When we talk about upcycling and sustainable fashion in general, we really are talking about our most known geographic area, also known as the Global North: the most detailed sources of information often refer to Western Europe, North America, and sometimes Central Europe. In the sustainable fashion narrative, one other geographic zone comes up frequently, although not for the same reasons: Asia.
More specifically, the spheres of sustainable fashion refer to Eastern Asia (from Pakistan to Japan and from China to Indonesia), regrettably known for its attractive labour laws and industrial excesses. One of them is the sadly famous Bangladeshi Rana Plaza accident, during which a building hosting textiles workshops working for famous fast fashion brands collapsed in 2013 due to insalubrity, killing over 1,200 workers. Considered the deadliest garment factory accident and a huge structural industrial failure, the collapse of the Rana Plaza marked a turning point in the way the Global North perceived the way clothes were made, and paved the way for a deeper reflexion on circular models and sustainable production.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza marked a turning point in the way the Global North perceived the way clothes were made.
Ten years later, circularity is slowly but surely making its way into the Western industry. But what about the Asian economies? Has the Rana Plaza accident had the same bomb effect on how consumers perceive the fashion industry? The answer is yes.
For length purposes, this article will stick to Eastern Asia, and will attempt to study the place and progression of upcycling within the early stages of what might soon become circular economies.
Asia has been the preferred region for textile and garment production since the 1960s, and has been suffering from the effects of mass production since then. With the emergence of hundreds of textile factories came water pollution (because of the release of toxic dyes and chemicals), the deterioration of the soil quality related to poor waste management, as well as the development of an informal economy with little to no government monitoring, allowing all kinds of exploitative frameworks and violations of labour laws.
Although Asian countries have been historically behind in terms of sustainability and purpose-driven policies (compared to Europe and Northern America and their numerous sustainability commitments), it would be absolutely delusional to think that climate awareness doesn’t exist in Asia. In reality, the eco-conscience is gaining momentum among an increasingly large customer base, who are beginning to pay closer attention to what they buy and prioritizing sustainability across the value chain. As a consequence, garment manufactures and apparel companies are progressively forced to put sustainability at the heart of the equation, in order to meet the new expectations in Asia and in the world (especially considering the fierce competition between the main exporters in the region, aka China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Pakistan).
Garment manufactures and apparel companies are progressively forced to put sustainability at the heart of the equation.
Other than the pressure from the consumer mass, we can note two other important factors in the development of sustainable practices in the Asian fashion industry. First, the governments are progressively putting more effort into sustainability: we can cite Bangladesh’s Partnership for Cleaner Textile (since 2014), the Vietnam Green Label (since 2006), India’s 2022 Dindigul Agreement (to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment in the garment industry). Furthermore, many NGOs started to sprout, to accompany and strengthen this effort towards a cleaner fashion sector.
Hong Kong-based Redress is one of them. Defined as a circular fashion environmental charity, Redress advocates for a better sustainable system by focusing on issues like water, energy, waste and pollution, and by raising awareness to change the attitude towards recycling and upcycling. One of their most famous installations was embodied in a huge pile of used clothing called « The 3% Mountain », an artistic installation representing 3% of the average textile waste going in Hong Kong’s landfill everyday.
Across Eastern Asia, there have been many more initiatives favoring the emergence of a circular economy. We can note the Korea Upcycle Design Association, who was the first to introduce awareness on the topic of upcycling in the country with their « 1st PIECE » project, which showcased a series of upcycled apparel in the form of an exhibit. The circularity seed was planted and five years later, a real groundbreaker for the Korean circular economy emerged: the creation of the Seoul Upcycling Plaza. This six-story building dedicated to upcycling and sustainability hosts a variety of programs and activities like flea markets, DIY workshops and so on. One very interesting component of the Seoul Upcycling Plaza is their Material Bank: like the name indicates, the Material Bank was imagined as a creative solution to Korea’s problem for sourcing materials. Indeed, the SUP explained that the Korean upcycling industry was facing difficulties because of an « unstable waste supply » due to an overflow of waste. The Material Bank was thus created to establish a new connection between the suppliers of useful textile waste and the upcycling designers.
Of course, we cannot go on about upcycling in Asia without talking about Sissi Chao, the awarded Chinese innovator who contributed to make circularity a reality in China. Also called « the queen of waste » in the industry, Sissi Chao comes from a family of garment factory owners and has been evolving in this milieu for decades. After an internship in her parents’ factory, she realized how unclean and wasteful the garment production process was, and chose to be the change she wanted to see in the industry.
She created RemakeHub, a business-to-business social enterprise platform that provides waste-management solutions to fashion and lifestyle clients. When talking about textile waste, she explains: « these are very, very valuable resources. Every textile we throw away could be turned into a new yarn or woven into a new fabric […] trash is not trash until you trash it ». In 2018, RemadeHub collaborated on a large-scale upcycling project with Fujian Environment Charity, an association who collects used clothes to distribute to children in need. With this collaboration, around 2,500 donated T-shirts were upcycled into backpacks, which were then donated to underprivileged children from the Qinghai province in Western China.
"Trash is not trash until you trash it" - Sissi Chao
In some other Asian cultures, upcycling takes its roots from very ancient practices and states of mind. It is the case for Japan, where the culture of mottainai is deeply rooted in the culture and education. Loosely translating to « what a waste », mottainai is an old Japanese concept according to which people should respect all objects and not waste them, according them a special individual value. In the Japanese fashion culture, furugi (second hand) has played a major role in the 1980s, especially during the golden age of the Harajuku street fashion.
Considering this strong interest for reclaiming clothes, it is safe to say that the upcycling trend came quite naturally in the Japanese style. Several brands specializing in upcycling emerged, like YEAH RIGHT! in 2005, who started by making one-of-a-kind pieces from vintage clothing. In an interview given to Teen Vogue, one of the two founders of the brand, Keita Kawamura declared « I choose vintage clothes just as fashion designers choose fabrics […] I think this method should be natural, but it takes a little more time ». Remake has been at the core of creation for another Japanese brand called Children of the Discordance, whose founder use remake « in a way that is modern and adapted to today’s trends ». Generally, upcycling is one of the ways that Japanese designers use to constantly reinvent vintage fashion - and it looks like it’s here to stay.
Mottainai: Japanese expression used to express a feeling of regret when something is put to waste without deriving its value.
In Southeast Asia, upcycling also has a a role to play. In Vietnam for example, upcycling is literally blowing up: many specialized brands like The Vandal, 247 Art Club, Ugly Born, Moi Dien have been emerging in the past few years. We can also note the creation of the Vietnam 1 of 1 Fashion group on Facebook, where designers can share their upcycled creations and get in touch with upcycling enthusiasts. Recently, fashion design students from the Hanoi University of Science and Technology and the Van Lang University worked on upcycled collections for the « Sustainable Design » exhibition organized by the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology of Taiwan. The upcycled collections, which were highly appreciated during the event, is a testimony of the Vietnamese younger designer community’s desire to make sustainability a priority by using waste as a raw material.
(FOUNDERS OF THE 1 OF 1 COLLECTIVE Photographer Nguyen Hoang Long for Neocha Magazine)
A little down south from Vietnam is another interesting case for upcycling: Indonesia. Although upcycling remains at an early stage of development, it is beginning to be more and more present due to the abundance of waste in Indonesia. XSProject is a perfect example of this reality: this Jakarta-based non-profit organization works to improve the lives of poor families living in the city’s trash picker communities by buying non-biodegradable plastic consumer trash in bulk from them. Then, the trash is transformed into new garments and accessories within programs of insertion for underprivileged workers. If it is still a little early for upcycling from an industrial perspective, the Indonesian eco-conscience is already well-advanced as the country is facing an unprecedented plastic waste emergency.
As we can see, Eastern Asia is a vast canvas for sustainable practices: although some economies seem to be already at an advanced stage in their search for circularity, it can be difficult for others as the region is still suffering from decades of overproduction and subsequent extreme levels of pollution. On an transnational level, there is still a lot to be done: in the poorer economies like Bangladesh where textile work represents a huge percentage of the country’s exports (over 84%), it is still necessary to concentrate the efforts into eliminating corruption, guaranteeing unions and ensuring the garment workers operate within fair and safe conditions. From a consumer’s perspective, the sustainable criteria is still progressing slowly but surely.
What’s certain is that sustainability is progressively imposing itself as the only possible solution for the fashion industry. Upcycling is one of the key techniques for dealing with the fashion waste crisis: we’ll see if and how the Eastern Asian countries use it at their advantage.