Chinese textile industry begins gradual conversion to sustainability
The quest for sustainability has for some time been the preserve of western fashion. Yet, after China became the world’s largest apparel market last year, the country is now also witnessing a rise in the sustainability expectations on the part of local consumers. The Intertextile, Yarn Expo and Chic trade shows, held in Shanghai on March 12-14, offered firm evidence of this trend.
Last December's announcement of the inaugural Sustainable Innovation Award, organised by Kering Greater China and technology accelerator/investment fund Plug and Play, did not go unnoticed by the Chinese textile and apparel industry. In the last ten years, salary levels in what once was the ‘world’s factory’ have been steadily rising, causing a large part of its output to shift upmarket, while at the same time a spate of local brands has been launched to respond to booming Chinese demand. Local industrial groups therefore found themselves having to respond to the expectations of consumers who are increasingly clued up about pollution and health issues. A phenomenon which has become part and parcel of the yarn and fabric producers’ business.
“In the last year, Chinese brands have become much more interested in all possible sourcing alternatives for their fabrics,” said Yolanda, marketing director of Chinese manufacturer Huafu, whose recycled, sustainably dyed fabrics are used by Gap, Nike, American Eagle, Adidas, H&M, Zara and Uniqlo. “Demand for sustainable products was usually concentrated in Europe, North America and Japan. But the Chinese market is now beginning to understand it needs to move in the same direction. Chinese companies account for half of our clients. But we are in no doubt that China will soon become a major market for all types of eco-responsible textile and apparel products, as research and education on this subject gradually become more widespread in the country,” added Yolanda.
The rise of sustainable products
At the Intertextile and Yarn Expo shows, a multiplicity of sustainable products were showcased by exhibitors. The Lily Textile company, with its Green Defense project, has developed an easily recyclable anti-bacterial polyester fabric using natural ingredients like almond and cinnamon. Hua Mao Nano-Tech instead uses basalt to boost the heat-retaining properties of fabrics and make them more easily recyclable. Among its clients are Nike, Lee and Amer Sports. Hong Kong-based Nano Mintex follows a similar approach to develop its range of anti-bacterial fabrics. Zhonghuitex, Mingchen Textile, Heltin Textile and SF Fiber exhibited in a shared pavilion called EcoCosy, featuring a type of viscose described as sustainable.
Suppliers from outside China that operate in the same segment have equally understood the wealth of opportunities afforded by the Chinese market. For example, Japanese company Asahi Kasein, whose fibres are made from bio-degradable cotton, or its compatriot Toyoshima, which transforms food waste into raw material for dyes. UAE company Paradise Textile produces the Biofuze polyester, which is 72% biodegradable, in addition to a range of recycled polyester fabrics and water-free dyes. Another indicator of this trend is the fact that the Intertextile show featured a number of textile certification agencies, among them Hohenstein Textile Testing, Testex, Intertex Testing Services, SGS-CSTC Standards Technical Services and TUV Rheinland.
Exhibitors at Yarn Expo, like the only French producer of linen yarn, Safilin, shared the Chinese textile industry’s aspiration for greater sustainability. Safilin was showing at Yarn Expo for the second time, and its Development Director Hervé Denoyelle reckoned it was in 2017 that the Chinese market opened up, as the demand for high-end sustainable fabrics grew. “We are riding the ecological wave, which has become an underlying trend,” he said, adding that “our advantage lies in the fact that [linen] is naturally sustainable, while cotton requires an effort. We remain prudent, but we are undeniably seeing a huge new market opening up. Above all, we are aware that the customs duties we face in China are 6%, compared to 22% in India.”
The Chinese textile/apparel industry’s progressive shift towards sustainability cannot be separated from the increasing influence of Chinese millennial consumers. More so than their western peers, Chinese millennials have become the benchmark target, and Chinese brands are trying to keep up with them. Chinese millennials are especially wary about how brands market their products, something which the presence of nearly 300 eco-sustainable apparel labels does little to remedy.
Hence, there are genuine expectations in this respect, according to Linda Wegelin, development director of certification agency Testex, which notably works for the Oekotex label. “Chinese millennial consumers are more aware of, and feel they are more invested in sustainability than those of other countries,” said Wegelin, citing a survey which found that 37% of millennials declared they like to verify the eco-responsible claims featured on textile labels. “And they play a highly influential role when it comes to making purchasing decisions. The Chinese industry is moving in this direction, encouraged, if I understand correctly, by a five-year plan with sustainable development at its core. If the Chinese are so sensitive to these issues, it's because consumers, especially those living in major cities, see environmental damage for themselves, as in the pollution clouds we are familiar with. For them, it isn’t a theory, they experience it in practice. While in other countries, people consume better above all to feel better,” added Wegelin.
However, much like the experience of sustainable fashion in the West, there exists in China a gap between customer aspirations and manufacturing reality. For example, at the Chic trade show, whose exhibitors were both fashion labels and apparel manufacturers, very few brands had a declaredly eco-sustainable approach. Among the stands of the apparel manufacturers section, industry professionals said that, for the time being, cost still remains a significant element in sourcing decisions, as both buyers and consumers are concerned about the amounts they spend. “When being distinctive will become a necessity, I think that many will very quickly go down that road. And this may happen soon, because consumption is slowing down in [China],” said a local manufacturer whose white-label products are destined to local brands.
According to Chen Dapeng, president of the China National Garment Association (CNGA), which jointly organised the Chic show, eco-sustainability has been identified as one of the industry’s three major challenges, alongside the need to improve quality and creativity, and the need for automated manufacturing tools. For Dapeng, technology innovation will influence the shift towards eco-sustainability decisively. “We ought to be using natural products only, but we know there aren’t enough of them to satisfy demand,” said Dapeng. “Therefore, while we must encourage consumers to use natural materials, we must also find, through technology, a way to make all the other materials less polluting. This will take time. And the size of our industry will only make this evolution slower. However, this isn’t just a national problem: the entire textile industry worldwide is involved,” added Dapeng. It is a challenge that, while indeed global, will undoubtedly see one of its main battles waged at the very heart of the world’s largest national textile industry.
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