Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability

Tan Weiyun
The fashion industry is shedding wasteful practices and embracing a more eco-conscious ethos, moving toward sustainable fashion.
Tan Weiyun

In a world grappling with environmental challenges, the fashion industry is undergoing a remarkable transformation. It's shedding its wasteful practices and embracing a more eco-conscious ethos, moving towards sustainable fashion. This movement isn't just about clothing; it's a revolution that seeks to redefine our relationship with the planet.

Not too long ago, fast fashion ruled the runways and high streets. Brands churned out cheap, disposable garments at an astonishing pace, creating an unsustainable cycle of waste and exploitation. But consumers are increasingly rejecting this throwaway culture in favor of a more sustainable approach.

On the first day of the 2024 Spring/Summer Shanghai Fashion Week, which opened its curtain on October 8, a group of fashion industry insiders and observers gathered at the Mspace forum to engage in discussions on sustainable fashion.

The opening runway show was unveiled by the sustainable brand ICICLE, whose latest collection showcased a unique fusion of traditional Chinese ink painting and "fragrant cloud gauze," a type of traditional Chinese fabric that is known for its fine and delicate weave.

Born in 1997, ICICLE has a vision deeply rooted in the "Natural Way." It exclusively sources natural, sustainable materials such as cotton, wool, silk, and linen.

"Our mission is to reclaim a simpler, more harmonious way of life that harks back to the days of blue skies and white clouds from my childhood," said Ye Shouzeng, ICICLE founder and chief executive. "In a world where material abundance often comes at the expense of the environment, this brand seeks to bridge the gap between modernity and tradition by promoting a modest, sustainable lifestyle."

Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability
Ti Gong

Sustainable brand ICICLE holds its opening show.

The heart of green fashion lies in its materials. Designers are exploring innovative alternatives to traditional fabrics. Organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, and recycled materials are becoming the norm. High-tech fabrics, such as lab-grown leather and bio-textiles made from mushrooms, are also gaining popularity for their minimal environmental impact.

Another particularly exciting trend is upcycling. Designers are turning discarded textiles and clothing into new, unique pieces, reducing textile waste and giving old garments a second life. It's a creative approach that showcases the potential for fashion to be both eco-friendly and imaginative.

Ulio Department Store, an eco-green project initiated by the sustainable fashion platform CanU, is opened to the public during the fashion week. Both an exhibition and retailer, Ulio offers a wide range of sustainable lifestyle and fashion products, all made from organic, zero-waste, upcycled, or recycled materials.

A-LIST UPCYCLING LAB, a lifestyle brand that creates without depleting natural resources through research and application of organic and renewable materials, introduces its newest bamboo fiber shelving and pumpkin seed fiber cutlery, after the brand's first collection focused on coconut fiber research.

The sustainable accessory brand GAKI_FIBER that seeks design inspiration from the relationship between nature and humans brings its latest marine-themed handmade crafts, hoping to raise awareness of ocean conservation and biodiversity.

Memory Remake, founded by fiber artist Cao Cao, specializes in transforming discarded clothing into various creative artworks, giving old clothes a new life.

The in-store items range in price from 500 to 3,000 yuan (US$69-411), with categories covering clothing, shoes and bags, jewelry, lifestyle products, pet supplies, and more.

Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability
Ti Gong

Ulio Department Store

Some of the exhibited works follow the principles of a circular economy by reusing surplus or waste fabrics through designers' creativity and ingenuity, creating pieces that are both stylish and practical.

For example, Mitsein's woven bags are made from the brand's leftover scraps and edging strips. They are cut into strips, turned into yarn, and woven by hand to create bags that can be used in daily life.

JACQUES WEI PETS uses 90 percent of materials from the cutting leftovers and inventory fabrics from the brand's production process since its establishment, while HOHILIFE recycles coffee grounds to make household products such as cups, plates and flowerpots.

"We aim to continuously provide more sustainable products through this project, linking the supply and demand sides of the industry," said Cui Dan, founder of CanU. "We hope to educate consumers on the fact that sustainable products can also have design and aesthetic values, and gradually influence their shopping habits to choose sustainable products instead of short-lived fast fashion and trend-driven products."

Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability
Ti Gong

An Ulio space corner

BOTTLOOP, another sustainable lifestyle advocate based in Beijing, also joins the green journey. As its name suggests, the brand signifies the concept of recycling and reusing bottles, and encourages people to reflect on the relationship between bottles and life through an artistic approach.

It recycles beverage bottles, then converts these bottles into granules, which can, in turn, be used to make new beverage bottles or other products.

Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability
Ti Gong

A shopper uses a bag made from bottles.

BOTTLOOP has integrated a blockchain system throughout the entire recycling process, coupled with an ecological aesthetic approach. "It's ultimately about offering well-designed products with creative and meaningful concepts," said the founder and chief executive Liu Xuesong.

Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability
Ti Gong

Buyers wear raincoats made from bottles.

From recycling bottles, BOTTLOOP starts to collect other wastes that people generate in their daily lives. They recently collaborated with a national heritage craftsman, known for his expertise in bamboo weaving. They launched a luxury bamboo-inspired handbags made from recycled plastic bags that were crafted into strips.

Each of the products showcases the number of bottles or wastes reused in its creation, and consumers can scan a code to visualize the carbon footprint reduction enabled by their purchase.

"This engagement approach appeals to the younger generation, making sustainability not just a duty but a part of their lifestyle," said Liu.

Navigating the path toward green fashion, while undeniably promising, is not without its share of challenges.

One big obstacle is to raise consumer awareness. Educating consumers about the importance of sustainable fashion and changing their purchasing habits is an ongoing challenge.

K-Boxing, a fashion menswear brand in China, started its journey toward sustainability when the country set its carbon reduction goals.

"What I'm wearing today is from our sustainable collection launched this year," said Hong Boming, chief executive and creative director. "It used environmentally friendly yarn made from recycled plastic bottles collected from the ocean."

Shanghai Fashion Week embraces sustainability
Ti Gong

Models wear the ocean collection of K-Box.

But when promoting the collection, the sales partners suggested to him that they should avoid emphasizing that these products are made from reclaimed ocean waste.

"Instead, they told me we should simply inform consumers that these products are made by an eco-friendly and sustainable process. If we stress too much that the raw materials come from plastic waste from the ocean, it might create discomfort for many consumers," Hong said.

Raising consumer awareness about sustainability is not only a mission for the fashion industry, but also requires concerted efforts from businesses, government, mass media, educational institutions, and advocacy organizations.

Another barrier is the lack of universally recognized sustainability certifications and standards, which make it difficult for consumers to identify truly sustainable products.

One of ICICLE's sustainability efforts is using plant dying techniques. While plant-based dyes are considered a national intangible cultural heritage, there is no standards for such mass production, which makes it hard to meet national requirements.

"So we worked with professors from a textile university to address these challenges, ultimately establishing our own production standards," the brand founder Ye said.

But good things are happening in China as the country's fashion industry has been making significant strides toward embracing sustainable practices in recent years.

It has witnessed a surge in green fashion brands and startups in response to growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products. Organizations like the China National Textile and Apparel Council have introduced eco-friendly certification programs to encourage sustainable practices in the textile and apparel industry.

Brands are increasingly focusing on supply chain transparency, disclosing information about sourcing, production, and labor practices to build trust with consumers, while universities and research institutions are conducting studies and research projects on materials of tomorrow.

From fast fashion to mindful wardrobes, today the sustainable fashion movement champions timeless pieces, quality over quantity, and mindful consumption. It encourages people to build wardrobes filled with clothing that lasts, rather than constantly chasing fleeting trends. This shift is a testament to the growing awareness of fashion's environmental footprint.

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