China’s fashion consumers are observing first-hand the disastrous impact of pollution not only on the environment but also on their health and this is translating into demand for more sustainable fashion choices.

In fact, a Chinese University of Hong Kong report in 2018, concluded air pollution caused an average of 1.1 million premature deaths in the country.

The latest ‘Green Guilt Report: Sustainable Consumption in China’ by Shanghai-based Daxue Consulting (released in April 2022) supports consumer’s growing awareness of sustainable fashion. It reveals 77% of surveyed Chinese consumers (75% of whom are based in major cities), are willing to pay 5%-20% extra for sustainable fashion products, with up to 20% of upper-class Chinese consumers open to paying double for such lines.

The sustainable fashion brands succeeding in China

On the list of prominent Chinese ‘green fashion’ brands are Icicle, which focuses on sustainability and uses natural fabrics made from natural yarns such as cashmere, linen, wool, silk and cotton, with a brand slogan of  ‘Made in Earth’. Regarding sourcing, a company note said: “We travel the world in search of outstanding textile producers with irreproachable ethical practices. Whether it is cashmere from Afghanistan and Inner Mongolia, linen from Belgium, wool from Italy, silk from China or organic cotton from Japan, our fabrics all conform to exacting standards. “ 

Ziran, which uses ‘xian yun sha silk – a sustainable and natural input using ancient, handcrafted methods to create luxury silk, has also developed sales in this growing niche.

Finally, Klee Klee, which translates into “slow down” in spoken Tibetan, uses eco-friendly materials and dyeing techniques, degradable packaging and recycled buttons, and it is another company tapping into the growing sustainability portion of the Chinese market.   

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The Tibetan name might impede sales outside of China given Western awareness of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and 1951, and the subsequent fleeing of the Dalai Lama in 1959, however these concerns are not a problem in mainland China, where most citizens view Tibet as an integral part of the country.

In a note sent to this publication, Klee Klee explained it uses non-transgenic cotton grown without using chemical fertilisers or pesticides. The entire planting process meets the requirements of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and reduces the use of artificial chemicals in the textile process and the pollution of the natural environment. Klee Klee uses vegetable dyes such as indigo and  collaborates with factories that specialise in plant dye. It also uses cleaning fabric with ozone and aims to use undyed fabric and yarn where possible. The company also makes buttons from recycled PET bio-plastic bottles that can themselves be 100% recycled.

Klee Klee’s brand manager Zhuang Qing pointed out most of the company’s manufacturers are based in Shanghai with more than half of them are based around Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejiang. It also works with ethnic minorities such as the Dulong people in the Yunnan province to develop the fabrics.  

Qing added: “The textiles come from a range of different suppliers, some local and some international. For example, we have denim fabrics from Italy and Japan. The cut and sew is done in China. We have high requirements for sustainability, so we select our suppliers based on whether they have more sustainable processing equipment and expertise. For example, one of our suppliers does an O3 wash, which uses the oxidation process to wash away some dye and get the colour we want. For other denim wash factories, we require them to have water processing facilities to make sure the waste water is properly processed.”

Klee Klee also has a long-term partnership with a bio-dynamic silk-making farm that is GOTS-certified and offers fair pay. Klee Klee uses the silk the farm produces to make its products.

The strength of the ‘Made in China’ tag

“The main factor that contributes to these brands’ success is the rejuvenation of the ‘Made in China’ tag, which usually comes with stereotypes of low-quality and was generally perceived negatively in the past,” explained Denise Cheng, an analyst at China market research company, Daxue Consulting.    

Referring to China’s “national tide” trend of replacing foreign brands’ dominance with that of local brands in a wide range of products, such as fashion, she said: “Whilst riding the ‘Guochao’ wave, these brands also focus on sustainability and create ethical fashion products with bold and aesthetic designs, ditching the fast fashion mentality.”  

Similarly, another market observer, Anaïs Bournonville, head of the luxury division at Shanghai-based consultancy Gentlemen Marketing Agency (GMA), said “green fashion” as a market had strong potential if brands manage to incorporate this factor in a smart and localised way.   

“While international brands have trouble engaging with the Chinese consumers on the topic of sustainability, Chinese brands use the artistic and emotional approach to share their values,” Bournonville said.  

“By highlighting the importance of family values, dedication to the next generation, and protection of mother nature, brands get a higher level of engagement with their customers,” she added.   

On the manufacturing side, Bournonville explained that most Chinese manufacturers appreciate the growing potential of green fashion for both Chinese and Western markets, being strongly conscious of their unique selling point of making sustainable fashion at a competitive price. Bournonville pointed out also that some sustainable materials are also widely available in China, such as recycled PET, which is helping brands to produce sustainable collections with larger volumes and lower costs.  

China’s national carbon neutral goal

On the policy side, Fan Di, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing, says Chinese fashion and textiles industries have an urgent need to move toward green fashion in part due to China having set the national goal of achieving carbon neutral by 2060. Given the strong role government plays in China, Fan noted public policy has a significant impact on corporate decision making within the country.   

“After the goal set by the central government, local governments will develop local plans to reduce carbon emissions, and these plans will inevitably pressure manufacturing sectors to reduce carbon emissions, making companies in these industries encounter more stringent environmental regulations and enforcements,” Fan explained.  

Meanwhile, developing sustainable or green fashion is a way for Chinese fashion and textiles industries to add value to their products, compensating for China’s increasing production costs and helping them compete with “rivals in southeast Asia who have a low-cost advantage,” he added.   

Fan explained many of the manufacturers that have jumped onto the green fashion bandwagon are companies that initially needed to follow the sustainability requirements requested by overseas customers.

The International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 14001 standard on environmental management system certification for example, has been widely adopted by Chinese fashion and textiles companies. Many firms have also adopted Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards on disclosing sustainability information.  “Using these internationally prevailing practices can increase legitimacy of their green practices,” Fan noted.   

The fine balance between price and quality for sustainable brands in China

“On the other hand, although sustainability has become an increasingly important factor, product price and quality are still critical to Chinese consumers. This means Chinese fashion brands need to balance the tradeoffs between ‘being green’ and ‘low price’, by trying to avoid transferring too much of the cost of green products to the consumers,” he added.   

Dan Wang, the Shanghai-based chief economist of Hang Seng Bank (China), says that on the consumer side, she is not sure if the green fashion trend can trickle down to areas outside of China’s major ‘Tier 1’ cities “because people are indeed still price sensitive” in smaller towns and cities.

On the financing side however, Wang noted that banks are now issuing special loans to companies that are making efforts to lower carbon emissions, given they are likely to pick up business as a result.    

“My bank has a client in the fabric industry, who tracks carbon emissions in every step of their clothing production and shows [that information on] their labels,” said Wang: “Government purchases, including through state-owned enterprises, universities and other public sectors, will lead much of the effort by allocating more money to buying those green fashion products for their employees,” she added.   

Given such pressure from government, and the shift in consumer awareness, China’s huge market for clothing and textiles is likely to become increasingly focused on sustainability.  

This article originally appeared in Just Style.