A warm coat for an Angel

The rise of on­line shop­ping habits and ‘fast fash­ion’ mean peo­ple are rapidly dis­card­ing ever more clothes. But a num­ber of green groups are turn­ing trash to trea­sure for Hong Kong’s un­der­priv­i­leged fam­i­lies. Wang Yuke writes.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS - Con­tact the writer at jenny@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

There’s an al­most stag­ger­ing vol­ume of cloth­ing in the city that falls into the cat­e­gory of things that get worn once and then are tossed aside, and never worn again. When Green­peace did a study in June, it found that the value of that cloth­ing all bun­dled to­gether was about HK$3.9 bil­lion. Green­peace also found out that each Hong Kong res­i­dent owns an av­er­age of 94 pieces of cloth­ing and 16 per­cent of it is sel­dom worn, if ever.

On the other side of the pic­ture we have Woo Chun-hung, who is wor­ried about her three kids. Cold weather moved in fast and Woo fret­ted be­cause she can’t af­ford warm clothes for them.

Many fam­i­lies are in this sit­u­a­tion, liv­ing on a sin­gle in­come at min­i­mum wage. Woo’s hus­band hardly earns enough to cover food and shel­ter.

That’s tough for a lit­tle girl like Angel Lam, the cou­ple’s youngest. She’s like any other lit­tle girl and wants to dress up like a princess. She had this one dress that she loved. It was peach pink and printed all over with pic­tures of Pokemon, the pop­u­lar Ja­panese car­toon char­ac­ter. Woo smiled as she looked at the pho­tos of Angel in her pink dress. “She wore it ev­ery­where,” her mother re­called, “meet­ing her friends, vis­it­ing my friends, go­ing out for din­ner.” Then one day another lit­tle girl said to Angel, “I al­ways see you wear­ing this dress. Don’t you have any other clothes?” There was a hint of sad­ness in Woo’s voice as she re­counted the in­ci­dent.

Angel begs her mother to buy a nice dress. Most of­ten Woo says no. When she fi­nally does give in, Woo has to buy a dress like the one her daughter wanted, but a cheaper ver­sion and a few sizes too large so Angel doesn’t grow out of it too soon.

“My friends asked me why I dress my daughter like she’s a beg­gar,” Woo laughed. It’s not funny for Angel.

Woo beats her­self up for not being able to clothe her daugh­ters in nice clothes like the other par­ents in her kids’ cir­cle. Girls are al­ways com­par­ing them­selves to their friends and tend to be self­con­scious. Judg­men­tal com­ments from oth­ers can un­der­mine their self-con­fi­dence.

It’s been this bad: When the fam­ily’s sec­ond daughter Key Lam was go­ing to sec­on­dar y school, Woo couldn’ t af­ford to give her more than HK$15 for lunch. It was HK$5 ex­tra for milk tea. Key couldn’ t af­ford milk tea and so felt ashamed in front of the other girls. “She cried. She told me be­cause she couldn’t af­ford even a cup of tea with her lunch, she had lost face with her class­mates.”

That’s why the fam­ily even hangs on to old clothes. They may be thread­bare and use­less, but they can still keep them warm around the house. Out­doors is another mat­ter. Woo dreads the days ahead when the tem­per­a­tures drop.

Woo smiles as she re­calls the day she brought home a brand new waist­coat for Angel which she’d picked up from the Chris­tian Fam­ily Ser­vice Cen­tre, a com­mu­nity char­ity. Angel jumped to her feet and slipped it on. It was a rev­ersible, made of heavy cot­ton and sure to keep her warm in the worst that the Hong Kong win­ter could de­liver. On one side of the coat was a check­ered pat­tern. The other side was solid apri­cot. “She said she loved it be­cause it was so warm and com­fort­able and that she didn’t want to take if off.”

Top threads

Green groups in Hong Kong col­lect un­used and dis­carded cloth­ing and re­cy­cle them to needy peo­ple. That has proven Woo’s sal­va­tion in her un­ceas­ing quest to take care of her fam­ily and be a good mother. Woo an­tic­i­pates the monthly ex­change mar­ket fair by the com­mu­nity ser­vice group. She hopes she can find suit­able win­ter wears from the mar­ket for Angel as she grows fast and many old win­ter clothes don’t fit her any­more.

Tin Chi Chok Wai is another group that pro­vides a to­ken ex­change plat­form for low-in­come fam­i­lies in Tin Shui Wai. Mem­bers can join in the group’s or­ganic farm­ing ef­forts or other ac­tiv­i­ties to earn to­kens that they can ex­change for sec­ond-hand ne­ces­si­ties.

As long as she par­tic­i­pates in more ac­tiv­i­ties held by the group to earn enough to­ken money, she can af­ford more clothes for Angel and make sure the girl is dressed up nicely and snugly. The mid­dle one, Key, does not worry about scorn from her peers. She has her own net­work of friends. Woo doesn’ t have a full-time job be­cause she has back prob­lems. But she is able to man­age to work as a part-time care­giver to help pay the bills.

Kid’s wear is plen­ti­ful on the sec­ond-hand mar­ket as par­ents usu­ally have a stock of hand-me-downs to give away. It’d cost Woo no more than a HK$10 to­ken to buy a nice piece for Angel. Woo “bought” an ar­ti­fi­cial leather jacket for her­self with a five-dol­lar to­ken. “Wear­ing it, I can’t be more con­fi­dent,” said Woo, beam­ing with pride.

Ja­nis Fan Pui-ying, a so­cial worker work­ing with the project, has mounted an ap­peal ask­ing peo­ple to give away their old clothes. So­cial work­ers as­sign each do­nated gar­ment a to­ken price based on its prac­ti­cal value. Fan re­mem­bers six months ago they re­ceived nine full bags of clothes from a res­i­dent who was about to move out. Some of the clothes on the ex­change plat­form were do­nated from other lo­cal char­i­ties, about 2,000 pieces com­ing in ev­ery year.

Fan says most clothes they col­lected were quite new with­out stains or dam­age. Some even had their orig­i­nal price stick­ers on them. Iden­ti­cal team uni­forms were of­ten de­liv­ered in bulk, pre­sum­ably af­ter being worn once or twice.

Woo said she couldn’ t un­der­stand why the clothes she re­ceived were ever trashed in the first place. “See this cor­duroy over­coat? It was given by the Tung Wah Group of Hos­pi­tals. It’s per­fect for early win­ter. And this long linen out­fit from Esprit (a fast fash­ion brand), this sleeve­less striped dress from Wanko (another fast fash­ion brand)…” Woo demon­strated.

Spin­ning wheel

Fast fash­ion and on­line shop­ping are a cou­ple of fac­tors sus­pected for all the con­sumerism. It is not the fast fash­ion per se that’s to blame for the all the waste, sug­gested Yan Chan, di­rec­tor of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment of the Hong Kong Re­search In­sti­tute of Tex­tiles and Ap­parel (HKRITA). In­stead, it is the pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion that has trig­gered un­prece­dented de­mand for cloth­ing, with fast fash­ion ar­riv­ing as a so­lu­tion in the ap­parel in­dus­try. Fast fash­ion fea­tures cheap trendy gar­ments that en­sure av­er­age con­sumers can af­ford the lat­est fash­ions. Clothes from fast fash­ion brands are in­ex­pen­sive be­cause the sup­pli­ers come up with eco­nomic ap­proaches to stream­line pro­duc­tion and cut down man­u­fac­tur­ing costs.

The emer­gence of fast fash­ion is also a re­sponse to the cir­cu­lar econ­omy which pro­motes waste re­duc­tion and pollution in busi­ness op­er­a­tions, Chan said. In the past when mass pro­duc­tion dom­i­nated, a large quan­tity of clothes could be left un­sold at the end of the sea­son, to be stored and sold later at a lower price. The busi­ness model adopted by fast fash­ion brands helps to ad­dress the in­ven­tory prob­lem since fast fash­ion fea­tures pro­duc­tion in small quan­ti­ties aimed at quick turnover. “When a new de­sign comes out, they tend to man­u­fac­ture the de­sign in a small batch and put it onto the mar­ket to see con­sumers’ re­ac­tion. If the feed­backs are pos­i­tive, fur­ther pro­duc­tion will en­sue. Oth­er­wise, they’ ll come up with an­othe r n e w d e s i g n ,” Chan ex­plained.

The churn of new de­signs and styles essen­tially short­ens the pro­duc­tion cycle and speeds up de­sign turnover. Fast fash­ion chains to­day re­stock their prod­ucts once a week rather than once or twice a sea­son, which cus­tomers like, while the brands of­fer wide va­ri­eties of styles to meet the ap­petite for in­di­vid­u­al­ity. More styles spur more pur­chases.

The boom of on­line shop­ping is also re­spon­si­ble for in­creas­ing waste. That could be the num­ber one rea­son why so much cloth­ing goes to waste in Hong Kong, ar­gues Christina Dean, the founder and CEO of Re­dress, a Hong Kong-based NGO cam­paign­ing for en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity in Asia’s fash­ion in­dus­try. Re­search from 2015 found that Hong Kong on­line con­sumers spent four times more on ap­parel than peo­ple the US.

“I was shocked to find how won­der­ful the clothes (that Re­dress col­lected) were. They were of good qual­ity and clean,” said Dean. Since 2012, Re­dress has col­lected ap­prox­i­mately 13 met­ric tons of sec­ond­hand cloth­ing around Hong Kong.

In fact, only a frac­tion of them were from fast fash­ion brands; quite a few ap­peared to have been bought from on­line shops.

Once the y have col­lec ted the binned ap­parel, staff from Re­dress sort it based on sea­sonal ap­pli­ca­tion or which groups would most likely ben­e­fit from it. Then the clothes are dis­trib­uted to the right char­i­ties. Baby­wear will go to char­i­ties car­ing for moth­ers and kids, while old peo­ple’s ap­par­els will be sent to ser­vice cen­ters for the el­derly.

Do­nat­ing to fam­i­lies in need is one way to re­duce cloth­ing waste. An al­ter­na­tive is to have them re­cy­cled, where tech­nolo­gies come into play. Tex­tile waste is a chronic threat to the environment, and HKRITA has be­gun a project with fast fash­ion brand H&M to de­velop ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies for tex­tile re­cy­cling. Chan says that a lot of clothes to­day are made of a mix­ture of polyester, cot­ton and wool, which poses a chal­lenge in the re­cy­cling pro­cess. Sep­a­ra­tion is the first step, and the next is re­cy­cling. Chan em­pha­sized HKRITA holds a fash­ion sum­mit reg­u­larly to ed­u­cate the public on the alarm­ing tex­tile waste and the hard­ships of peo­ple in need.

I was shocked to find how won­der­ful the clothes (that Re­dress col­lected) were. They were of good qual­ity and clean.”


Woo Chun-hung shops for her daugh­ters and her­self on the ex­change mar­ket. She al­ways wears her fa­vorite leather jacket.

Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Re­dress, a Hong Kong-based NGO cam­paign­ing for en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity in Asia’s fash­ion in­dus­try

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