Redress: An NGO with a mission to make fashion sustainable

June 27, 2019 10:31
Christina Dean (L), founder of environmental NGO Redress, aims to promote a circular economy in the fashion industry through upcycling of fabric waste. Photo: CNBC

If you were to meet Christina Dean, you would know instantly she is a woman on a mission.

It took just one cycling trip from Hong Kong to China to convince her that she needed to address the fashion industry’s significant culpability for pollution. "What I saw was just overwhelming pollution, grayness, bleakness, polluted rivers, the scale of manufacturing, the color of people's faces, the misery of the people that I would pass, on my bike cycling through China."

The former dentist took it upon herself to start Redress in 2007, a non-profit organization dedicated to the sole purpose of changing mindsets. But it was frustrating in the early days as "people would slightly sort of glaze over as if it was some sort of niche fashionista wanting to do something good." Validating the importance of sustainable fashion proved no easy task.

Dean knew she had to do more than just raise awareness.

As a result, she focused her mission on reducing waste by promoting upcycling. She created the Redress Design Awards, where emerging designers compete to spin textile waste back into fashion. To Dean, it was about the need to train designers to see waste as an opportunity.

The awards generated the buzz she wanted and they now represent the world's largest sustainable fashion design competition. To amplify her sartorial statement, the battle for the top award has been featured in an award-winning documentary series called “Frontline Fashion” — now in its third season.

"There is an enormous momentum and innovation and drive at the next generation of designers and, at the moment, it's locked into classrooms and studios around the world and so ‘Frontline Fashion’ bridges the gap to help consumers understand there is innovation,” Dean said. “There are solutions out there and we put this into an entertainment-type format that consumers can enjoy."

To help fund the organization, she co-founded The R Collective, her own fashion label that uses materials from a textile bank she has built to collect fabric waste. I was there at the temporary sorting location where I got to see first-hand the types of luxury fabrics that were being discarded. They came from well-known brands that were getting rid of inventory or samples they no longer wanted. The rolls of material, many of them in good condition, came in many boxes.

Dean told me that if she doesn't help "rescue" them, they would end up in some landfill or incineration.

Dean's challenge was to find the right next use for the discarded materials. And she is adamant about keeping those fabrics as high value as possible rather than see them being shredded to make carpets or padding material. In other words, upcycling the fabrics as opposed to downcycling them.

"The fundamental problem with the fashion industry is the linear systems it's built on. It's take, make, use and dispose. So we need to move from a linear system to a circular system,” she said. “Which essentially means that we need to keep all the materials in use in the fashion industry so that nothing goes to waste."

Dean's own sustainable fashion brand, The R Collective, aims to give the waste material she collects a new lease of life. And her designs have been snapped up by buyers like Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Barneys in New York.

Dean wants to build the two-year-old label into a global leader in sustainable fashion. She hopes that by creating her own mini-circular eco-sphere, she can weave financial stability and "sustainably fundraise" for her Redress organization.

She certainly tries to walk the talk. The lady tells me her own closet and that of her family are filled with second-hand clothing from friends.

In 2013, Dean embarked on a 365-day challenge where she wore discarded clothing for one entire year. Photos of her wearing second-hand clothing can be seen on her Instagram page.

"Ultimately, the message was that you could still look so great and creative and enjoy the fashion industry with clothes that had been chucked away,” she said.

After spending a day with Dean, I felt her passion and her pain. I asked her if she ever thought of giving up. Never, she says, without hesitation.

"I sometimes feel angry and sad, but I've got enough commitment that I can push myself through that,” she said, acknowledging that it's a long road ahead. "The vision is so in my gut, and it's something I wake up with every day. There is no way I can turn my back on this. It's a life's calling."

Dean's conviction about reducing waste and creating a circular fashion economy is certainly infectious. I found myself thinking about what I could buy less of and what I can reuse more.

Dean is unwavering in what she wants to achieve and relentless in the impact she wants to make in sustainable fashion. Despite her frustrations, I got to see a woman, a trained dentist, a former journalist, a mother of four, focused and determined to push on — to pave the way for others to follow.

– Contact us at [email protected]


CNBC’s Managing Asia is the region’s ground-breaking interview program featuring prominent business leaders speaking to award-winning anchor Christine Tan. Catch Managing Asia every Friday at 5.30pm (HK time) on CNBC (Ch319 on NowTV or Ch127 on CableTV).

CNBC’s award-winning anchor and host for Managing Asia