of organizing and running such a body. Woo said the initial investment is "a few million Hong Kong dollars." He said the group is also likely to receive support from the Hong Kong government under its Project Blue Sky project and is talking to potential sponsors.

The Clothing Industry Training Authority, a quasi-governmental body that promotes sustainable development in Hong Kong's fashion industry, is on board as one of SFBC's founding members, and two politicians — Roy Tang, deputy secretary for the Environment, and Christine Loh, chief executive officer of Civic Exchange — were set to give addresses at the consortium's launch today.

"Hong Kong is a special place, it's really the gateway to China," Woo said. "The advantage we have is that we can reach the West and China. The Beijing central government has come out many times to say that the environment is a focus coming together as an industry we have a big voice to talk to them."

With raw material and oil prices escalating, while the U.S. dollar declines against the Chinese currency, cost issues might overshadow environmental concerns. But Woo said such thinking is shortsighted."With the industry working in a more efficient way, there are savings to be had," he said. "Whether they are high enough to compensate for cost increases is another matter. We can't do anything about cotton prices, but sustainable development can not only reduce our impact on the environment, it can also ensure that we're employing best practices. What we will actually achieve only time will tell, but all of us strongly believe it's the right thing to do."

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