I Second! Promoting Thrifting Culture in Hong Kong

Once again, the world is on a shopping spree — — Black Friday is in full swing. Whether it is bricks and mortar or online shopping, merchants are putting every effort into promoting their products, targeting your purse.

Shopping galas like Black Friday are a win-win strategy for multinational fashion companies to profit and for customers to indulge. Worldwide product options, inexpensive manufacturing, and profit maximization are all the benefits globalization brings to the fashion industry.

Nevertheless, when the profit is driven by quantity, what is the environmental cost behind this? And when these clothes become old-fashioned, where do they go?

Through understanding the journey of a pair of jeans, we will see how the mass production of clothes by those fast fashion companies contributed to environmental problems and future textile waste.

“My closet is really packed, but I still feel like I don’t have enough clothes,” said Mia Chen, a final-year student at HKU. Living in the student hall, she has to figure out how to get rid of some outdated clothes, or there will not be room in his dorm.

She bought most of her clothes in Taobao during the Double 11 shopping gala. “The e-commerce sites make an easy purchase. I put those clothes in the cart when I see recommendations in social media and buy them when they are on sale, naturally,” said Mia.

She used to donate her clothes to the recycling bins near her hall. However, due to Covid, the nearby station is closed. “Since I’m a bit shopaholic, so I always want to give my clothes a new life. The problem is that it’s not convenient for me to go green.”

Why does Textile Waste matter?

The current fashion system, especially fast fashion, often uses non-renewable materials such as petroleum while producing clothes. As clothes reach their short lifespans, they will end up uncontrolled in the landfill. It usually takes 200+ years for textiles to decompose in the landfill. Moreover, a large amount of greenhouse gas and toxic chemicals are generated in the decomposition stage, accelerating climate change. Globally, the textile industry releases 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas every year, with only 12% of clothing production materials being recycled.

The textile waste problem in Hong Kong is prominent since landfills here have been bursting in the past few decades. 339 tons of textiles are sent to landfills every day in Hong Kong. Additionally, according to Environmental Protection Departments’ (EPD) reports, the textile rate has increased by 32.4% over the past decade in Hong Kong, which has pushed all sectors of society to take efforts to address the issue.

A local second-hand clothes store REDRESS calls for recycling clothes on Instagram  (Instagram: getredressed)

Hong Kong’s government has taken a series of actions to deal with the textile waste problem, aiming to engage the public to take the issue into account and contribute to environmental problems.

Promotion video of clothes donation by Home Affairs Department

The recycling bank in On Ning Ln, Sai Wan (photo credit: Victoria Li, Nov 29, 2022)

This is a partnership scheme launched in September 2006 between the government and NGOs through a regular collection of donated used clothes across communities. Over a hundred “recycling banks” are widely distributed in the three territories in Hong Kong. People can locate the nearest “recycling bank” around them through the government’s “Waste Less” mobile app. Before donating, they need to ensure that the clothes are clean and in good condition.

All the revenues and clothes collected from the banks will be used for charity purposes.

A map showing the locations of all used clothes recycling banks in Hong Kong

Another action is the government-organized charitable organization for selling second-hand items at low prices. People are encouraged to donate their used items here, such as second-hand clothes, handbags, books, and toys to help those in need, thus reducing waste pollution. Three objectives of the Community Recycling Coop are:

  • Lessen the financial burden of low-income families
  • Help provide work for grassroots workers
  • Facilitate useful resources recycling

How to Find a Way Out?

The two recycling options offered by the government are insufficient to deal with the accelerating environmental problems in Hong Kong. Particularly, the vast majority of people participating in these two options are the elderly. You can hardly see any young generation bringing their clothes to the “recycling banks” for donation.

“I’ve never met any young people at the recycling spot here. They are not used to dealing with used clothes in this way.” said Ms. Yeung, a 69-year-old woman who often donates her clothes at the “recycling bank” in Kwun Tong.

Indeed, a large proportion of post-consumer textile waste is generated by fast fashion clothes purchased by young people. However, many of them have inveterate misconceptions about second-hand clothes—used clothes are dirty and outdated, and thrift stores are for the destitute.

Lisa Zhang, a first-year student from CUHK, claims that she is fully aware of the benefits of second-hand clothes recycling, while she is still not used to buying “old” clothes that others have worn.

A critical factor that leads to such a stereotype is inadequate promotion and guidance on the second-hand market. Polishing its image requires efforts from different parts of the value chain. Dr. Burnett Margaret, Director of the Sustainability Leadership and Governance (SLGP) program at The University of Hong Kong, believes that customers need to change their purchase behavior to promote a thrift culture in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, companies shall modify their business models as well.

“For customers, it’s more about a lifestyle,” she said, “companies should take actions to appeal to them, and pay attention to the social responsibility to save the environment.” Thus, creative marketing strategy and innovative business models are crucial in promoting the thrifting culture in Hong Kong. A growing group of stakeholders is taking action to encourage young generations to participate in second-hand clothes recycling, contributing to reducing textile waste from different aspects.

People are aware of the issue, but are not changing fast enough.

—–Dr. Burnett

From customer engagement to business model innovation, Hong Kong enterprises have developed creative approaches to address textile concerns in various stages of the clothing supply chain.

The Good Nudge: Green Ladies  

Spacy room, trendy decoration, and helpful staff — — you walk into this store and decide to go crazy shopping until you see the “I SECOND” slogan hanging ahead of you. “Create a Green Wardrobe”, and the “Simple is Beautiful” slogan at the cashier are nudging the customers to think thoroughly about their purchase.

Inner decoration of Green Ladies flag shop, Wan Chai, 23rd November 2022. Photo: Yvonne Sun

Established in 2008, Green Ladies is the first social eco-friendly enterprise operated by a consignment model in Hong Kong. Under the consignment model, they promote second-hand clothing for sustainable use of resources. When we entered the shop, Petty Lee, the project management at Green Ladies, introduced us to their exclusive “倒米四部曲”, which means the four steps to make your purchase more troublesome.

Petty Lee works with Green Ladies since the establishment of the shop in 2008. She is now the project manager here. Photo: Yvonne Sun, 23rd November, 2022

“First, those slogans will attract customers’ attention. Then they will check on the price tag. The price is not something we want to put emphasis on, but the resources that need to be consumed to produce this garment.” said, Petty.

The number on the price tag indicates 293 tonnes of textiles go into landfills in Hong Kong every day. Photo: Victoria Li, 23rd November, 2022

The fitting room is the third step for customers to think twice about their purchasing decision. “When you enter the fitting room, this space belongs to you,” said Petty, “Therefore, we have put on three hooks to let them better distinguish their needs.”

Hangers in the fitting room help customers to give second thoughts about the clothes they tried on. Photo: Yvonne Sun, 23rd November, 2022

Finally, slogans at the cashier once again give customers a second thought. “We are not trying to instill any corporate culture, but we want to start with the changing mindset of making the purchasing decision,” said Petty

Slogans on the cashier, which is the most visible place when people are purchasing. Photo: Yvonne Sun, 23rd November, 2022

Apart from the effort to reduce consumption, Green Ladies also works hard to encourage recycling and reuse. They adopted the consignment model in 2016, which has greatly improved the reuse of second-hand clothes, as the consignors would be able to get up to 30% rebate on the clothes that they have donated if the clothes have been resold.

“We really saw a shifting trend of people’s perceptions of second-hand clothing. No matter if it’s because they get the incentives of the rebate or anything, People are more willing to try out different solutions in dealing with their clothes,” said Petty

According to Green Ladies, since the introduction of the consignment model in 2016, the second-hand clothing resale rate raised to 60%, compared to 40% before the model was introduced. They also asked customers about their reasons for not buying second-hand clothes, and most of them were concerned about the hygiene of the clothes.

Consignors will donate their clothes in this room, and the staff will check on the clothes’ quality. 23rd November, 2022, Wan Chai flag shop. Photo: Yvonne Sun

“That’s the main reason for us to control the quality of second-hand clothes strictly, and we ask our customers to wash the clothes beforehand. Changing customers’ stereotypes of second-hand clothing is an important mission for Green Ladies,” said Petty

Jewelry sold in the store is also used. They are disinfected before being resold. Photo: Yvonne Sun, 23rd November, 2022

In order to reach out to a wider consumer group, Green Ladies held a second-hand market for the first time last weekend. Taking place in the Blue House, people are encouraged to exchange second-hand stuff and join on-site workshops.

The weekend market is held by Green Ladies at Blue House, Wan Chai. 400 people registered for the event. 21st November, 2022. Photo: Yvonne Sun
People are shopping for second-hand clothes on the spot. 21st November, 2022. Photo: Yvonne Sun
Mental Connection with the Past: Vintage 1961

Although less emphasis on environmental contributions, vintage fashion indeed is another form of second-hand clothes reuse. While it is worth noting that vintage clothes are embedded with unique stories, memories, and histories, bringing emotional value to customers.

Vintage 1961, a vintage store selling clothes, jewelry, and handicrafts between the 1960s and 1980s in Sheung Wan, aims to promote the contemporary stories behind the products.

The store owner Milki Li’s sharing of  her views about female fashion (Facebook: Luxe Style)

By creating unique but impressive fashion styles, the store owner Milki Li endeavored to facilitate the inheritance of vintage clothes. “The elegant attitude of the good old times”, a slogan on the store’s wall, reflects her commitment to making every woman have her own fashion style, as well as an elegant attitude towards life.

Vintage1961 promotes “The elegant attitude of the good old times” (Instagram: betterme. magazine)

To break the stereotype of vintage clothes as “clothes worn by the dead”, Milki strategically crafted every Instagram image to show the clothes exquisitely, with a concrete introduction of the clothes’ history below. Thus, customers no longer view the clothes as “old” and “dirty”, but a nostalgic style that forms a new fashion trend.

Milki strategically crafts the IG posts and creates exquisite images to change people’s perceptions of “old clothes” (Instagram: vintage1961)

Rewrite Business Model: The Mills Fabrica

We cannot put 100% efforts on customers. We need to change the business model.

—–Dr. Burnett

Addressing the textile waste issue from the origin and the production stage, and promoting a sustainable social impact, is what The Mills Fabrica (Fabrica) is aiming to achieve. As a go-to solutions platform that stems from Nan Fung Group’s textile agency in Hong Kong, Fabrica expanded to London in 2021. It commits to creating a “techstyle”—a combination of technology and lifestyle—and ultimately generating positive social impact.

Educational board and recycling spot in Fabrica (photo credit: Fabrica official website)
Experiential discovery space in Fabrica (photo credit: Fabrica official website)

Addressing the textile waste issue from the origin to the production stage, and promoting a sustainable social impact, is what The Mills Fabrica (Fabrica)  is aiming to achieve. As a go-to solutions platform that stems from Nan Fung Group’s textile agency in Hong Kong, Fabrica has expanded to London in 2021. It commits to creating a tech style—a combination of technology and lifestyle—and ultimately generating positive social impact.

By applying new materials in producing clothes, Fabrica overturns the traditional solutions of dealing with textile waste. One of its recent projects with Colorfix, a UK company that aims for an environmental-friendly dyeing process, is to apply a synthetic biological approach to incumbent dyeing technologies and contributes to waste reduction.

A Twitter post of Colorifix’s project on producing deposit and fix pigments onto textiles using biological process, which is supported by Fabrica. (Twitter: Colorifix)

Fabrica has invested in sustainable projects related to fashion and clothing industries across the world, covering different sectors of the supply chain. Innovative projects include textile innovation, sustainable production, digital solutions, etc.

Hong Kong requires immediate action to address the textile waste problem. Luckily, both customers and businesses have realized the issue and making efforts to promote a thrifting culture. Notably, second-hand clothes reuse and innovative textile production do not necessarily mean boycotting fast fashion—“new” and “old” are not mutually exclusive. Instead, buying less and buying better, with sustainability impact kept in mind, shall be the feasible way to make positive environmental contributions.

Feature Image: Victoria Li

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