The Changemaker

The sustainable apparel discourse remains a largely Western affair, a monologue filled with directives about how Asian production should take place. What if Asia is ripe for a home-grown sustainability movement of its own?

Western consumers’ demand for sustainability continues to skyrocket, fuelled by Western NGOs bringing home the harsh realities of distant Asian production lines. As such, Asian manufacturers and suppliers cannot help but take sustainability seriously if they want to do business with Western companies.

But what is the interest in sustainability of Asian populations? Virtually non-existent – at least according to sustainability expert Jason Tan, and he’s making it his personal mission to turn this around.

Jason Tan, based in Taiwan, has enjoyed a broad career in the outdoor and sportswear industries across Asia and Europe. From his standpoint, the time is ripe to create a homegrown sustainability movement in Asia:

“Asia is the region that produces most textile products. Why must we always be guided by Western buyers? Why can’t we take a leading position to address sustainability challenges?”

But for Jason Tan, importing the Western sustainability ethos is not enough:

“Western ideas surrounding sustainability are wonderful, but their approach might need to be adjusted. When the culture is different so too are the perspectives and viable solutions.”

The 100-year-old man

Jason Tan points out the example of “fashion revolution,” a term Western media and marketeers can’t seem to get enough of. For the majority of Asia, however, “revolution” is seen as a byword. Jason explains:

“I admire what the “fashion revolution” stands for, but this term is too strong for Asian culture, where we have many negative examples of revolutions still fresh in our memories.”

Thus, regardless of the good intentions, Jason Tan argues that radical change may be met with skepticism by many Asians – and certainly the majority of Asian suppliers.

“The Asian supply chain is like a 100 year-old man, with a bunch of young upstart grandchildren demanding he change his ways. Buy a US 100 million machine, and risk the buyer disappears or the technology moves on? This old man prefers incrementalism over revolution, and otherwise needs strong guarantees.”

In short, there appears to be a culture gap from East to West when it comes to their approaches to sustainability.

Bringing Sustainability Home

Well, gaps require bridges, and bridges are best built from both ends. That’s why together with thirty other industry experts, Jason Tan founded the Taiwan Asia Sustainable Wear Center (TASWC) in the summer of 2019, with the mission to establish a home-grown Asian sustainability movement. As he explains:

“I’ve met several great brands and designers who have sustainability at the heart of their products and services. But they have to do everything themselves. Sustainability has to be an ecosystem, so what we hope to do is build that ecosystem.”

To do so, TASWC aims to establish an online Sustainable Fashion Brand/Product platform that connects brands with consumers, an educational program that targets young students, designers and brands, and textile companies and to create a regular Future Fashion Hub fair.

“Shaping the culture involves every citizen, it is a way of living, not something additional. Fashion here is the carrier: Through cloth, we instill both industry and general public with an awareness of sustainability.”

It’s still too early to say if Jason Tan’s timing is right and if TASWC will be well received. But it’s clear that there’s a good case to be made for a native sustainability movement in Asia: Unlike Western consumers, who demand sustainable production in far-off lands, this is their own backyard.

Jonathan Fraenkel-Eidse
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com