Ten years ago, the first iPhone was introduced to the world. “Back then, all you could do with your phone was make calls,” said Edwin Keh, the CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textile and Apparel. “Today it has become a system that has created a lot more value. The way we think about apparel will experience a similar change.”
Keh was talking about how technology will change the fashion industry – one of the world’s biggest offenders when it comes to carbon emissions. Greenpeace issued a wake-up call about seven years ago, when an article was published about the pollution created by jeans and bra manufacturers on the mainland. Since then, more shops have been promoting the idea of sustainable fashion (clothes that are produced with little or no impact on our environment), and it’s more popular than ever before.
Sustainability in fashion is “doing less bad, and doing more good”, Keh explained. Less bad means reducing the amount of pollutants produced and resources wasted, and doing more good means finding alternatives to toxic and energy-intensive materials.
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“Both require intention,” Keh added. “How can we do things differently from how we do them now? That’s where technology comes in.”
When it comes to doing less bad, technology isn’t so much about hi-tech machinery than it is about raising awareness of the issues among manufacturers.
Keh pointed out to us that not even that long ago, resource wastage (like using electricity to power factories not in use) was common.
“Companies [can now] track their energy and water consumption, as well as their sewage,” Keh said, and added that this helps companies figure out ways to conserve their resources. “That’s an example of how technology can help educate people.”
New, ever-evolving tech has also been able to prolong the life of materials, which is another form of doing less bad. Many fabrics now are blended – just check your own clothing tags – and recycling them was no easy task. However, with fermentation and the addition of enzymes, nowadays blended fabrics can self-separate, making it easier to recycle them for new use.
“The best thing is that the fibres don’t break down and they keep their original value,” said Keh, “They can be reused in high-value applications.”
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Fashion sustainability doesn’t just top there though. Cotton and petroleum-based fibres are standard materials that are used in textile products, but both are extremely energy and resource intensive. Cotton, for example, requires a lot of work to soften it for use, but Keh talked about a spinning method that’s used and is less harmful to the environment.
“It produces cotton that comes out soft to the touch, without chemical post-treatment,” he said. “What you have then, is a way of doing the same thing, but with better quality, less energy, and higher value.”
In addition to promoting and maintaining sustainability, technology “supports the creativity of artists and designers”.
“Fashion is both an art and a science, in many respects,” said Keh – something that rings particularly true as more people make the move towards sustainability as a whole. But what can we do to help promote sustainability in fashion?
“Nobody in Hong Kong will freeze to death if they don’t buy another garment for the rest of their life,” Keh joked. “I’m sure we could afford to turn indoor temperatures up a few degrees without people melting to death, as well.”
He advised people to research things before buying clothes, and to pay attention to the product’s performance features to check whether it’s suitable for wear in Hong Kong’s climate. “Just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it performs better,” he added, and said the ideal is for people to buy less – but then they do buy, to make sure it’s of a high quality.
Hong Kong, since it’s fist foray into the textile manufacturing industry in the 1940s, remains a vibrant fashion industry. It’s in a great position to drive sustainability efforts and to lead the way in technological research and innovation for sustainable fashion.
But it should just be down to those in charge. Technology does and will continue to play a key role in sustainable fashion, but there are things we can do too. We live in a world now where clothes aren’t treated as heirlooms to be passed down to the next generation. Instead, we see fashion as something that can be thrown away, making what we wear one day (and tossed the next) a waste of the wealth of resources – that could have been put to better, more long-lasting use.
“The business model of what we call ‘fast fashion’ needs to change,” Edwin said. “We need to cultivate a different attitude towards fashion. Technology is only one part of the solution.”