A Second-Hand Christmas

By Dr. Christina Dean 13 December, 2011

Redress CEO, Dr. Dean gives us the low-down on what and where to shop this Christmas

Clothing consumption increased 60& over the last 10 years.
Despite 184 used clothes recycling banks, 234 tonnes of textiles dumped into 3 landfills every day of 2010.
2,700 litres of water is embedded in one cotton T-shirt; over 80% of this is in the growing of cotton.

My mother-in-law’s “What would you like for Christmas?” question, presented annually somewhat promptly in mid-November, brings up a lot of issues for me. Annually, I have requested no presents and annually I am given silk trousers, leather belts, embroidered dresses, feather scarves, fur (fake at least), gloves and the like until my wardrobe and conscience are heaving with the weight of her voracious appetite for decking me out in new clothing.

Ask any other married woman and she’ll say I’m fortunate that it’s only my mother-in-law’s generous gift-giving that puts a dent in what is otherwise a perfect relationship.

However, given that every day I wake up with one mission – to promote environmental sustainability in the fashion industry by reducing textile waste, pollution, water and energy consumption – this annual influx of unwanted clothing at Christmas creates a personal and professional problem for me.

Hong Kong is a city known for its colossal shopping malls required to contain consumers’ ravenous search for the newest fashion trends, tiny flats and wardrobes, three nearly-full landfills and a low level of environmental awareness.

When sewn together, these create wardrobes intent on environmental butchery.

Hong Kong

234 tonnes of textiles dumped into 3 landfills in 2010 every day. This is the equivalent of 40 T-shirts discarded by each resident p.a.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department

Globally, clothing consumption increased by 60 percent over the last 10 years (naturally, not all my mother-in-law’s doing). Today, consumers are lured by jaw-droppingly cheap and poor quality clothing that clogs not just their small wardrobes but soon after, our landfills.

According to Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department, 234 tonnes of textiles were dumped into our three landfills every day in 2010 . Seventy-one percent of this originated from domestic sources. This is equivalent to Hong Kong’s seven million inhabitants discarding around 40 T-shirts each per year.

There are 184 reasons why these high domestic textile waste rates are unacceptable.  Hong Kong has 184 used clothes recycling banks, although far too often these are located in the bowels of carparks or tucked down a forgotten side-alley. But they are there, never-the-less.

But let’s not be fooled that landfill pressure is fashion’s only victim. According to the Water Footprint Network, one T-shirt costs 2,700 litres of water. Of this, 45 percent is irrigation water consumed by the cotton plant and 41 percent is rainwater evaporated from the cotton field during the growing period. Additionally, 14 percent is water required to dilute wastewater flows that result from the use of fertilisers in the field and the use of chemicals in the textile industry.

One T-shirt costs = 2,700 litres of water

Water Footprint Network

Added to this cotton growing and manufacturing catastrophe is the widely cited finding that over half of the negative environmental impact arising from a garment is created during the consumer-use phase; from our very own washing, drying, ironing and disposal.


Because of this and because I simply do not need any more clothes, I repeatedly ask for no Christmas presents. As this is never adhered to, a product made as sustainably as possible is acceptable at a push. And I’m not alone here. Researchers looking for answers to “What makes for a Merry Christmas” concluded that, amongst other things, engaging in environmentally conscious consumption practices bring a happier holiday.

So, if you believe that people generally buy gifts for others based on what they would like to receive, my track record says it all. Each year, I buy everyone presents that follow a similar theme, which may sound prescriptive but reduces shopping time to a minimum. Twelve birds with one credit card swipe.

Last year, everyone got worm farms for their home food composting (not all were merrily received, especially the family who were away for Christmas and returned to a putrid pile of dead worms on their door step).  This year, I’m treating my dearest to secondhand clothing, which I’ve bought from Hong Kong’s charity shops (the used Marni handbag that is destined for my sister will be extremely hard to give away).

Ninety percent of the world’s population wears secondhand clothes, although unfortunately few will be found in Hong Kong where, culturally, secondhand clothes are viewed with unsavoury suspicion.

To make it easier for Hong Kongers to buy more sustainable fashion and beauty related presents this Christmas, we’ve created a sustainable fashion shopping guide that would even put a spring in my UK-living mother in law’s stride.

However, I remain in stalemate with my mother-in-law on the Christmas present issue. But with Christmas fast-approaching and no sign of her giving up her questioning, I have conceded and asked for some socks.

Dr. Christina Dean
Author: Dr. Christina Dean
Dr. Christina Dean is the founder and CEO of Redress, a Hong Kong based environmental NGO working to promote environmental sustainability in the fashion industry by reducing textile waste, pollution, water and energy consumption. Redress achieves this by conducting educational sustainable fashion shows, exhibitions, seminars, competitions and research. Prior to establishing Redress in 2007, Christina was a journalist and prior to this a practicing dental surgeon. In 2010, Christina was listed by US online magazine Coco Eco as one of ‘2010’s Most Influential Women in Green’. In 2009 she was listed by UK Vogue as one of the UK’s ‘Top 30 Inspirational Women’.
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