Exhibitors at Intertextile Shanghai expressed worries over the impact of the brewing U.S.-China trade war.

SHANGHAI — Performance fabrics and sustainability were a focus at Intertextile Shanghai Apparel Fabrics fair here as the growing middle class in China continues to fuel demand for ath-leisure fashions.

The popularity of healthy living and maintaining an active lifestyle has continued to open up a huge market for performance fabrics, with the latest innovations coming to the fore and eco-friendly, sustainable products resonating with the target demographic. At this edition, the fair’s functional lab had a 92 percent increase in space and a 111 percent increase in exhibitors in the product zone.

The rising middle-class’ higher disposable income and level of education also continues to drive demand. “Actually, the trend in China started three years ago. There were a lot of new brands, they focused on yoga, sports bras and activewear. Also, JNBY, a fashion brand in China, they have an individual line, it’s called River. It is an activewear line where they use a lot of recycled fabric,” said Jason Wu, sales manager at Carvico Trading Shanghai, an Italian company that produces technical fabrics such as Econyl, made from regenerated nylon that offers a muscular compression function.

Although these fabric innovations and sustainability measures are a positive step for the industry and the environment, there is still a long way to go. Companies are betting on the fact that this shift is part of the industry’s progression, and not a short-term trend, investing in research and development to upgrade their product offerings. “At the moment, [recycled fabrics] are just a selling point. For example, our nylon comes from fishing nets, but when we make it into fabric with elastic, you cannot recycle it. This will come in maybe four or five years. We do not use any bad products like oil to make the new nylon yarn, so it’s good, but could be better,” said Wu.

Judy Wang, manager of Swiss brand, Klingler Asia, which produces Pure Cool apparel fabric, a technology that works by embedding recycled jade into fabrics resulting in a cooling effect that lowers the body temperature, agreed there is increased demand for functional fabrics with sustainable features. “In the past few years, more customers are asking about recycled materials — recycled polyester or nylon. They are getting more embracing of this and therefore we have developed more of these fabrics. The jade stones are natural, so we use these natural materials in our fabrics.”

Domestic manufacturers producing eco-friendly, sustainable fabrics are seeing growth within China and overseas. “I think that everybody, no matter which country they are from, knows the importance of health and they know there is the technology to protect the environment. Chinese consumers are interested, definitely. I can feel that more and more people care about the environment and being healthy. Maybe our colors are not very bright or not very fancy, but they know about our product dyeing and they are willing to help. Chinese people get a higher education, have more knowledge about social responsibility, and are getting rich. After they get more money, they will consider more about the environment. They will come back to nature,” said Leon Van of Shanghai Skeco Textile, a manufacturer that specializes in eco-friendly plant and vegetable dyeing.

“This [sustainability focus] all started from 2013, so about five years ago. And we believe we do have a future for China, but it really takes time,” said Wilmet Shea, deputy general manager at Messe Frankfurt Shanghai. “It seems like the domestic brands are getting an interest for this [sustainable] section. This is from our exhibitors’ feedback, that they are getting more and more inquiries from the domestic brands.”

Some believe that the trend toward sustainable fabrics and leading a healthy lifestyle is only recently catching on in China, after first becoming popular in the West. “Normally, it is just kind of a concept. It happens in some Western country, like North America or Europe, or some other area and then it will come to China,” said Ding Hongliang, president of Hemp Fortex, producers of organic, biodegradable fabrics. “Right now, we have some demand from the local brands, some big brands like Exception [de Mixmind]. They started to use hemp or natural fibers about 10 years ago, but they used it as a normal kind of textile product, not as a sustainable product. They didn’t promote that part, they just wanted the texture and unique hand feel for the line. But now, everybody is talking about sustainability. If you don’t get involved with sustainability, you will become an outsider.”

There has recently been a crackdown in China on polluting manufacturers in the textile industry, with many being closed. However, there are still no firm regulations in place for environmentally friendly practices. “If you’re talking about the textile industry, our partners in CNTAC, China National Textile and Apparel Council, have set up an alliance to do more about sustainability. So maybe later they will work on regulations on the textile industry,” said Shea.

Van, whose company produces in northeastern Liaoning province, also believes that regulations might be on the way. “Currently, the situation for chemical dyeing is still very strict, so it gives us a better chance to sell green, eco-friendly products. We dye the products under a normal temperature, not high temperatures, and also there are no chemicals, so no pollution. [The local authority] tests our products and they are trying to build some standard for the green products. Currently there is no official standard because it is quite a new project,” Van said.

Due to the increase in the cost of labor, and more stringent controls on manufacturing in the country, Chinese manufacturers have been forced to move up the value chain or risk going out of business. As other economies around the world have taken up the mantle of low-cost production, Chinese producers have had to shift toward innovative, high-end, sustainable products.

“In China, there is no space to make cheap stuff. This is something you can never change, with labor costs rising and all other things. About 20 or 30 years ago, labor was the biggest advantage, and now it is not. It no longer exists. It is now in other countries like Bangladesh or India. I think people have to change. All the manufacturers have to change to face the pressure and the situation that our stuff is no longer cheap,” said Ding. “You have to make your stuff so unique you don’t have to compete with anybody else that can offer the cheaper stuff. This is our only advantage.”

The escalating U.S. trade war was also on the minds of Chinese manufacturers at the fair. “We are going to do more business in Europe. I don’t think Europe will ever have the same issues with China like [President] Trump. And also, we are expanding our business to Australia,” said Ding. “We are trying as much as we can to keep the U.S. business, because so far, the garments still have not been taxed. We do spinning, weaving, knitting, cutting and sewing, we are quite vertical. Fabric has just been taxed 10 percent more. For example, for hemp fabric it was 0.6 percent, it was nothing, but now it is 10 percent. We can still work with it, and our customers have already asked for 5 percent support, so we agreed to share it. I want to support my customers. The next step will be 25 percent. It will definitely put everybody out of business. It hasn’t happened yet, but there is $200 billion still waiting. I don’t think [we could share 25 percent], nobody could bear 25 percent.

“[The trade war] is definitely causing trouble for us. The textile area just announced a trade war. So, I think maybe after the national holiday, if we have new shipments to the U.S., the import tax will be higher,” he continued. “This is not good news to our buyers. It will make our customers suffer, so then we will suffer. We have actually started to sell more in the domestic market and non-U.S. market like the Australian market and the European market.”

The exhibition at the city’s National Exhibition and Convention Center drew 4,479 exhibitors from 33 countries and regions. Around 78,000 trade buyers, including buyers from the concurrent CHIC and PH Value fairs, attended from 110 countries and regions.

This year, the timing of the fair was brought forward from mid-October to late September. At the time this change was revealed, the organizer said, “The autumn-winter sourcing season has steadily moved earlier in the year, and this change in timing is necessary to ensure Intertextile Shanghai remains the leading business platform for both suppliers and buyers in the global apparel fabrics and accessories industry.”

However, there was much discussion at the fair about whether this was the right decision. Golden Week, China’s weeklong national holiday, is held from the Oct. 1 to 7 every year, when factories across the country shut down for a week, making the timing inconvenient for buyers who wished to visit suppliers after the fair. Others believed that the date change was still not early enough, with many buyers already making their decisions at European fairs during the summer.

“After the expos in Paris would be better,” said Irfan Boran, owner of Turkish apparel fabric company Erka, who was visiting the fair. “We have already made many decisions. Right after PV [Première Vision, held in Paris in July] is better. That is when we decide and give the orders.”

The organizer confirmed that this new September date will continue next year, however. “We think it was the right decision to move to this date. You don’t always get 100 percent positive response when you change something, but maybe to international companies and to Chinese as well, it was the right decision because October was too late,” said Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textile and textile technology at fair organizer Messe Frankfurt.

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