China: sustainable textiles bide their time
While Asian textile manufacturers have greatly increased their output of sustainable and environmentally friendly products to satisfy Western brands, Chinese consumers' interest in sustainable fashion is in its infancy, according to the sustainable textile manufacturers attending the Intertextile trade show in Shanghai on 14th-16th March.
Paltex, a Taiwanese manufacturer established in 2003 and now a supplier to brands like Helly Hansen, Aigle and Peak Performance, has only recently started to produce for a handful of Chinese clients. A significant change since, until now, Paltex's polyamide and polyester-based fabrics, spun from fishing nets and recycled plastic bottles, only passed through China when incorporated in apparel heading towards European markets and, in smaller volumes, to American ones.
"There is a level of ecological awareness in Germany, Sweden or Norway that you don't yet find in Chinese consumers," said William Lin, Sales Director of Paltex. "But, step by step, this awareness is increasing. We already work with some Chinese brands, but [the business] is growing gradually. For our part, we keep investing in increasingly efficient and eco-responsible machinery, because this will be the market of the future."
Such optimism is justified, but as a long-term perspective, says the sourcing director of a Beijing-based Chinese label who asked to remain anonymous. It must be said of course that the environment is becoming a sensitive issue in the country. "The government is starting to introduce measures to regulate industrial output, something which raises the question of these measures' impact on costs," said the manager. “We are dealing with consumers whose purchasing habits are still evolving, and who, only a short while ago, still refused to buy Chinese-branded products. No one believes they would pay more to be ecological. Not immediately, at any rate," he added.
Nevertheless, the ground seems to be fertile. A 2016 survey on responsible consumption, carried out by the Cotton International Council, indicated that 62% of the Chinese middle class would be prepared to actively seek to buy more sustainable clothes, at the same price as traditional ones. The figure is significant, given that, from today's 140 million individuals, the much-vaunted Chinese middle class could reach 480 million individuals in 2030.
"The interest of local brands for sustainable [textiles] is something that you can really begin to feel, while only three years ago this wasn't the case," said a professional with an outside perspective, Ömer Murat Sözeri. Sözeri, the Sales Director for Turkish denim manufacturer Orta, said that 10% of his company's sales volumes are made with Chinese brands, and much more so in value, as there is a much stronger local competition for responsibly-sourced jeans. "Nowadays, Chinese brands are asking us very explicitly for products that use recycled fabrics, Better Cotton Initiative cotton and other eco-friendly materials. They buy at a premium, and pass the price increase on to consumers. They can afford to do so, since some Chinese brands have larger retail networks than major European fashion groups like Zara or H&M."
Faced with this evolution in domestic demand, Asian manufacturers are keen to make sure they don't make the same mistake they made in the 2000s, when the demand for 'alternative' sourcing skyrocketed in Europe, catching Asian producers by surprise and forcing them to adapt at breakneck speed. The latest indication of this new awareness is that, on 15th March, ten Chinese leaders in viscose manufacturing and two commercial associations, altogether accounting for more than half of the world's viscose output, launched the Collaboration for the Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV) project.
"The goal is to improve production standards across the industry," said Zhang Zixin, the project's spokesperson and leader of the China Chemical Fibers Association, which is involved in the CV project. "It all stems from our clients' growing awareness of sustainability issues. This isn't a programme we have created just for ourselves, or just for China alone. The idea is that we can learn from others and that, if we are able to improve the quality of our products, we will also be able to improve our market shares," he added.
"If you want to become influential, you must make sure that people respect your industry," said Chen Dapeng, Vice-President of China's National Garment Association, organiser of the Chic trade show. "Our industry has a very strong connection with both consumers and environmental issues, because of its products. The more experienced and confident consumers become, the more closely they will scrutinise their purchases. This is where our ability to offer something they need, something consistent with their expectations, both in terms of style and value, comes in," he added.
Indeed, the willingness to embrace sustainability is also, perhaps chiefly, a response to strategic challenges. After the Chinese government decided to raise wages in the 2000s, shifting entry-level textile manufacturing towards neighbouring countries, Chinese producers began to raise their quality standards, something they needed to do in order to balance their books. This made competition in the mid-range segment, which was stiff already, even tougher, so that differentiation is now a must. In turn, this gradually made sustainable textiles one of the most obvious solutions for China, once the factory of the world, now a country where environmental protection and pollution have become major issues.
Chinese apparel demand in 2018 is expected to grow by nearly 10%, confirming the slow-down in its growth rate observed since 2012 and reaching a value of approximately $130 billion, according to estimates by the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).
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