Why you should care

When the world’s second-largest economy and its most populous nation take a step toward sustainability, the planet benefits.

Six months ago, Liu Lina wasn’t remotely aware of the impact her purchasing habits could have on the environment, workers producing the goods or her local community. She assumed a higher price signified better quality. Everything else was immaterial. Now, she refuses to buy clothing she suspects may have been made in sweatshops.

She’s part of a silent shift rippling through China’s enormous middle class and moving it toward responsible consumerism — and nowhere is this trend playing out more than in the country’s fashion industry. Environmental and ethical responsibility is increasingly underpinning the brand philosophy of fashion startups that are proliferating in China. The ways in which this philosophy exhibits itself vary in form, from financial support for local ethnic groups to products developed around sustainable materials and production practices. And while many of these brands set out targeting expats and foreign markets, they are increasingly attracting Chinese customers too — who are drawn in part by a newfound social and environmental conscience.

China’s rise as an economic giant since the turn of the century had already spawned a shift in its reputation from a warehouse manufacturing clothes for big brands cheaply to a fast-fashion powerhouse. The emerging transformation in the country’s fashion-consumption patterns is the next step up in that evolutionary cycle. A study on 2018 consumer trends in China suggests 58 percent of correspondents were willing to pay a premium for goods made taking social and environmental concerns seriously.

The city wasn’t ready for us. That all started to change over the past year and a half.

Hans Martin Galliker, co-founder of Neemic, a Beijing-based sustainable fashion firm

It’s a shift sustainable fashion company Neemic has witnessed from the frontlines. Established in Hong Kong in 2011, the firm moved to Beijing a year later, convinced that its goal “of helping sprout an organic clothing movement in China” needed it to be “where decisions were made,” says co-founder Hans Martin Galliker. But a wave of food-safety scares was sweeping the country at that time, and Galliker believes that organic, sustainable food rather than greener clothing was on the top of people’s minds. That changed as Chinese consumers began to wake up to the environmental consequences of wastage and sustainability more broadly. Neemic still finds it easier to sell its message to the international market, but their audience is now increasingly Chinese, says Galliker.

“The city wasn’t ready for us,” says Galliker. “That all started to change over the past year and a half.”

Sustainable baby clothing brands were the first to break new ground in China — much as safer, organic food for children drew the attention of Chinese consumers after 300,000 kids were infected by milk adulterated with melamine in a 2008 scandal that held the nation’s attention for months. Beijing-based sales director Zhao Yunxian says she began considering the sustainability of the products she bought after the birth of her son. “Before then, it wasn’t really a consideration for me,” she says. “I want a better environment for my son, and that can start with where I buy his clothes.”

One of the pioneers of the adult clothing end of China’s ethical and ecological movement is Norlha, a high-end accessories brand producing goods made from locally sourced yak wool. Based on the Tibetan Plateau in the Chinese province of Gansu, co-founders Kim and Dechen Yeshi were among the first Chinese fashion entrepreneurs to place sustainability and workers’ rights on an equal footing with product design. “Our growth was very organic,” says Dechen. “Our focus is on the treatment and welfare of our artisans.” Their message is gaining traction, she says, in the export market and increasingly with Chinese consumers. “There are a growing number of people in China who appreciate our message and some now come from as far as Beijing and Shanghai to visit our workshop,” she adds.

Obstacles remain. The trend is yet to catch on further down the supply chain. Ecological and ethical priorities are playing an increasingly prominent role in the mission statements of textile manufacturers in China, but the attractiveness of these messages is lagging a long way behind the market for finished products. Jiaxing Jiecco Fashion Company, based in Zhejiang province on China’s east coast, runs a factory employing around 100 workers. They produce organic fabrics for companies both in China and abroad and promote progressive working conditions for its staff. Workers have dance sessions during lunch breaks and free lunches are offered to all staff. But while the factory is flourishing, Jiecco has yet to see a rise in contracts with Chinese businesses — with 99 percent of its contracts “in the export market,” says Jiaxing Jiecco general manager Miranda Chen.

Beijing’s recent forced relocation of swathes of migrant workers from the city is also complicating supply-side challenges for companies like Neemic, suggests Galliker, forcing them to look further afield, often in remote rural parts of the country, to find stable suppliers and production facilities to collaborate with. “I’m still skeptical whether the traditional artisan heritage will manage to withstand the test of time and evolve into a sustainable business for future generations,” he says.

Still, the demand driven by a more ecologically and socially minded consumer class in China offers a rare route to better working conditions and a less lasting environmental impact in the country. And China’s communist party knows better than most regimes in the world the art of adjustments to survive such shifts in attitudes of the country’s citizens. With a large part of the sustainability movement focused on exporting Chinese fashion’s new ideals, the images of sweatshops that have long been associated with the “Made in China” tag may just be on their way out.

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