“If you buy cheap, you perpetuate the idea that other people are paying for it”, Redress founder Christina Dean discusses the sustainable fashion industry and Greenswashing

We sat down with Christina Dean, the founder of Redress, an environmental charity that aims to “prevent and transform textile waste to catalyse a circular economy and reduce fashion’s water, chemical and carbon footprints”, to talk about Sustainable Fashion.

Christina founded Redress in 2007, and currently serves as the Board Chair. In 2017, she founded The R Collective, a “social impact upcycled fashion brand with a mission to create beautiful clothes using waste materials”. She authored the book “Dress [with] Sense: The Practical Guide to a Conscious Closet” in 2017, and has made waves in the sustainable fashion industry.

When I asked Christina why and how she decided to found Redress, she humbly said, “It was luck, really”.

2006, as Christina remembers, was a pivotal time when sustainability was beginning to go mainstream. The fashion industry was changing quicker than ever before, and fast fashion became more visible to the public eye. She was working as a journalist at that time, and was researching topics concerning public health when she “stumbled upon [waste produced by the fashion industry] by accident”. As someone who was living in Hong Kong, Christina was even more shocked to find that a large amount of the pollution was happening in China, which was even more of a global exporter of clothing than it is today.

And so Redress was born out of the desire to draw attention to the impact of pollution on the environment, and perhaps even more concernedly, people’s health.

As someone who had just moved back to Hong Kong from Vancouver, my primary observation was that Hong Kong seems to be less ready than most Western countries to embrace sustainability. I had previously attributed this lack of readiness to the traditional Confucian value of (sometimes extreme) frugality.

Christina agreed that “most people don’t want to pay more for anything”, but she also drew attention to the fact that most people actually had no idea how much fashion actually costs.

“Cost of [buying] fashion has come down in the last 20 years, but the human labour and cost of producing clothing has gone up.”

Since fast fashion has become popular, people have been buying clothing for a ridiculously low price. Some t-shirts are made for a mere $5, and sold for 3 times the price. Yet, absolutely very little of the profit margin—sometimes as little as $0.17—is used to pay for labour costs.

The idea that the production of clothing is cheap, she asserts, was perpetuated by the rise of fast fashion. Fast fashion only costs so little because the labour force is being exploited—made to work in harsh, sweatshop conditions with little pay, if any at all, to cuts overhead and labour costs. As Christina eloquently states, “if you buy cheap, you perpetuate the idea that other people are paying for it”.

And this is certainly true. As with the infamous Rana Plaza incident, the price of fast fashion is generally the lives and freedom of those who are simply less fortunate than we are.

Of course, it is easy to say that everyone should buy high quality, long-lasting clothing. But the reality of the situation is that these items are going to be more expensive, and those who do not have as much spending power are going to be unable to afford them—“those who don’t have money should not have to spend more”.

Yet, as Christina says, this should not be an excuse to buy cheap. She asserts that with today’s technology, we should be able to have recycling technology for low-cost clothing. It is unrealistic to expect the fast fashion industry to become totally sustainable, but there is definitely a necessity for the industry to improve. “Philosophically speaking, should be good, and not less bad”, Christina says. But she—and the rest of us—are aware, this is not exactly practical.

Therefore, Christina finds it comforting that large companies—including fast fashion companies such as H&M and Zara—are making an effort to become more sustainable. There are, of course, criticisms of recent sustainability movements by corporations for “greenwashing”. Here, Christina expressed her distaste for the term.

“Greenwashing” is defined as “the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice”. Nowadays, it is commonly used to express the idea that a certain company performs acts of sustainability as a marketing tactic.

Media outlets—as well as individuals—who criticise fashion brands on the premise that they are advertising their sustainability initiatives “for publicity” might be mistaken in assuming that the intent of the company must automatically negate the awareness that the initiatives have brought about.

Christina holds an even more optimistic view. She “genuinely believe[s] that by and large, the intentions today are to do the right thing. Big global businesses are run by good people—what we’re looking at is a very complicated and fragmented business”.

After all, sustainability is still in its early stages. Christina urges us to consider that, “as with innovation in raw material, you can have a new material innovation, but it can take 10 years to get into a product. Nothing happens overnight.”

As for businesses that are still on the brink on deciding whether to “hop onto the sustainability wagon”, Christina urges that they jump into it quickly. With regards to the businesses are afraid to adopt a more sustainable model because they perceive it as not cost-effective, Christina argues that anyone will say they want a sustainability business, and that these two concepts are more tightly knit than many realise.

The environment is deteriorating fast—there is so much “instability in the supply chain due to climate change”. The water supply crisis, the depletion in raw materials and fossil fuel… All of these are challenges that the fashion industry is facing, and they all require the fashion industry to change its current practices.

Not only is the environment changing, the business environment is also changing at the same pace. Christina notes that there has been various instances of social unrests in the recent years calling for sustainability: “consumers are demanding it, the new generation are a different breed. They are expecting more, and it is only going towards that direction”.

And so it follows that fashion brands and businesses must alter the way they do business if they are to expect profits. In the age of the Internet and social media, any wrong step could result in backlash. Recently, what has been deemed “cancel culture”, which refers to a form of boycott where fans completely boycott the target, has become a common Internet culture, especially among Gen Z.

As several market and business analysis reports have shown, sustainability has become an integral concern for Millenials and Gen Z—and especially so for the latter. Therefore, it follows that the only way to mitigate this kind of backlash is to embrace sustainability as a part of its core values.

Like Christina says, “They shouldn’t be in business if they think [sustainability is not cost-effective].”