The Social Entrepreneur Recycling Fashion Waste Into Couture

SLIDESHOW: “We hope for a future where the words ‘sustainable fashion’ will no longer be used; because fashion will become inherently more sustainable,” says Michelle Bang.

CEO Michelle Bang and her BYT team are making it their mission to go to zero on fashion waste.

The fashion industry is soaring — in profit and in waste. On a global scale, we consume 400 percent more clothes than we did 20 years ago. This only pushes up the amount of needless surplus generated by the textile industry. China alone produces 26 million tonnes of textile waste per year.

With the rise in conspicuous consumption, and the fall of refitting and fabric-fixing habits among homemakers, a throwaway culture is pervasive. Many are binning their lowest-priced outfits after only seven to eight wears. No wonder thrown-out textiles are reaching landfills as quickly as fast-fashion giants are launching the newest collections in stores.

It also doesn’t help that it costs less for garment manufacturers to discard the scraps from cutting-room floors than to recycle them. But some impassioned individuals have made it their decade-long mission to work towards making it easier to reduce these kinds of waste.

A former journalist and dentist, Christina Dean seemed an unlikely figure to head a movement of promoting sustainable fashion. However, her foundation of Hong Kong-based NGO Redress has inspired many, especially through the EcoChic Design Award — a sustainable fashion design competition open to designers in Asia, Europe and the US.

This year, the winner will meet BYT’s team in Hong Kong in September, including CEO Michelle Bang, to discuss their prize and the BYT brand. Borne from the sustainable success of Redress, BYT is a for-profit extension of the charity’s work. Its first capsule collection focuses on up-cycling discarded luxury fabrics, such as those from Stella McCartney and Hugo Boss, into sophisticated apparel and accessories for women at an affordable price point. The finished products will retail on the social enterprise’s future e-commerce platform and at Lane Crawford. Bang says: “We want existing businesses to sit up and watch what we’re doing to make a positive impact, and to hopefully follow suit.”

Forays into sustainable fashion are not new. A big brand such as H&M got plenty of press with its Conscious Collection launched a few years ago. However, unlike big fashion chains, BYT’s business model is solely focused on reducing textile waste on a large scale, offering an alternative or add-on to existing luxury brands’ waste-reduction programmes.

Bang also hopes to capture demand for well-made green creations, particularly from the Asian market where such offerings are scarce. “Our intention is to introduce expert craftsmanship around design; that is to introduce new ways around waste reduction in fashion, including implementing and educating on innovative sustainable materials and production methods.”

She adds: “The fashion and textile industry is the second-biggest environmental polluter globally, behind oil, and the second-biggest polluter of clean water. We hope for a future where the words ‘sustainable fashion’ will no longer be used; because fashion will become inherently more sustainable. The industry must move towards less wasteful and less polluting practices as a whole, or we all face dire consequences in climate change.”

Michelle Bang is the Hong Kong finalist for Chivas Regal’s The Venture, a US$1 million fund to find and support social enterprise globally.

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SLIDESHOW: “We hope for a future where the words ‘sustainable fashion’ will no longer be used; because fashion will become inherently more sustainable,” says Michelle Bang.