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Why Hong Kong Wants to be the World’s Center of Sustainable Innovation

Christina Dean remembers the precise moment she realized attitudes about clothing in Hong Kong were finally shifting.

As the founder and board chair of Redress, a nonprofit that tackles the problem of waste in the apparel industry, Dean had spent more than 10 years chipping away at what appeared to be an insurmountable issue.

Roughly 340 metric tons of textile waste are dumped into Hong Kong’s already-brimming landfills every day, according to the Special Administrative Region’s Environmental Protection Department. Clothing sales, it noted, have soared by 60 percent just during the past decade. There were times, Dean admitted, she felt like the tragic Greek figure Sisyphus, condemned to forever push a large rock uphill, except instead of rolling back down, it just got heavier.

But a speech in September by Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, Hong Kong’s chief secretary of administration and its most senior principal government official, offered some measure of relief.

At the opening of the second annual Hong Kong Fashion Summit, which organizers—Redress among them—billed as Asia’s largest sustainable-fashion event, Cheung formed a link between the rise of cheap and disposable “fast fashion” with “irreversible damages to our environment.”

He also affirmed the the semi-autonomous territory’s commitment to promoting sustainable fashion development, promising that the government would continue to throw its support behind the development of new technologies to “facilitate green making and marketing of fashion products.”

Indeed, despite Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China, a country often pilloried for the glut of cheap products flooding Western markets—at least until production fled to still-cheaper climes—the territory has taken pains of late to position itself as a hub for sustainable apparel innovation.

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Not that it’s a stranger to reinvention. At once a part of China and apart from it, the former British colony has metamorphosed over time from a low-cost regional manufacturing base to a global financial and sourcing stronghold highly regarded for its independent judiciary and strong, apolitical rule of law.

Li & Fung, the logistics powerhouse that connects Western retailers like Macy’s and Sears with factories in developing countries, for instance, holds court in Hong Kong, where it serves as the nexus for 15,000 suppliers in more than 40 economies.

“All the buyers come to Hong Kong, not because we have the factories but because we have the network,” said Felix Chung, a Legislative Council of Hong Kong member who oversees the textile and garment sector. “We own or control millions of factories all around the world, including in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh.”

Evolve or die

But the same globalization that allowed Hong Kong to become a goliath in the garment trade is also threatening to cut it off at its knees. That is, unless the city evolves once more.

“To be attractive to buyers you either have to be competitive in prices or attractive in products,” Chung said. “Hong Kong is not a cheap place. China is not cheap anymore. So we need to upgrade our products and give them a higher value.”

Standing at the intersection of East and West, Hong Kong is the ideal interlocutor between the sourcing and producing worlds, he suggested. Who else, after all, is better suited to help suppliers navigate the myriad standards of compliance asserting themselves across the industry?

Chung isn’t the only person who thinks like this. The industry-facing Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which manages the Higg Index, an open-source tool that measures apparel and footwear sustainability across the value chain, is staffing up in Hong Kong, according to CEO Jason Kibbey.

“Hong Kong is the worldwide hub for apparel and footwear sourcing,” said Kibbey, whose organization counts among its members major names like Adidas, Gap, H&M, J.C. Penney, Target, Walmart, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund. “As sourcing departments at major companies have embraced sustainability, it’s generated lots of activity in Hong Kong. We’ll be investing in the area in the coming months.”

Just as businesses have started to see sustainability as a competitive advantage, so too has Hong Kong, Dean agreed.

The territory’s heads of industry aren’t “all sitting there with a lovely green halo shining about their heads,” she said. “They’re sitting there thinking, ‘We need to make Hong Kong the most competitive by becoming the best experts at all this sustainable fashion innovation.’”

And the Hong Kong government, Chung said, has been nothing but supportive. “We want to promote what we call the ‘reindustrialization,’ which means using technology to upgrade traditional industries,” he said. “Hong Kong’s garment industry has been quiet for a long time because everybody has just been concentrating on competing on price or they’re still thinking of business in terms of large volumes, but the business environment has changed and we can’t survive that way anymore.”

Accelerating R&D

The jewel of the city’s sustainability strategy is the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), one of five applied research centers sponsored by the Hong Kong government’s Innovation and Technology Fund. It was HKRITA that finally achieved what conventional wisdom held to be impossible: how to break up post-consumer cotton-and-polyester-blended fabrics into their constituent fibers.

The process uses only heat, water and less than 5 percent of biodegradable green chemicals to degrade the cotton fibers into cellulose powder and separate them from their polyester counterparts, Yan Chan, director of business of development at HKRITA, explained.

“The recovered polyester material, which is not affected, can be respun into yarn without any quality loss,” Chan said. The cellulose, meanwhile, can be applied to the production of manmade fibers like rayon and Tencel or as a coating to give existing textiles properties such as improved breathability. “It’s cost-effective and there’s no secondary pollution,” she added.  

As part of its mission to drive a circular fashion economy, the H&M Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Swedish retailer H&M, has pledged 5.8 million euros ($6.5 million) over four years in support of HKRITA’s work. The bulk of the funding for the project, however, comes from the Hong Kong government, which has earmarked nearly 25 million euros ($28 million) toward the project.

In September, HKRITA, the H&M Foundation and textile manufacturer Novetex announced the opening of a “first of its kind” pre-industrial-sized facility that will scale up the hydrothermal technology with an eye on commercializing the results. Located in Tai Po Industrial Estate, the Novetex Upcycling Factory is not only Hong Kong’s first textile-recycling mill but the city’s first spinning mill to open in half a century, too.

The mill will deploy mechanical recycling as well, first by using ultraviolet (UV) irradiation to clean soiled or damaged fabrics, then by removing components such as buttons and zippers and finally by sorting and storing the textiles by color.

“When they’re called into production, then we will do the UV sanitization again,” Chan said. “We then cut them into pieces, open up the fibers and respin them into yarn again.” No water or dye is needed and very little virgin material is required, she added. Eventually, the facility will run three production lines, each capable of producing a ton of recycled fibers per day.

The three organizations similarly joined arms to open a “miniaturized” garment-to-garment recycling system and retail shop in The Mills, a revitalized multifunction complex, made up of former textile mills, in the western New Territories’ neighborhood of Tsuen Wan. Customers are invited to bring in their clothing castoffs and watch as the container-sized equipment devours, digests, then reconstitutes the fibers into new garments in as little as four hours.

Both the Novetex Upcycling Factory and the garment-to-garment system are great “showcases” for Hong Kong’s cross-disciplinary expertise in science, technology and engineering, Chan said. Already, HKRITA is fielding requests to help establish similar facilities in other parts of the globe.

“Hong Kong is a very packed, small city,” she said. “So if we can do it here, anyone can do it anywhere in the world.”

Other projects are in the pipeline, Chan said, including a method of waterless dyeing using supercritical carbon dioxide. (Patagonia has expressed interest.) HKRITA is also scaling up a wet spinning system that generates yarn from chitosan, a sugar found in the crab and shrimp shells the seafood industry typically discards. Imbued with antibacterial properties, it can be blended with fibers such as wool, cotton and cashmere.

Small(ish) wonder

Hong Kong’s compact footprint, argues Dean, isn’t so much as a weakness as it is its superpower. Spanning 1,063 square meters, much of it hilly and not very developable, the territory’s tighter borders and higher density mean many of its biggest apparel companies operate in close proximity to one another.

“They’re all kind of friends, sometimes, of course, competitors,” Dean said. “But what’s really unusual about Hong Kong is you can go to a meeting and have basically the most senior, most influential people all around the table. You’ve got the entire supply chain, all sitting there, together and they can be at a meeting within 15 minutes. They don’t have to fly across the world.”

Redress has been busy, too. Besides its annual Design Award, which susses out emerging talents who can give discarded and surplus textiles a luxury twist, the organization has been working to expand its garment take-back program in Hong Kong while educating universities, industry professionals and consumers on why developing solutions for textile waste matters.

The group also conducts workshops for “big gun” corporations like Levi Strauss, Zara and the aforementioned Li & Fung. “You can’t just come up with a policy for a company and then the staff don’t understand what the circular economy is,” Dean said. “It’s ridiculously painful but you’ve got to start from all ends of the supply chain.”

Still, little by little, those closed-door roundtables she’s been a part of for years are finally beginning to bear fruit. Hong Kong, she said, is only warming up. 

“I think that we’re at a juicy place right now but the best is yet to come for sure,” Dean said. “My only comment is you haven’t seen anything yet.”