#TrendtoTrash, it’s time to get fashionably serious – for a change. Fashion is one dirty gal and, no guys, not in a good way. She is thirsty, making her a clear target in heavily polluted China’s cleanup mission du decade, entitled “Beautiful China”. The fashion industry stands at a China crossroads: Get on the merry-go-round or get out of the polluted amusement park. So when we discuss that new “Made in China”… How does this sexy label affect the nation’s fast fashion industry?
China’s 20-year-long history environmental delinquency eased the rise of that much-beloved cheap fast fashion mistress. Nevertheless, the country’s regulatory landscape has been changing ever since the State Council approved new “Made in China 2025” (#中国制造2025#) label, my cool confidants.
Officially announced by China’s Premier Li Keqiang in May of 2015, the tag outlines a 10-year strategy for China to become known as a leader in manufacturing innovative technologies. Beijing HQ want to move away from the bad “Made in China” rap and maneuver towards the beneficial “Created in China” tag (“从中国制造到中国创造”).
How does one get sartorial with it, then?
I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty
The top 10 goals listed in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2015-2020) — China has a lot of ambitious plans indeed — contains five front-page targets that stand out:
- “Beautiful China”,
- “Health China”,
- “Intelligent China”,
- “Happy China” and
- “Agricultural Modernization”
“Beautiful China” — the only one that matters here — aims at improving China’s natural habitat. The environmental protection industry can expect an annual growth of more than 20 percent over the next years to come, with total social investment possibly reaching the heights of some 17 trillion RMB (everybody’s lost count of the 0’s at this point). Experts believe that as input in the cultivation of an ecologically responsible culture gradually goes up, the policy support for environmental protection will eventually catch up as well. “Beautiful China”, in a nutshell.
China’s current mission to build a Kingdom where the highest mountain skies are blue, the rolling grasslands are green and all Three Gorges plus Bohai Sea waters et alli run fairytale clear, forces the nation is to rethink resource allocation — if it truly wants to counterbalance economics and environment. It’s all about that water-food-energy security nexus. Nevertheless, China’s attempted kind-to-the-environment playbook evokes a variety of risks in the field of fast fashion. Given the need to protect the country’s limited water resources, the textile sector stands vulnerable, yet strategically speaking less important than food or energy security which both remain in drastic need of a safety net. In the end, the textile industry was omitted from that elusively transformative “Beautiful China” mission. Fast food for thought.
Chomping At The Bit?
Although many apparel brands have gradually been moving their operations away from China, “up to 75 percent of key fashion materials such as cotton, chemical fibers, wool, and raw silk remain vital within the nation’s production and import activities” according to the Sourcing Journal. With China’s transition towards higher-value products that stand in line with the whole “Made in China 2025” deal, both manufacturers, as well as brands in the long run, will run into challenges in terms of raw material production. The relationship between fashion and China is complicated, to say the least. With the progress of the nation’s sourcing-transparency and the prowess of its emerging green ‘n clean consumers, China’s crusade to become a full-fledged financially and environmentally stable global power may not involve the production of a Marks&Spencer shirt, let alone that of a Trump tie. China must now put on its sustainably produced thinking cap and ponder the pros and cons of fast fashion for its future (inter)national benefit.
Premier Li Keqiang in 2014 stated the nation was to declare “a war on pollution” and the 2015 Ministry of Environmental Protection’s State of Environment Report demonstrated that China’s overall environmental quality had once again decreased. The country’s seven major rivers to this day remain pure venom, hence water resources are extremely limited. And truth be told, the textile industry is a major culprit as she still contributes large amounts of hazardous chemicals to these waters. In addition, four times (!) more water is used to produce cotton clothing material than to produce the likes of crops such as rice. Think again when you’re getting seduced by the saliva-inducing bargain price tag on a chain-produced piece.
The Spotlight Burns So Very Bright
With China’s spotlight shining brightly on the key issue that is pollution, comes then a high brand-reputational risk. Paired with the new Chinese clientele’s attitude towards clothes that do not contaminate human living conditions, the largest consumer market in the world may now develop a rather different design for the future of fashion. The all-absorbing powers of fast fashion are partially to blame for the nation’s slow sustainable progress. To make matters worse, the sector hasn’t contributed greatly to the country’s GDP as of late, either. In the semi-decade that now lies ahead, China will have to decide… Does it stay on the cheap clothing merry-go-round or does it ditch the global fast fashion supply chain?
There’s no easy solution for the matter, let alone a quick fix. Released in April 2015, China’s Water Ten Plan is “a temporary set-up for textile factories to engage in national compliance standards”. Should the plan hold up, some 90 percent of textile factories would run the risk of getting shut down, for example, due to an increase in operational costs. Main textile hubs would also witness a negative thump, including the Yangtze River Delta area where, according to China Water Risk, “more than half of global chemical fibers are manufactured for apparel”. The environmental benefits of the Water Ten Plan may be fast (yet fleeting!), but the social effects could be draining. It’s a Catch-22 à la mode.
Sharing Is Caring?/!
Despite Beijing’s latest efforts in outsourcing much of its fast-fashion undertakings to Ethiopia — a USD10.7 billion loans-shot in the arm trickling in from 2010 to 2015, with the plan to create a total of 2 million jobs in manufacturing (from the construction industry to the garment industry) by the end of 2025 according to the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies — China’s trashique dilemmas remain rife.
The global fast fashion industry now stands at a China crossroads and faces an increasingly difficult Chinese operating environment, with a subsequent uncertain future to over-the-knee boot. At this point, there are two sides to the branded coin. First one is for brands to carry on their business as usual and move away from China only to buy from other countries (India, Vietnam, and Cambodia are hot right now) where they can continue to pollute. The other option for them is to simply stand side-by-side and work with their Chinese producers towards sprucing up the industry.
The time has come for the textile industry to think outside the tanned box and figure out a fresh business model for the fashion industry-at-large, with a different approach to or even full elimination of fast fashion. The rising popularity of secondhand and clothes-sharing sites such as Share2, Xian Yu and Live With Less are already doing their part in spreading the Chinese word that used items are cheaper, fashionable and better for the planet. A whole new model that leads to “Beautiful Fashion” on all accounts.
The new “Made In China” likes to take it slow and keep things personal. The label stands on the opposite end of your fast ‘n cheap guilty pleasure H&M buy on the overall fashion spectrum. Is there really room for fast fashion in a ‘Beautiful China’? 2020 will tell.
Nevertheless, with her shabby reputation, it might not be such a bad trend for the lady to take a step back. Besides, and not throwing shade at the occasional quickie here, fast fashion is more for the Frugalista, not the Fashionista.