Redress is an environmental charity established in 2007 by Christina Dean. Their mission is to prevent and transform textile waste to catalyse a circular economy and reduce fashion’s water, chemical and carbon footprints. To this end, they run diverse educational programmes as well as a circular economy programme.
The fashion industry is one of the world’s largest consumer industries. It is also resource intensive, causes significant pollution throughout a supply chain that is also fraught with labour issues and creates a huge amount of waste at both pre and post-consumer stages. With the rise of fast fashion, consumers globally are purchasing more garments, but keeping them for a shorter period, exacerbating environmental damage the industry causes. Globally, the equivalent of one garbage truck-load of clothes is incinerated or landfilled every second. In Hong Kong, an average of 242 tonnes of textiles (or over 1 million t-shirts) was discarded every day into Hong Kong landfills in 2020.
Redress was the first environmental NGO focused on the fashion industry in Asia. Its signature programme is the Redress Design Award which grew from a local event to the world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition. Through the Award, Redress has been training a cohort of designers who are equipped with knowledge and skills to design more sustainable clothes, and influencing prominent brands in the industry through engagement, changing the industry from within along the way. Redress is constantly developing new, high quality tools to raise awareness, from action toolkits, books, to award-winning documentary series. The Get Redressed Month campaign demonstrates circularity, providing various experiences for participants to realise the seriousness of the issue and how they can help. The campaign also gained traction, attracting increasing numbers of companies, clubs and schools to join their movement. Dean also founded the R Collective to demonstrate how textile wastes can be transformed and continue to create value.
Redress’ successful awareness raising campaigns shed light on several important factors for delivering effective campaigns – the objectives and target audience must be clearly defined, alliances need to be built to leverage resources and influence and create noise, programmes should build upon previous success to maximise impact. The target audience must be provided with information in a captivating way and be presented with feasible solutions which they can act on to facilitate the shifting of behaviours. Operationally, the leadership and the team need to have the capacity and capability to deliver quality programmes and solicit resources in a resource-constrained environment. Success also depends on opportune timing and facilitating social context.
This case study will start with a brief review of the environmental issues involved, laying out the three areas of challenge reducing and transforming textile wastes and stating the imperatives for success. The eight factors contributed to Redress’ success are then explored, followed by an analysis of how these factors could be replicated. The piece concludes with a highlight of the impact of Redress and the opportunities and challenges ahead.
The fashion industry consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, equivalent to the amount of water needed to meet the consumption needs of five million people. The high water footprint is in part due to cotton being a thirsty crop, where a cotton shirt requires about 2,700 litres of water to make. The industry’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are the highest during fibre production stage, especially for synthetic fibres like polyester because they originate from fossil fuel.
The fashion industry is also a major polluter. It accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and around 20% of the world’s wastewater comes from fabric dyeing and treatment processes. Over 15,000 different chemicals are used during the manufacturing process of textiles. Of the insecticides and pesticides used each year, 10% and 11% respectively are used in cotton farming. At the consumer end, washing clothes releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibers into the ocean each year, which is equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles.
The detrimental impacts of the fashion industry have been intensified since the emergence of fast fashion in the 1990s when fashion brands significantly shortened the time required for a garment to go from design stage to being sold in stores. Today, there are 52 “micro seasons” a year, meaning a new collection is launched every week. Globally, consumers bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, but kept the clothes for only half as long.
Fast fashion builds upon the take-make-waste linear model where precious materials are taken from the environment, made into clothes to be worn for a short period of time and discarded afterwards. Consumers are encouraged to buy mindlessly, chasing the latest trends. Garments are “made to stock”, meaning the brands will produce a big lot of the designs, hoping they would sell. When they do not accurately predict the consumers’ preferences, these items become “deadstock” – unworn and unwanted clothing that never made it to the consumers. In fact, the equivalent of one garbage truck-load of clothes is incinerated or landfilled every second. In Hong Kong, an average of 242 tonnes of textiles (or over 1 million t-shirts) was discarded every day into Hong Kong landfills in 2020.
For any organisation trying to prevent and transform textile waste and promote circularity in the fashion industry, there are significant hurdles to overcome.
Low transparency and accountability in complex supply chain
To take advantage of the cheapest labour and laxest environmental regulations, successive processes are dispersed globally, resulting in a supply chain that is vertically disintegrated. A piece of garment is often assembled with components that came from different contractors and subcontractors. When there are unused materials, it becomes unclear who owns the different components and would be responsible for discarding it in a sustainable manner. Therefore, it would often simply be thrown away. It is difficult to trace the fashion supply chain, let alone ensure its transparency and accountability.
Clothes are not designed with sustainability in mind
There are now different sustainable materials, but the adoption of these materials by the industry has been slow, partly due to costs, tradition and inertia. At the same time, various technologies have been developed to recycle clothes. However, these technologies still have its drawbacks, and if the fabric is made with mixed materials, it becomes difficult or impossible to recycle. This comes to show that clothing items today are largely not designed with how it would be disposed of in mind.
With current technology and how clothes are made, recycling discarded clothing item is inefficient. Discarding items is also a waste of the valuable resources that has gone into creating the item in the first place. Reducing consumption and reusing items for as long as possible are therefore still the best strategies to enhance sustainability.
However, with shopping being an engrained culture and easy accessibility to both physical and online shopping in Hong Kong, it takes a lot of education and campaigning for the practice of “reduce” to become the norm. Hong Kong people spend a considerable amount on clothing. One study in 2020 found Hong Kongers spent 11% of their monthly expenditure on clothing, more than on health and education. However, 16% of all the clothes owned by Hong Kongers (around HKD 3.9 billion worth of purchased clothes) were never or seldom worn. Respondents shared that the key reasons for unused clothing items were wrong style, impulse buying, forgotten that they already own it, and the item being of the wrong size.
When it comes to reuse, buying second hand clothing is also not common practice. In a survey, only 31% of Hong Kong people already own second hand clothing – 14% owning clothing they bought second hand, 22% owning clothing that has been passed down by someone.
In line with the global trend, Hong Kongers purchase a lot of clothes but don’t keep them for very long before discarding it, contributing to the harmful environmental impacts of the fashion industry. The mind set and behaviour of consumers will also need to be changed to achieve greater sustainability.
For an organisation that wishes to engage in clothes collection and facilitating its reuse, it is necessary to have sufficient space to sort, store, display and sell or facilitate exchanges of the items. Given the high costs of logistics and rent in Hong Kong, covering these costs are a constant challenge. There is also a perception that fashion is a frivolous thing, despite the serious environmental and social costs it entails. The textile recycling industry is currently facing a crisis with the growing mountains of clothes piled in recycling bins, particularly in times of COVID-19 This perception also has implications on the level of ease in accessing funding to support this work.
For campaigns to be effective, the objectives and target audience must be clearly defined, alliances need to be built to leverage resources and influence, programmes should build upon previous success to maximise impact. The target audience must be provided with information in a captivating way and be presented with feasible solutions which they can act on to facilitate the shifting of behaviours. Operationally, the leadership and the team need to have the capacity and capability to deliver quality programmes and solicit resources in a resource-constrained environment. Success also depends on opportune timing and facilitating social context.
The problem of textile waste is highly complex, involving many stages and stakeholders. No organisation will be able to single-handedly effect change, making collaboration essential. With limited resources, organisations must have a clear understanding of where the power lies, who to influence and target to effect change. They have managed to draw support from diverse supporters, from corporates, charities, fashion brands to funding organisations by coming up with win-win solutions. For the Get Redressed Month in 2021, they managed to get 136 companies, clubs and schools to take part in the event, setting up 197 drop off points at prime locations with high traffic, drawing support from companies like Swire, Zara, Pizza Express, and Hysan Place. Over 150 design schools and institutions around the world promote their Redress Design Award and help recruit participants.
Redress also recognises that the NGO ecosystem operates like an orchestra, so all components, including other environmental or social NGOs working on similar issues are important collaborators. They have over 20 local charity partners to whom they distribute the clothes they sorted for people in need. Redress also depends heavily on volunteers, especially during the Get Redressed Month. They recruit volunteers who are passionate and articulate about the cause, so that they will also be able to inspire other people to join the movement. They also manage to secure pro-bono support, which is critical for organisations facing resource constraints.
Their ability to draw such diverse partners into supporting the cause demonstrates the value and quality of their work, and their strong capacity to communicate their message and create value for all involved.
Over the years, Redress has developed a clear two-fold mission, which is to reduce and transform textile wastes and to promote circularity in the fashion industry to reduce its carbon, water and chemical footprint. Having a clear focus enables the programme to build upon previous efforts and maximise its impact. Redress conducts a mission check for their programmes to ensure the activities are in line with and contributes to their mission. They run two core programmes that are anchored in these two missions.
Their first mission is to reduce waste, and they do this through their education programme, which includes the Redress Design Award, their school education programme, and their engagement with corporates and the public.
The second mission is to transform waste, which is a circular economy programme, including both consumer and business level waste reduction and transformation activities. They collect unwanted clothes, store and sort them at their warehouse and then distribute them through different channels. They also handle pre-consumer waste such as unsold inventory from brands, redistributing them to emerging designers, brands, start-ups, and The R Collective.
In addition to their work being worthwhile of support, their ability to build partnerships is also in part, the result of having a charismatic, entrepreneurial and driven leader. Founder Christina Dean was a journalist and can eloquently and passionately convey their message. She is also an entrepreneur at heart, evident through the many ideas she has to drive this cause, and having the capability and stamina to deliver them.
This entrepreneurial spirit can also be felt from the management team. Executive Director Nissa Cornish shared that as an NGO, it is necessary to see constraints as opportunities. She is proud that as an organisation, they are willing to try new things, unafraid of making mistakes, and are transparent about their efforts.
From a management perspective, Redress has kept a lean team, allowing the team to grow organically in response to changing needs or the organisation. It is only after 13 years of establishment that they decided to open their office and shop in Sham Shui Po, and rented warehouse to meet the growing storage and space needs as they handle more and more textile wastes. Cautious expansion helped Redress minimise risks and financial pressures.
Redress hopes to educate and bring about mindset and behavioural change amongst its programme participants. In addition to being informative, their programmes are also experiential, allowing participants to have first-hand experience in practicing the behaviours Redress wishes to promote. Compared with other campaigns that raise awareness on the environmental impact of the fashion industry, Redress’ approach is more fun, creative and multidimensional. For example, at the Sort-a-thon where participants sort through literally a mountain of clothes which helps to illustrate the scale of textile wastes. Redress selects the best pieces of clothing from the sorted clothes and sells them at their pop-up shops. The items are in such good shape that customers sometimes didn’t realise they are second hand and were surprised when told so. Such experiences can help break preconceptions and inform customers that second hand items can still be of great quality. Upcycling workshops also allow participants to learn skills to upcycle their clothes.
For the Redress Design Award, the participating designers are required to go through a learning programme about different sustainability principles and practices. Therefore, in addition to being a competition, the Award is also an education programme. Regardless of winning or not, the designers would leave the programme having gained knowledge and skills to further promote sustainability through their careers as designers.
Redress also put their mission into practice through their circular economy programme. After receiving and sorting through the unwanted clothes, 70% of the donated clothes are distributed to local charities based on their needs, 15% will be resold at their pop-up shop, 10% are downcycled and 5% goes to landfill. Even with down-cycling, Redress doesn’t just send these items to the landfill. They are exploring the use of a Japanese technology called RPF to dispose of the items as responsibly as possible.
Though a separate entity, the work of the R Collective also contributes to the work of Redress. The profit making business effectively demonstrates to brands how to maximise the use of and create value from pre-consumer waste. A portion of the profits also goes to funding Redress. Their experience of using different ways of handling textile waste becomes testament of what could be done.
Children being our future are an important stakeholder to influence, therefore Redress has also launched an education programme and online resources to facilitate schools to talk about fashion sustainability and related environmental issues. They also deliver school talks and provide toolkits for schools to run their own clothing drives. Redress managed to secure a grant from the government to support this meaningful project.
Redress is always looking to maximise the impact of their activities and create as much noise around the issue as possible. Taking their Redress Design Award as an example, not only did they continuously expand their geographical scope, from Hong Kong, to the region, and to the rest of the world, they are also expanding their scale of collaboration. They developed partnerships with brands such as Timberland and Kipling where winning designers get to exhibit their talent and newly learnt skills to design a sustainable collection for these brands. This also becomes a great promotional opportunity where the shops can advertise the sustainability message, and consumers can take action and purchase sustainable fashion.
Redress even turned the competition into an award-winning TV documentary series called Frontline Fashion which features the participating designers competing against each other and at the same time explaining the environmental hazards of the fashion industry. For the participants, Redress has also organised an alumni programme so that they can have a network to support each other on their journey to enhancing sustainability in the industry. These efforts allow the message to be spread amongst the fashion industry as well as with the public. Their willingness to try new programmes is also a demonstration of the entrepreneurial nature of the organisation.
Also worth noting was the context in which Redress was established. Redress was founded in 2007 when sustainability in general was not as much of a buzzword, and even less so in the fashion industry. This meant that it took a lot of efforts to open doors because the concept was new and nobody really knew what sustainable fashion meant. This, however, also represented ample opportunities for Redress to explore.
Hong Kong is also a strategic location for this endeavour. Many established mills have their offices in Hong Kong and factories in Mainland China. After all, textile production was one of the foundations of Hong Kong’s wealth. This meant that people in the industry with power to facilitate change are located here. At the same time, Hong Kong is a major consumption city as well. These factors combined made Redress’ education work highly relevant.
By setting up when sustainability in the fashion industry was still a new concept, and in Hong Kong, which was Asia’s production and consumption hub, Redress took full advantage of the opportunities available to pursue its mission.
For an idea to become an opportunity, a range of contextual and strategic factors need to be considered. Kickul and Lyons (2012) developed the Social Opportunity Assessment Tool which grouped the factors into four areas of consideration, these are the social value potential, market potential, competitive advantage potential, and sustainability potential of an idea. This framework is useful in understanding how Redress managed to turn an idea into opportunity, and explain some of the challenges they face.
The social value potential looks at whether the idea would “create social value for the customers, or target beneficiaries” (Kickul and Lyons, 2012). One of the criteria is whether the service or product directly addresses an identified need. The need that Redress addresses is to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Looking at the climate crisis and environmental degradation in part caused by the fashion industry, this need is great and imminent. However, the industry at large prioritises other needs such as short term economic development, and the public may yet to be aware of the environmental challenges or are not ready to change their consumption patterns. Therefore, Redress has to put in great effort to put this need higher on the agenda. The effectiveness to cost ratio is very difficult to calculate in the case of an awareness raising programme. The extent to which the service can fulfill identified social need has to be measurable, and in the case of Redress, some elements of work are measurable (e.g. amount of clothing collected and redistributed), while others such as awareness raising are harder to gauge. Redress so far has been diligent in collecting data to capture its impact despite it being difficult. Their service is in direct alignment with the mission, and the service has been positively perceived and endorsed by the community it reaches out to.
The market potential refers to whether the idea can address customer need or want. The timing of establishing Redress was good – it was at a time when sustainability was not yet popular, presenting a lot of opportunities. With sustainability being increasingly high on donors’ agendas, the service Redress offers is highly relevant to the industry, and there are also investors interested in supporting this cause. Considering the scale and scope of textile waste problem, the market size is huge, and organisations so far have been working in collaboration rather than in competition.
The competitive advantage potential and sustainability potential of Redress are mixed. These two aspects focus on the operation level of the venture. In terms of ability to generate earned income, Redress depends on several sources of funding including grants from the government and philanthropic foundations, and corporate sponsorships. Earnings from their pop-up shops provided unrestricted funding, which is important to the flexibility of their operation. It has also been charging for its services such as delivering talks. Redress continues to explore different sources of funding to enhance its sustainability. There are many potential partners and alliances to support this work, and the mission of Redress is compelling. However, the barriers to enter the business of campaigning for reduced textile waste are low, and costs are very hard to control. Physical resources constraints also poses limitations to the venture’s capacity to grow. The management team is strong with the skill sets necessary to deliver their work effectively, but funding constraints also cause a high turnover amongst staff, especially more junior positions.
This framework points out that Redress has high market potential, medium social, competitive advantage, and sustainability potential.
Redress has two clear missions, which are to reduce and transform textile waste and promote circularity in the fashion industry and it sets out to achieve its mission through education programmes and a circular economy programme. Therefore its impact can be considered in terms of its ability to spread the message and change mindset and behaviour of both the industry and general public.
Redress has experimented with different ways to educate people, including publishing books, running fashion shows and public displays with upcycled textile waste, but the most prominent and longstanding programme is the Redress Design Award, which was first launched as the EcoChic Design Award in 2011. This programme delivers impact on several levels. The sustainability of an item is determined in its design stage, making designers critical stakeholders in improving sustainability of the fashion industry. The Award has groomed a generation of designers who are equipped with knowledge and skills to embed sustainability into designs. Whether the designers end up with their own brands, or works for other brands, they can put these principles into practice, changing the industry from within. In fact, over 50 of the 200 or so alumni now own brands that are sustainable.
Other than designers, the Award is also a great opportunity to engage with fashion brands, whether it is to provide deadstock fabric, or providing a chance for winning participants to design a collection under the brand. This provides great incentive for designers to sign up for the competition, and it also provides the brands a good way to demonstrate its support for sustainability and generate publicity.
Redress has further capitalised upon the success of the Award by creating in an award winning TV documentary called Frontline Fashion based on the journey of the participants in the competition. Information about sustainability of the fashion industry is also shared in these bite size video clips. The series were of high quality and were recognized twice by the Asian Academy Creative Awards. Viewership has also been increasing year-on-year, with over 600 thousand views of Frontline Fashion Unstitched in 2019-2020, demonstrating the widespread appetite for change.
In recent years, Redress has developed more programmes that target the public more directly, including the education programme targeting schools, as well as the Get Redressed Month. The Get Redressed Month campaign started in 2018, and the level of support from corporates, schools and the public has increased every year. Over 80 companies, clubs and schools joined the campaign in 2018, and that figure grew to 136 in 2021. From nine tonnes of clothing collected in 2018, the amount grew to over 20 tonnes in 2021. Sales at the pop-up shop have been increasing every year as well. While this may be reflecting Hong Kong’s growing sense and awareness for sustainability, it is also a demonstration that the campaign activities and promotions have been reflective, effective and fun, attracting more and more people to take part in it.
Their education programme in schools was also launched in 2019 and has since partnered with over 35 schools, delivered over 40 talks and engaged 5,000 students. The resources provided are diverse, including curriculum for classroom use, delivering talks and workshops, a comic book, and toolkits for organising their own events to promote sustainable fashion on campus. These events received positive feedback from teachers and students alike.
The scale of the circular economy programme may not be huge, but the value of their work lies in demonstrating how textile wastes can be reduced and transformed – whether it is through R Collective, second hand pop-up shops, being transparent about their treatment of collected clothing, exploring down cycling options with landfilling as the very last resort. All these efforts inspire businesses and individuals to choose more sustainable ways to produce and consume fashion.
The work of Redress promotes responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), but in campaigning to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental footprint, it also contributes to SDG 13 which promotes climate action. The collaborative approach adopted by Redress is also exemplary of SDG 17 – partnerships for the goals.
The future presents both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, global support for sustainability is increasing. A Mckinsey report found that consumers are increasingly concerned about the social and environmental issues along the fashion supply chain and demand sustainability. They want to support brands that are responsible and doing good to the world, with 66% willing to pay more for sustainable goods. The pandemic has also shifted consumption patterns and increased customers’ acceptance towards second hand clothing, with 33 million consumers bought second hand clothing for the first time in 2020. Thredup projected that the second hand market would double in the next five years, reaching USD 77 billion.
In Hong Kong, two out of three people claimed they have changed their clothing consumption behaviours because of the pandemic, with 53% of them saying it’s because they realised they have enough clothes, and 30% saying because they realised their habits have an impact on the environment. These trends point to a potential increase in receptiveness towards the work of Redress.
On the other hand, despite these trends and the fashion industry becoming increasingly aware of its environmental impact, change remains slow. The old and wasteful production model remains, continue to generate detrimental environmental impact. This makes the work of Redress more important than ever.
Operationally, funding is one of the biggest challenges for Redress and this has serious implications for the organisation, including their ability to attract and keep talent, which then affects their capacity, and high costs of operation, especially for storage and logistics costs. These challenges have been intensified as a result of the pandemic as funding has been diverted to other causes deemed more desperate, such as health and providing for immediate needs to the marginalized affected by COVID.
The mission of Redress remains highly relevant considering the grave environmental state the world is in. Redress has demonstrated great resilience, creativity and ability to forget partnerships to further their cause, ensuring their continued success in achieving their goal, despite immense challenges.