Through this episode of Entrepreneurs For Good, I speak with Christina Dean about the problem of waste in the fashion and textile industry, and the work she is doing at Redress to bring awareness and solutions to the forefront.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
About Christina Dean
Christina is the heart and soul of Redress. Since she started Redress in 2007 as Founder and spokesperson, and has steered the organisation’s powerful course towards a more sustainable future with less waste in the fashion industry.
Voted one of the UK Vogue’s Top 30 Inspirational Women, Christina delivers the Redress message to the world through talks, seminars, thought-leadership pieces and documentaries.
The indefatigable ex-dentist and journalist consistently drives the organisation towards inspiring positive environmental change in the world’s second most polluting industry. To Christina, Redress is not just the future of fashion but the future way of living.
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Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
I’m Christina, and I’m the founder of Redress. We are an NGO reducing pollution and waste in the fashion industry. Probably my ultimate mission is just to inspire people to kind of get active with being a part of a solution.
The original problem we were trying to address is the rampant pollution coming from the fashion textile industry and we’re still trying to do that. But ultimately after 9-10 years of experience in this sector what we’re really trying to do is question human’s relationship with consumption and trying to awaken people’s minds to better ways of consuming and using and disposing.
EVERYTHING IS A MESS
Well, honestly, the industry is facing way too many problems for me to be able to isolate it. Firstly, taking a whole look at the entire fashion and textile industry, it’s the second biggest global polluter and so if you want to look at pollution, you’re going to have to address water, chemicals, carbon, green house gases, the whole spectrum of pollution and its all coming out of the fashion and textile industry. Of course, if you wanted to isolate the absolute worst of the worst, I think you could possibly isolate water.
The textile industry causes about 20% of all industrial and water pollution and in China, the textile industry is probably the second biggest water polluter in China. You’ve got to think, ya know, see China has got a huge industry across multiple sectors. So, even if you look at China the amount of, if you look at China…if you look at the pollution coming from the textile industry in China, the textile industry is actually causing twice the amount of pollution for water than the coal industry. And China’s coal industry is actually supplying around 50% of the world’s coal. So, I mean that’s, that’s just looking at textile, sorry, that’s just looking at water as being one major problem with the textile industry.
When you start looking at the… I mean cuz there’s also chemicals. You know, you need 8,000 chemicals to turn the raw material into a fabric. Eight thousand different chemicals. One pair of jeans requires three kilos of chemicals. And when you just multiply that by the amount of clothes that are being produced out there, it’s truly horrific.
CHANGING CONSUMER HABITS
Well, I think if consumers keep going with buying, buying and dumping, dumping, then we’re not going to address the problems of the fashion industry. Which will mean, that the fashion industry will continue to speed up, it will produce more and more clothes and it will create a lot of pollution and waste long the supply chain. And we will be continually facing a huge amount of wastage going into the landfill. So what is that going to do? It’s going to continue to damage the environment, polluting the planet and killing people.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
I think, from talking to a lot of people in the industry, is that the biggest threat…if you could look the industry is facing almost every single challenge that you could possibly think of. But if you really wanted to nail it down to something, what the industry really needs is a reliable, sustainable, renewable, cheap source of new fibers. Because you know cotton is a mind filed of problems and recycle polyester is wonderful.
I mean we’ve got a whole spectrum of materials and fibers that you’re feeding into the textile industry and the search is on for the miracle fiber that you can feed this monster with less of an impact and that is what fashion brands need. Because they know that most textile garment fashion businesses know that they can’t source the way that they did before because there’s competition for food, for land to grow food, versus fibers. You’ve’ got under priced resources like water. You’ve got consumer awareness that has spiked in recent years an you’ve got a chancing consumer sentiment. So basically sourcing has to change.
REDUCING WASTE. IT’S OBVIOUS
The reason we focus on waste reduction is because it’s so obviously an environmental benefit to reduce waste and its also an economic benefit for anyone wanting to improve their bottom line, reduce waste. I mean, come on it’s obvious. So that’s why we want to reduce waste because we think that we can demonstrate, impact that way. If you want to reduce waste and you want to go talk to a brand and you want to a supplier, the doors open. Because everyone loves reducing waste. So that’s why do that. Why we are not trying to find the miracle new fiber, because honestly the solution will probably for that will come from technology and we are not, ya know, I can barely operate Facebook. So you know we are not going to be going down that route.
We are an educational organization essentially a social enterprise driven by education. So, in order to do that, we have to make money. The ways we make money are, entrepreneurial at the very spirit, but completely varied according to where we’re digging for cash. If we’re looking in the supply chain, or if we’re looking for cash from consumers and funding. So we don’t have any one funding model that actually serves us because we’re not actually serving a product or making a product. Instead we’re basically incredibly creative about getting money out of people, companies and organizations and governments.
So another model that we’re working on and it’s a business model, although I’d like to be richer on it. The model is we take clothes from people who use them..the business model is that we get clothes donated to us and then we sell them. It’s pretty easy, but we could collect say in a year, year on year is different, lets just say 20 tons in a year, 15-20 tons in a year, But we can probably only sell about 3% of that through our popup shops. so it’s a goo funding mechanism. It doesn’t really kind of touch the sides of the budget, but it does help a little bit. and Of course, it’s not, when you run a social business or a social enterprise, it isn’t about the money. Yes, you’ve got to grow, you’ve got to make money, but you also have to change people so you can’t always value things by the dollar.
CONVERTING CONSUMERS IS DIFFICULT
It’s not easy to convert a fashion consumer. It’s really difficult because if you look at organic food, it’s obvious right? People are selfish. They want the best for themselves, so if you eat organic, you’re going to be healthier, hopefully.
But people, to be really a conscious fashion consumer, you have to be very altruistic and you have to be able to think beyond your wardrobe and your daily life. You need to be be able to think of the cotton farms, of the garment workers, of the people living their polluted rivers.
To do that, it requires an emotional kick up the you know what. And you can’t do that in one second it takes a lot to really inform someone like that. Inform someone to be able to change, and you have to..the problem with fashion as well as that its so deeply emotive. You know, what we wear is so important and so to ask peole to really make big changes over the outer appearance of their clothing, is actually to ask quite a lot.
The way to convert people is to make them understand that 1, the fashion industry is so polluting. It’s not just causing problems with the environment, dirty, dirty rivers, it is literally killing people. That’s number 1 and of course, this huge amount of social issues that comes with our clothes.
If you can lodge those two things into people’s minds and certainly nail it home by saying every time you buys something, you’re actually part of that. Because you’re buying that. You’re paying for all that suffering and if that’s what you want to do…well, no one actually wants to do that. That’s the good thing and I do think that most people are great and they truly don’t want to be a part of that. They just don’t understand that its’ that bad.
So the way to change them is that you’ve got to make them realize that they’re part of that. It’s changing people and we changed so many people because people who come to our pop-up shops are on the hunt for a deal. They are not kind of green, they don’t have a halo shining as they walk through the door. They’re looking for clothes. They want nice clothes. They become very inspired that you can actually get great second hand clothes. So we do convert people while they’re in our stores.
CARROTS AND STICKS
Now I think, its a carrot and a stick. I think you have to paint the harsh reality of the truth. That is, you know, the stick. The carrot comes in the form of saying, what fundamentally is fashion? It is the most beautiful, creative, expression of who you are as a human spirit. If we can capture that positive, that positive thread of fashion and make it ethical, make it value the planet, then you can actually love dressing in a more sustainable, ethical way. In fact, when you become more in tune with the fashion industry and you dress more ethically, what you…I’ve discovered that you actually start to enjoy style so much more because it has meaning.
I would love to say that our message resonates with Millennials, because you know that is such a powerful group, but I actually think we are talking much more to the more sort of older group of 25-45ish more woman than men. We talking a lot, I think to people who are searching for something else in their life.
CHANGE THROUGH COLLABORATION
At the end of the day, we’re just 10 people. We ya know, we have a huge mission. We are 10 people and we are up against one of the biggest industries in the world, which actually look at the fashion and textile industry, it’s the second biggest economic trade. So, are we going to be able to dent that industry if we work alone? Of course not. You have to work with industry to change industry.
So one example of one brand that we have been helping is Shanghai Tang, obviously China’s leading luxury brand. We partnered with them for a couple of years on one of our projects, which is the sustainable fashion design competition. Basically competition, we find a winner, the winner goes work with Shanghai Tang, designs a collection and the collection is made using up cycled fabric waste. It’s all of the fabric inventory and excess that is lying around from previous collections from Shanghai Tang’s business and with our designers who we’ve trained, we’ve targeted, we’ve found them, they create a collection for global retail. Now, why that is great? On the one hand, you’re educating emerging designers, you’re transforming the ethos amongst emerging designers, but then we flip over and we effect the business. So we are looking at transforming supply chains of some big fashion brands in order to put upcycle products into their store. Ultimately because we want consumers to buy more sustainable options.
Shanghai Tang’s reason for getting involved with us is because I think number one, they are a very responsible company who actually like doing good through their business. But much more than that they see the opportunity of working with our designers, who are ya know, Central Saint Martins standard. Incredible designers as reinvigorating the brand with a much edgier collection, actually that’s just in-store and also integrating sustainability into their collections. So a refresh invigoration is probably one of the unexpected benefits that we also give to these brands.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Timing’s everything. Timing in connections is actually very important you know. We’ve, had a very big partnership with a Esprit that went on for four years, big global rollouts of very mass mainstream fashion collections. People chop and chains.
These big fashion companies…their CEO’s change everyday it feels like. And you can’t actually make a long…it took about 20 mins over lunch. Well I went out, see he’s a chairman, not executive direction, chairman now. I went out with the chairman Rafa ___, he is a friend of a friend. Sat down for lunch and said do you want to partner with us on a sustainable fashion design competition. And he said yes before I really finished the sentence. And that’s because you know what I find and I you know, we speak a lot of fashion brands is that I don’t think fashion brands are like, you know the evil people in the world. It takes us all. It’s about catching them at the right time, getting in there with the right people, and selling them the right message.
WORKING WITH INDUSTRY
The benefits for us or working with…so for example, Shanghai Tang is immense because through them, we’re able to message that China’s taking sustainability more importantly and that upcycling is a business solution and that is important.
Through working with a company like Esprit for a number of years, we’re actually able to say look, Esprit, one of the biggest players out there in the more mainstream industry is looking at waste reduction in their supply chain. And that actually pushes a lot of the agenda across the industry and of course, reaching consumers as well.
EVOLVE, GO TO THE GAP
I actually think, I know this might sound really unstrategic, but the end game keeps moving. Ya know, we need to be going and doing the hardest work possible so there’s no end to this. The fashion industry is always going to be disgusting. It is. I mean, you know who are we kidding. It’s always going to be a massive, massive problems, and yes, we can try and do our best to make just some if it better, but I’ll go to my grave and it will still be really bad.
So, the end game is to evolve with the deeds of the industry and that has already changed in the last ten years. Like ten years ago we started collecting clothes and selling clothes, trying to inspire people that second hand clothes are okay. Now everyone is doing. The market is crowded with entrepreneurs, startups, for profits. Everyone is collecting clothes. You barely luck to leave this office with your shoes on. Everyone wants your old clothes and everyone is flogging clothes. So there’s not a gap in the market for us anymore, but that’s fine we are still doing it. But we need to move to where it’s harder.
One example of that is for, for example, we provide teaching materials to universities. Because universities around the world really realize that they really need to teach their design students sustainability, but most Unies are way too busy to even think about it. So we’ve created a teaching module so all they have to do is download it and teach it and I like to say any monkey could do it because…there’s your pack, read it out, teach the students.
Now, why did we do that? Because we are addressing a gap in the market. The gap is there’s a huge need to educate young designers. The universities don’t quite know how to do it. We’re there in the middle and that is what a successful social business does. It goes to where there is a gap. There is no point hanging around the gap if it’s filled up.
It’s very difficult and actually quite sole destroying if you’re a social business or enterprise because you can have a success every day, but the challenge is still so big. So I’m very proud of a lot of our successes, and even yesterday I felt really happy about a couple of things. Which is quite rare. Because really, if you’re pretty driven with your cause, the cause remains this monkey on your back and this monster. And so, yeah small successes along the way, but the challenges are still so big. There’s no point in patting yourself the back that much really.
MOVING BEYOND THE FOUNDER
CD: Sustain…no our current challenges are actually strategic, man power, internal systems, efficiency, management and funding. Always fudging, funding is always there that’s taken for granted.
RRB: So how do you overcome these challenges? Is it you against the world? Do you have a board that helps you?
RRB: Or do you talk to other entrepreneurs? Like, is it wine?
CD: No, I think…so having…I started it almost 10 years ago and I’ve been winging it for all of this time, but now as we’re growing into a big organization, we can’t just winging it. And so about a couple of well, a year ago issues we set up a new board and we’ve got a much tighter team structure with a new executive director who is reporting to the board. So what we are trying to do is move beyond a founder into a proper set up of a business with an active board, which we do. We have that now.
The problem of course, with anything is that things take time. You can’t just set up a board and expect it all to work the next day. You can’t just employ an ED, an executive director, and expect that to just happen over night. And so we are in a deep transition stage of moving beyond the sort of passionate founder to a sort of top management board structure. It’s not that difficult, it just takes time. You’ve got to keep working at it. You can’t ever really expect it to just happen. It constantly needs attention.
Well, a few years ago, must have been six years ago I went to INSEAD in Singapore and I learned so many things. But the one thing I learned was that the founder can ultimately kill the growth of an NGO and that really stuck with me as my abiding lesson from that entire INSEAD course. It was on social entrepreneurship. So I’m very conscious of being a founder and enabling the team to take it on. Personally, I can’t separate my life from Redress because I love it. But I think, I think I can that, I can walk away because I’m not really walking away, I’m just walking away to other opportunities.
IT NOT EASY, BUT IT’S WORTH DOING
CD: Yes, definitely..
RRB: What happened?
CD: Well, you know what, sometimes you can be working on a project slogging your guts out and it’s so demanding plus I’ve got, ya know, three young children. So I work really, really hard and yeah…It’s just soul destroying sometimes.
RRB: Why do you beat yourself up?
CD: I think you, I mean it’s easy to beat yourself up because when you’ve been doing it for so long, it’s your second nature. You’re not going to give up. Anyway it depends on your character. I’m not someone who gives up anyway. Yes, it’s not fun. Anyone who says its fun is definitely lying. It’s true. It’s hard work. Yeah.
PERSISTENCE AND UTTER DETERMINATION
I think another thing I’ve learned is just how long everything takes. Back in the early days, I was talking from a shaker when I was setting this organization up. You’ve got to take a 10 year view on it. I thought that’s ridiculous. I’ll be done with this with in a couple of years and 10 years on I’ve barely scratched the surface. I think a lot of people who are staring up don’t realize A, that they’re going to work themselves so hard for so long before you even see impact and even when you start to see impact, you haven’t really scratched the surface. So, persistence and utter sheer determination. Otherwise, I don’t think there is any point in starting.
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