When Christina Dean arrived in Hong Kong from London eleven years ago, she was Dr. Christina Dean, more familiar with fixing people’s teeth than fixing the fashion industry. But living next to one of the world’s biggest clothing manufacturing areas, and actually breathing and seeing the negative environmental effects of this production, motivated her to ask the question ‘Why are we driving such rampant and careless clothing production, with its devastating affects, without urgently mitigating the impact on people and planet?’
Christina started Redress, an NGO with a mission to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Now, ten years on, she is still asking the same question. Committed to her mission now more than ever, we caught up with Christina to see what drives her.
10 years ago when you started Redress, there was definitely less interest in sustainable fashion, especially in Asia. Was it hard to get support for your idea at the beginning?
When I first started, ‘sustainability in fashion’ was called ‘green fashion’, at least in China and Asia, and it was poorly understood. I recall a fashion editor at a major Chinese fashion publication asking me if the new trend for ‘green fashion’ meant the clothes were simply green coloured! That was the level of understanding. The idea of ‘eco and green’ was considered as a passing trend and in the early days it didn’t command much bandwidth from fashion industry professionals, from editors, designers, producers to consumers. However, there was still certainly interest in it, but it was very surface level. Fast forward 10 years and the world has woken up and the crisis around us is leading to a big hangover – that we need to innovate and disrupt the old ways of working in order to design our way out of it! On the support side, I’ve always found people and companies to be supportive of the cause.
Since you started Redress, have you seen any changes in either the production side of the industry or consumer mindset in regards to sustainability?
Yes, the change has been like day and night! Generally speaking on the supply chain side, most professionals with a pulse are aware of the need to be wary of sustainability issues, whether this means to conserve resources (which equals reducing material costs), mitigate risk (which equals to ‘don’t threaten the brand by messing up’) or being competitive at sourcing (which means don’t be too dependent on virgin materials). So brands look at sustainability as a way to stay alive; this is not about morals it’s about money. On the consumer side, the advent of social media has been like an electric shock to people’s ethical barometer.
People around the world know more about what’s going on and once people sit up and ask questions, their shopping habits ultimately change.
And it’s these consumer changes that peculate back to the boardroom, via extensive consumer research surveys, and make the bigwigs sit up, which typically makes the supply chain sit up too.
What do you think would it take for fashion to drop off its rank as 2nd most polluting industry in the world?
We’d need to believe in miracles…
Following this, we’d need the entire fashion supply chain to have a lobotomy and to re-insert circular system thinking – whereby all ‘waste’ materials are re-used to keep resources in use and not in landfill or burned – implanted instead of the old linear system of take, make and dispose. This would, crucially, call for the holy grail in fashion and sustainability; finding quality recycled fibers from mixed clothing waste.
We’ need consumers to wake up and start loving fashion again; this means buying quality clothes that we love and want to wear for longer instead of buying extraordinary amounts of clothes that barely make it through a few machine washes alive.
What concrete change would you most want to see happen in the near and far future?
I’d like to see a wide scale, industrial breakthrough in creating recycled fibers and textiles that can be scaled up to dress the world. We need to stop fashion’s dependence on virgin materials and we need that recycled fibre to be a viable alternative to virgin.
How is Redress helping to assist that change?
We’re educating the fashion supply chain with awareness that they need to change and how they can do this and we’re inspiring consumers to be an active part of the solution. To take just a few examples; our The EcoChic Design Award sustainable fashion design competition is now the world’s largest and on the educational front, we have over 80 fashion universities as partners, we’ve developed teaching training packs for lecturers around the world; we receive very high traffic to our educational content and have lectured 5000 designers in person, mainly in China and India. We’ve worked with several brands on up-cycled collections, from Esprit to Shanghai Tang. We’ve created a documentary, Frontline Fashion, about emerging designers’ persistence at redesigning a new future for fashion and we’ve written a consumer book, Dress [with] Sense, to give consumers practical steps to creating a more conscious closet.
And really breaking news, is that Redress’ work has now given rise to a new, social impact business, the up-cycled fashion brand called B Y T, for which I am co-founder. I’ve discovered on my 10 year journey that sometimes the best way to get your point across – that fashion made sustainably and ethically can be profitable – is to prove it.
What advice would you give to a consumer, budding designer or someone interested to get involved in fashion?
I’d say that falling in love with clothes – whether this means wearing them or designing them – is what it’s really about!
I think it really boils down to respect; for the product and for all those that made it.
Once one respects the complexity of clothes and the creativity, one starts to see them in a different light.
What motivates you to do what you do?
I’m a very committed person – I got this from my mum as I watched her persevere with her scientific research into the negative impacts of fluoride on the brain – and I’m completely committed to my cause, which is inspiring positive changes in the way clothes are made and worn. Some people say I’m like dog with a bone. I’d say they are right!