For Esquel, sustainability starts from the ground up.
This year, the Hong Kong-based textile and apparel manufacturer unveiled phase one of Integral, its latest award-winning project in Guilin, a city in southern China. The production facility includes state-of-the-art garment and spinning operations housed in sleek, bamboo-inspired buildings.
Everything is built with sustainability and the environment in mind: the pavements are made from a mixture of concrete, discarded buttons and other materials, while specially designed glass fixtures on rooftops capture solar energy. There are modern dining halls and a gym. Cutting-edge research, covering everything from natural dyes to organic cotton production, is conducted in innovation and learning centres, and botanical gardens.
Additions at Integral are planned, including a lake and an organic garden that will be used to help feed the 1,500-strong workforce.
The facility, covering 500,000 square metres, doesn’t just look impressive – it also signals the company’s commitment to becoming a more sustainable business.
“This is a pioneering project, it’s an experiment,” says John Cheh, CEO of Esquel Group. “Admittedly it has its constraints – we can’t do dyeing here, for example, because of environmental restrictions – and not all factories can look like this. But it embodies many concepts, and these values can be implemented in many of our other factories.
“The best part of it is that our employees have already shown they love [it]. We have reduced working hours and our turnover rate is less than one per cent.”
Esquel is not the only Hong Kong-based manufacturer to be pushing their sustainability agenda beyond corporate social responsibility, by focusing on areas such as overproduction and toxic waste.
Garment manufacturing in Hong Kong began early in the 20th century. At its peak in the 1950s, the city was one of Asia’s biggest textile exporters. Although many of the larger companies moved their production out of the city, to China or to other, lower-cost countries, they still play a vital role in the textile and apparel industries.
These companies have begun innovating to tackle social and environmental issues associated with manufacturing.
TAL Apparel, which has a Leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified factory in Vietnam and developed a code of conduct as far back as the early 2000s, is one such company. It is part of the Sustainable Fashion Coalition and a signatory to the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action.
“For sustainability to make sense it has to be linked to business and relate to the products we make. We started our journey towards creating a circular economy by recycling leftovers from our cutting tables. Post-consumer recycling may be a bigger [part of the circular economy], but this happens even before the manufacturing processes,” says TAL Apparel’s president and chief technology officer, Delman Lee.
“Unfortunately, it hasn’t really picked up as fast as we would have liked – statistics show that consumers care about sustainable clothing but, when it comes to purchasing, there is a discrepancy. It means we need to go higher upstream to influence practices of brands, designers and retailers.”
In 2016 the company took a step towards this by launching a partnership with non-governmental organisation Redress. TAL Apparel offers support to participants in the charity’s annual Redress Design Award sustainable-design contest by offering visits to its factories, where they get hands-on experience of how sustainable practices can be applied along the supply chain.
It also manufactures The R Collective, a sustainable fashion brand co-founded by Redress founder Christina Dean.
Novotex Textiles, one of the world’s largest single-site spinners of yarn, is another company that has taken strides towards sustainability. Last year, it opened its first upcycling factory on the Tai Po Industrial Estate in Hong Kong. It uses a new technology called the Billie system – which provides a way for companies looking to produce high-quality yarn from excess inventory, unused raw materials and discarded clothes. The process uses cutting-edge technology to minimise its environmental impact.
“From 2006 or even before, our sustainability efforts have been more product- and operational/systems oriented. Now, it’s about tackling the textile waste in our processes, whether it’s the raw materials that fall off machines, or excess yarn that’s spun,” says Novotex chairman Ronna Chao.
While many of these initiatives are admirable, their founders acknowledge they come with their own sets of challenges. To make the most impact, they need to be scalable – which isn’t always possible. Chao, for example, says big cities are the main source of textile waste. The Billie system works best when it is close to the source of waste textiles, but would be more expensive to run in a major city.
“It’s a continuous journey. While Integral is amazing, we really have to focus on the bigger issues, which are to reduce energy and water consumption overall. We have made gains but they can’t continue forever, so it’s vital that we continue researching systems such as [enviromentally friendly] washing, which uses 90 per cent less water than is usually required for dyeing. This is more sustainable than planting a few more trees,” says Esquel’s Cheh.
It is also vital that initiatives are taken at the local level, too; most sustainability goals for the industry are being directed by organisations such as the United Nations or governments.
“A lot of advocacy needs to be done beyond the top level,” says Chao. “It makes sense for smaller communities or networks to be formed so we can all work together. We also need to be mindful at every level of production, from purchasing raw materials, to consumption. Even if I put in 100 lines of the Billie system, it can’t make an impact if people are still massively overproducing.”
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