Below is the transcript of an interview with Founder and Chair, Redress; Founder and CEO, The R Collective's Christina Dean. The interview will play out in CNBC's latest episode of Managing Asia on 10 May 2019, 5.30PM SG/HK (in APAC) and 11.00PM BST time (in EMEA). If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Christine Tan.
Christine Tan: You are British, trained as a dentist, then in 2004, you moved to Hong Kong to become a journalist. What happened during that period? What did you see? What completely changed your life and turned your entire career around?
Christina Dean: Well, I had a very unexpected few years when I first moved to Hong Kong because at that stage I was a freelance journalist writing about environmental issues primarily around Asia, and at the same time, I was still a qualified dentist. I would go around Asia providing free dental services to very needy communities, from visiting prisons and slums to working with orphans. It was this enormous exposure to two very important things, which is number one, environmental pollution and number two, the health impacts that it really has on the neediest people in Asia, that I think very much influenced why I wanted to get radically involved in solving some of these problems. What I really saw and sadly is still true today is that the fashion industry is one of the largest global polluters and China is the biggest exporter of apparel and textiles. So when I was on the road in China, it almost broke my heart to see what the fashion industry was doing to the environment and to people.
CT: What exactly did you see? Tell me what struck you.
CD: Well, I've actually once cycled all the way from Hong Kong to Vietnam throughout Southern China going through all of the major manufacturing cities, and what I saw was just overwhelming pollution – grayness, bleakness, polluted rivers, the scale of manufacturing, the color of people's faces and the misery of the people that I would pass on my bicycle, (while) cycling through China. It was a very sad awakening to the reality of mass manufacturing across multiple sectors but particularly fashion. For me, fashion has a critical role in solving a lot of the problems that it has caused because ultimately the fashion industry is a beautiful industry which should be there for creativity and self-expression. It is an art form and it is such a wonderful way for us to express who we are. But at what price are we willing to enjoy this industry – that's the big question that I haven't yet really been able to answer in the 12 years that I've been so focused on this issue.
CT: Well, you started Redress in 2007. What was the initial idea behind the non-profit organization? What did you set out to achieve?
CD: When I first set up Redress in 2007, what I wanted to achieve was to raise awareness about sustainable fashion. I had this one question which was: why can't fashion be more sustainable and why can't it be less bad on the environment? What I ultimately want to do in those early days was to just simply raise awareness about better ways of making fashion and we did that for a few years until we sort of realized, is raising awareness enough? It's not. You have to actually be able to provide solutions as well. So if I could look at the 12 years of Redress, I would say the first three to four years was awareness and then we started to build up the idea of solutions as well.
CT: What did you learn about starting up a non-profit organization? What were some of the earlier challenges you faced getting it off the ground?
CD: Well (laughs) I mean, I've had every challenge under the sun. Obviously, I had never started a non-profit before. I had no experience in the fashion industry. I was a newcomer to Asia, to Hong Kong. I didn't speak Chinese. So, yes I've been through it all. Where do I start? I mean fundraising is a huge challenge. Setting up the legal entity is actually not that difficult. But I think one of the big things that I have had to overcome and still do to this day is mindset. In the early days, when I talk about sustainable fashion, people would slightly sort of glaze over as if I was some sort of niche fashionista wanting to do something good. And for me, that was very difficult, to try to validate the importance of sustainability.
CT: It was hard getting people to be serious about the issue.
CD: Yes, people would just say, "Oh, it's a trend", "oh, isn't that nice", when actually this is a global political, environmental, economic crisis that we're facing that is actually affecting our world, our planet and our climate right now. So in the early days, mindset was a big burden for me. Luckily I don't have that today. Then of course setting up an NGO quite honestly I'm going to say, is pretty easy. But what's not easy is maintaining it, scaling it, delivering impact and measuring that; expanding your donor base and really proving that you are achieving your mission.
CT: You're obviously very determined. What were some of the personal lessons you've learnt along the way?
CD: I've been through a lot of pain, angst and stress to be where I am today. Personally I think the lesson that I have learnt is to pursue what you genuinely believe in. There are days that I wake up, of course I'm exhausted and I have huge challenges ahead, but I know that it's what I believe in. I'm after the dream of proving that fashion can be a force for good. And I feel very passionately about that so I'm willing to be dragged through the hedge backwards, kicking and screaming to do that.
CT: You essentially zeroed in on one thing, which is waste management in the circular industry. And you chose to focus on upcycling as opposed to downcycling. Why is that a better option?
CD: Well, back in the early days when I first founded Redress, we actually were promoting sustainable fashion in all of its many forms, which could have been organic, sustainable raw materials, upcycled, recycled, women's cooperatives, fair trade, et cetera, any type of sustainability. And after a few years, I found that that was too broad and not very easily quantifiable. So as a result of that, we really reduced our mission very specifically to reducing waste in the fashion industry by promoting the circular economy. The reason for that is because I want to deliver results now. The planet is in an immediate crisis and we need to be immediately slowing down waste, slowing down the fashion industry and delivering environmental savings. And the best way to do that is through reducing waste and upcycling. Every year, the industry is generating 92 million tons of industry waste; and of that fabric, we are saying that roughly 95 percent is recyclable. So then my mission, and the mission of Redress and The R Collective is to capture these materials, rescue them and put them back into the fashion industry by upcycling them into products of higher quality, keeping them in the supply chain at a garment level rather than a rag. Why would you put luxury quality durable fabrics into your car seat when you could in fact put them into your jacket and keep them at that high value?
CT: Well, essentially, upcycling means you're challenging the way fashion is made, isn't it? I mean, it requires input and creativity. Has it been easy finding these so called 'eco designers' at the beginning?
CD: Upcycling is a completely different way of doing fashion because without upcycling, you design into waste. From a design perspective, you have to find your waste and then you've got to find a way of designing that waste back into fashion so the need to think differently is radically there. So we need to train designers to see waste as an opportunity and to design into it rather than have fantasies about different colors that are driving new production. Let's use what we've actually currently got.
CT: You're trying to educate consumers in a programme called Frontline Fashion, which is now into its third season. It's a documentary which tracks the progress of these young designers as they vie for the Redress Design Award. Are you essentially trying to create a new breed of sustainability-conscious fashion designers in the process?
CD: Absolutely. We really want to educate consumers around the world to change the way that they react to and engage with fashion. So Frontline Fashion is a documentary series that is following emerging designers as they battle it out to prove that they can create marketable and desirable quality clothes out of waste. The reason we started it was obviously because we wanted to cultivate appetite and awareness around consumers because without that, we can't really shift the industry. The other thing that I've experienced over a decade's worth of work is that there is enormous momentum, innovation and drive in the next generation of design and level. At the moment that's locked into the industry, classrooms and studios around the world, so Frontline Fashion really bridges that gap to help consumers understand there are innovations and solutions out there, and we put this into an entertainment type of format that consumers can enjoy. Really for me it's driving their appetite, their interest and their desire because that is what fashion is. It's an emotional reaction.
CT: Ultimately, they have to be the ones that make the choice.
CD: And they have to want to enjoy it. You know for me, it's about style, ethics, values and who you are. I'm enormously hopeful that consumers around the world care about the future of the planet. So if you can link that care of the planet with something that's absolutely beautiful, it's going to make them feel good.
CT: How did you galvanize people to buy into that idea of putting it into a program to create awareness?
CD: It's super easy to inspire people to want to do what we want to do. The real trick is fundraising because ultimately everything boils down to how much money you've got.
CT: How much money did you put into that show?
CD: We've put a sizable amount of money into that show in terms of a total Redress operational budget, but we've only been able to achieve that high quality production because we're in partnership with a production company who believes in us and are really our partners. So our sweat, blood and tears are their sweat, blood and tears. So we're able to really deliver a much greater, longer, better produced, high quality documentary series on a smaller budget. I would like to have 10 times the amount of budget so we would do 10 times more. But this is the reality we're facing, that we're constantly fundraising.
CD: (At the temporary sorting location) This is a temporary sorting location for quick response donations of fabrics – so fabrics that are unwanted by brands, mills or manufacturers. This is one place we bring them to first assess them to decide where they're going to go and what we're going to try to do with them. So this is just a small snapshot of some of our fabrics.
CT: Okay, so eventually they come here and you sort them out – whether you want them for The R Collective and then you decide how much of it should go to the textile bank?
CD: Yes, we receive so many different types of fabric so when they come here we first assess them. And this is a very central location where brands can quickly donate because a lot of the time some brands want to get rid of it (snaps fingers) very, very fast. So it will come in here and we will start to look at it and assess where it needs to go to next. With the textile bank, our goal is to keep the fabrics in the right next life. So we will assess if this is a good fabric to go to The R Collective and then obviously, it goes back into fashion or it will go into the textile bank to be redistributed to universities, schools, other NGOs, charities and emerging designers to really help them access waste materials.
CT: A lot of these fabrics that I see are still in pretty good working condition. Why would anybody want to discard them?
CD: Well, there are many reasons why the industry will get rid of fabrics. Some of these have come from a design and sourcing company. So, they've created their own sort of inventory of samples to create designs for brands around the world and this is just sampling wastage that they don't want anymore, which is why you can see some of it's quite small end-of-roll. Others are from brands where they have discontinued lines or some brands that are narrowing down their assortment. So, for example, we'll have brands that now don't want to do as much cashmere or as much athleisure within the total assortment. That means that they're left with fabrics that they just don't need anymore. And one of the many problems for the industry is that rental costs are going higher and higher. So, bearing the cost of storing fabrics that they ultimately are not going to use, is not worth it.
CT: So if you don't take them, where will they end up?
CD: It's a slippery slope of where these fabrics would otherwise end up. Now, the key is that we need to rescue them quickly and we tend to find that if someone wants to get rid of it (snaps fingers), they want it gone now. So we rescue them. If we don't take them, there's the strong possibility that they'll end up in landfill or incineration, or they will be sold to the secondary textile market which we call 'jobbers', and thereon, they will be sold into other markets which we're happy with. From there on in, we have a sort of shady slippery slope of these fabrics having the strong risk, if we didn't rescue these, that these fabrics would be downcycled. So what that ultimately means is that these perfectly good high quality fabrics will be chopped up into small pieces very roughly by mechanical processes, and what that does is damage the fibers quite significantly, then it ends up as padding material or carpets or insulation materials for cars...
CT: Very low value items.
CD: Low value. Rag trade materials, where environmentally, it's much better to keep these fabrics at high value as apparel rather than rags.
CD: This is a small delivery that has just come in. Things like this happen very frequently, end-of-roll, it could be something wasted. You can see they are all beautiful, quality fabric.
CT: And it's from a branded retailer?
CD: This is from a luxury brand, yes, globally known name and it is very small end-of-roll. So there's some sort of limitation in terms of how much upcycling can you can do. I mean you can't create 100,000 garments out of this but still, beautiful quality.
CT: How quickly would you be able to move this into a new home for them?
CD: We like to pass it on within six months, the quicker the better because space is always a premium. But one of the challenges really, is to find the right next use for them and the right place because we don't want to dump fabrics that we receive on someone, another NGO or another partner that doesn't need them.
CT: Who are you collecting from?
CD: We collect from many different brands, manufacturers and mills that have excess fabric and we also collect post-consumer clothing waste from obviously, consumers. So we have different waste streams coming into our textile bank. We set it up to solve the problem of there being too much textile waste out there and the lack of systems to collect it, infrastructure to store it and systems to sort and redistribute it, which is why they end up in landfill. It's a thankless task to run a warehouse for waste. It is incredibly labor-intensive. The logistics are really painful and we're working on the profitability of it. I'm optimistic but we're still in the sort of pilot stage of the financial model, of how it's actually really going to work on the longer term.
CT: Which retailers are you collecting the waste from?
CD: We have a partnership with Zara where we collect their post-consumer clothing waste which means that the customer of Zara can drop off any of their unwanted clothes into the containers in Zara Hong Kong and Macao, and we receive that. That's post-consumer clothing waste. So on the brands', mills' and manufacturers' side, we receive a huge amount of fabric from them and at the moment, it's still quite confidential who we're receiving from and the reason for that is because if you look at the history of the fashion industry, waste has only recently reared its ugly head and there are multiple reasons for that. Number one, waste has become an issue because of overproduction and overconsumption. The second reason is because of transparency. Now around the world, consumers expect transparency in the fashion industry which it doesn't yet do. Now, as a result of that, we've got a lot more brands, mills and manufacturers sitting on waste and now they're thinking, okay well, we want to do the right thing by that waste. So, working with Redress is a really good solution for them. But no one really wants to talk about their waste.
CD: Because it shows the underbelly of the fashion industry and you know, most consumers want to believe in the glossy vision of the fashion industry. Now, we're seeing of course much more awareness but really, waste isn't a wonderful topic when talking about the fashion industry, and in fact any industry.
CT: Fashion is one of the most polluted industries in the world. What other solutions are you working on to try to reduce waste in the fashion industry?
CD: The fundamental problem with the fashion industry is the linear system that it's built on. So unfortunately, up until today, most of the fashion industry relies on an archaic ridiculous system where you take from the planet, you make your product, the consumer uses it and then you waste it. So it's take, make, use and dispose. The problem with the fashion industry is that the 'use' phase has become very, very, very, very short. So the linear system is resulting in a huge amount of taking, making, short-use and dumping. That is not going to sustain the planet. Particularly if you look at it right now, 53 million tons of fibers go into the linear system every year and 73 percent of those fibers are either landfilled or incinerated. The loss of income in that linear system, just in the waste, is US$100 billion per year. So, ultimately, if we want to solve the fashion industry's problem, we need to move from a linear system to a circular system, which essentially means that we need to keep all the materials in use in the fashion industry such that nothing goes to waste. It's an ideological kind of 'nirvana' state. The way that I visualize the circular economy is very easy and it's this: if you think about how a tree falls down in forest, it biodegrades and everything in that tree gets used within the forest bed – whether it goes into nutrients, or it's eaten, or it becomes soil. That is what circular economy is, where everything is put to use whether it's water in the supply chain or the brands' cut and sew waste or on the manufacturing level or even post-consumer. I often think about a garment and I imagine it to be a tree. I think, if this garment with all of its metal, plastic, zippers and buttons were to fall into the forest floor, how would we extract that all and put it back into fashion so that nothing is wasted. That's why I said it's nirvana because it's very, very difficult.
CT: Two years ago, you created your own sustainable fashion brand The R Collective. 25 percent of the profits go to Redress. Was starting this upcycling label a way to alleviate your funding problems?
CD: Well, the reason that we started The R Collective was to prove that fashion can be a force for good. We have been talking about the ecosystem of fashion being ready for radical change. We knew that consumers wanted to buy it, there was a huge waste issue and we have incredible supply chains. So the vision for The R Collective was to put our beliefs into practice and go out there and prove it. Ultimately, the goal is to sustainably fundraise for Redress. By 2030, we're expecting fashion consumption to increase by 63 percent. Partly because of, obviously, the global population and so we have a sector that's going to grow. The fashion industry is going to grow, people are going to continue spending money on clothes and we see the opportunity to be in that in a nimble social impact type of business setup to capitalize on that growing market and to fundraise for it.
CT: So two birds with a stone?
CD: Many birds, as many birds with as few stones as possible.
CT: Before The R Collective, how hard did you have to work to raise funds?
CD: With Redress being a charity, we're constantly fundraising and the lion's share of our budget was grant-making. In my early days of Redress, I wanted to avoid grants because I believe and I still believe that real enterprises are one of the biggest ways to leverage solutions.
CT: With The R Collective, starting a fashion label is one thing but trying to make it profitable is another. What did you have to do to get sales going? Were consumers receptive to the idea of buying sustainable fashion?
CD: We've strategically launched The R Collective at a real tipping point in the consumer mindset. We know so many market research surveys that indicate huge groundswell in interest around sustainable fashion and particularly, in emerging markets which is quite unexpected. Now of course, what people say and what they do is never the same thing but from the reports that we've based on, we believe we've got a large market to go for. The total womenswear market globally is estimated at US$689 billion and according to the Business of Fashion, around 1 percent of that total womenswear market is actually sustainable fashion. So if that is actually true, you're looking at a US$6.8 billion market just for sustainable fashion annually. So we're excited about that. We knew that the timing was right to launch The R Collective. So to get sales going, we selected strategic wholesalers to get our product into the hands of the consumers.
CT: Was it easy doing it?
CD: Getting retailers to stock us was pleasantly comfortable. I wouldn't call it easy. Our daily collections were bought and retailed by Lane Crawford, Asia's leading luxury department store and also Barneys in New York which is really a very forward-thinking retailer. I think the beauty of The R Collective is that we're in the market at the right time – retailers want interesting stories and next generation sustainable, ethical fashion that's design-driven at accessible prices.
CT: So it's great timing for you.
CD: All about timing. Now is really the time not just to launch a sustainable fashion brand, but actually to solve this problem because we are actually running out of time and that is really what is driving us.
CT: So, out of curiosity, what sort of sales and profits are you putting in for The R Collective?
CD: We're in our second year and we have increased our sales year on year. So we're very delighted with our growth and we're increasing our stockists – not just Lane Crawford Hong Kong, China, but we also stock now in London and in New York. So I'm really pleased with that. We're going for a 50-50 wholesale and direct-to-consumer model, so we're expanding our direct-to-consumer marketing and we're really delighted that we're increasing the flow to our website by 150 percent.
CT: Do you think consumers today are more willing to pay good money for clothes that are produced in a responsible way? Is there a limit as to what they would pay for sustainable fashion?
CD: There is always a limit to what a consumer will pay for anything. So, we're targeting the affordable luxury womenswear market which for us starts at US$88. The more simple products will be up to around US$450 or US$500 for the more complicatedly constructed jackets and dresses. So, we're in the affordable luxury market and there's a huge market for that, particularly in Asia. The fastest growing segment of the fashion industry is actually that affordable luxury market. So, of course, we're not trying to compete with the low price players. That is not the market that we're in. We're in affordable luxury which is growing fast.
CT: So, whatever profits you're making, you're still plowing 25 percent into Redress?
CD: Yes. So, ultimately, we're raising 25 percent of our profits for Redress when we're stable. We're a startup, so we're not at that point yet. But we also engage with alternative fundraising streams for Redress. The R Collective is in a very fortunate position that through our sourcing, we are now able to get more waste than we actually need which actually generates an income that we pass directly to Redress, the charity.
CT: In 2013, you did a crazy thing. You embarked on The 365 Challenge, where you wore discarded clothing for one entire year. What sort of message were you were trying to send out?
CD: Well, I wore everybody's cast away clothes for one year because number one, I wanted to see was why people threw these clothes away. Ultimately, the message was that you could still look so great, be creative and enjoy the fashion industry with clothes that had been chucked away. Ultimately, consumers need to take that message on because we've got an enormous cycle of buy and chuck, buy and chuck, and it's completely unnecessary.
CT: So what's the trick to wearing second-hand clothing with style? Give me an example.
CD: The trick to wearing second-hand clothes is to be yourself, be confident, love who you are, know what your style is and go out with a lot of attitude and joy.
CT: Was it easy finding second-hand clothing that you wanted to wear? Be honest.
CD: Overwhelming. I mean we're talking hangers of clothes that are freshly donated into clothing bins. So you would open one bag and find Prada and the next one would be a nappy. So you really don't know what you're going to find. Was it easy? Yes, it was overwhelmingly easy because the scale of what I had access to was out of this world. The problem probably was trying to decide what to wear.
CT: As an NGO, Redress has been around for more than 10 years and is still surviving. As the founder, how exactly do you keep your vision alive all these years?
CD: I think the vision is so in my gut and it's something that I wake up with every day. It's a true belief and there's no way I can turn my back on this. It's my life's calling and I think it's a true responsibility for us as leaders today to do the right thing; to protect the planet and ensure this place is somewhere to live in for future generations. So my vision is there and it's a deep passion. I do get exhausted, I do feel very frustrated and I do feel very angry.
CT: Does that happen very often?
CD: Yeah it does. I look at the statistics and it does make me genuinely very angry because at the cost of fashion, is it worth it? And it's not. So for me, I have a level of anger but I have to channel that anger into optimism and inspiration in order to achieve our mission because we believe in the positive power of fashion. Even at some stage when you just feel like you want to kick the door down. (Both laugh)
CT: Well, hopefully, not all the time. You have a small team of people now working for you. Has it been easy finding good people who share that same vision?
CD: I've always been very lucky to align myself with incredible professionals who care just the same as I do and they come from different parts of the industry. So, most of the senior management have been working in the fashion industry themselves and they've popped out in the end as angry as me. So I'm really lucky that we're skilled and we have the same mission and vision. That's the only way that you can get through this because everything that we're doing is uncharted, it's never been done before. The amount of problem solving that we're doing every single day. Nothing comes easy to us and you can only get through that if you really care. Otherwise, you're out. It's too overwhelming.
CT: You've been nominated by Vogue as one of U.K.'s 'Top 30 Inspirational Women'. How exactly do you do what you do every day? Where do you get your inspiration from?
CD: I get my inspiration from knowing that I am doing what I believe in; and for me, that drives me every morning when I wake up. I know that I'm living out my values and I'm putting my energy exactly where I want it to be. That really keeps it self-perpetuating so I can find the energy and the determination to get through some big battles.
CT: How do you deal with all the negativity surrounding what you're trying to do?
CD: I just look at the statistics and I say this is what I want to be fighting for and this is where I'm going and I'm not going to stop because I truly believe in it.
CT: Do you ever want to give up?
CD: Never. I sometimes feel sad and angry but I've got enough commitment to push myself through that.
CT: And finally, after paving the way for more than 10 years in the circular fashion movement, are you happy with the progress you've made?
CD: I'm enormously happy with the progress that we've made because everything that we've done is unchartered. We're setting up a system that's never been done before. We're working with the supply chain in new ways and we're solving problems as they appear. Fashion and sustainability is unfortunately only a relatively new concept. The solutions are not always watertight so everything that we are doing is on the edge of our seats. So for that reason I'm delighted with the amount of impact that we've done because we know what it's taken to get there and to do that.
CT: So what's next?
CD: For me, the big thing that's next is building The R Collective to become the best sustainable fashion brand in the world. We've already achieved that in Asia. So building on that, we want to increase the amount of waste that we're upcycling, increase the scale of our collections and get it into more wholesalers and direct-to-consumer around the whole world. Our next five year plan is very aggressive, so we're focused on the next five years for that achievement.
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