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Shanghai… arguably the most dynamic city in the world’s fastest growing nation. In a place that seems like one giant monument to capitalism—with a constantly morphing skyline, residents working seven days a week, and multinationals flocking to set up offices—I wanted to investigate firsthand what options were available for independent designers like myself to sustainably manufacture and sell.

Photo: Busy Street Photo of Shanghai’s Yuyuan Gardens (home of many trim/fabric markets)

Amongst the overcrowded and densely populated metropolis lies a growing community of eco-conscious designers committed to servicing the equally growing demand for a more holistic approach to life.

Heather Kaye is one of the co-founders of FINCH, an eco-friendly design label based in Shanghai. FINCH is a great model for anyone looking to sustainably produce clothes in China. Kaye uses 100% organic fabrics sources from carefully vetted mills, products made from natural fibers grown on certified organic farms, fabric colored using low-impact dyes, and produces with socially and environmentally responsible practices (Kay sourced a local factory in Pudong that she’s used for years and visits weekly).

“Eventually we want to build a design and manufacturing collective for like-minded small scale brands with exceptionally well-trained and well-treated employees,” said Kaye. Kaye also imports fabric from Indian NGO WomenWeave, an organization that empowers local hand-weavers in Maheshwar to make their skill more profitable in the marketplace amongst other endeavors. “We arranged to visit their weaving facility in Maheshwar, and saw the hand-cut block ‘Booti’ printing in nearby Bagh. The accessories you see in our photos – the floppy hats and large tote bags – are our own designs made with WW fabric."

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Pictures from left: Heather Finch in her Studio located in Shanghai’s French Concession, photo from Snoozer Loser NY’s S/S2011- Shot in Shanghai.

1. You worked previously as a designer in NYC. What inspired you to move to Shanghai to start FINCH?

Actually, I relocated to Shanghai in 2006 with my then company, Liz Claiborne. After Liz, I managed a Canadian apparel company’s design center, focusing on creating original prints and textile sourcing.

FINCH came about over time with my dear friend and co-founder, who is also a designer in Shanghai. We decided to focus on creating a brand that was as efficient and respectful of our natural resources as possible – this remains the cornerstone of our brand.

After two years of sharing what we love about fashion design and the kind of responsible company we’d like to work for, we made the decision last February to create our own brand using organic (fiber grown without pesticides and toxic chemicals, harvested by hand, using responsible farming and labor practices) and sustainable fabrics (like bamboo and hemp), and collaborating with artisans for textile inspiration.

2. What challenges did you have producing sustainably and ethically in Shanghai and what methods did you use to overcome them?

The most difficult, yet vital, part of what we do is ensuring transparency throughout our supply chain. We work with only one mill, Hempfortex, because they only handle sustainable and organic fabrics and offer certifications for all of their products. The idea of ‘organic’ or environmentally friendly manufacturing is still far off from the reality of a typical factory floor – so we’ve had to search out facilities that are on the same page, and are seeking to be innovators in an emerging market.

The reality is that China’s factories run on migrant labor that wants to work as many hours as humanly possible, for the maximum wage possible, then move on to the next phase of their life. I’ve worked with the garment factory in Pudong where FINCH is made for years now, and with my weekly visits, I am confident that they do run a highly ethical operation.

3. What types of fabrics do you use? How are your prints and dyes processed environmentally sound?

We use organic cotton (raw fiber is from Turkey), silk, hemp, and bamboo blends. One of our fall fabrics has some recycled poly in it (from used soda bottles), and one for spring has yak hair.

For screen printing, we use low-impact reactive dyes, which are still petrochemicals,instead of vegetable dyes. Low-impact dyes require less heat to set, and form a stronger bond with the fabric so there’s very little run off in the water supply. Also, they don’t fade over time so you’re more likely to wear the garment season after season. We also use digital printing, when a print has more than a few colors which is the least wasteful printing method possible for multiple colors.

4. You are heavily involved in the Eco-Design Fair in Shanghai. Could you elaborate on how your involvement came about?

For FINCH, the EDF is such a great way to get involved and meet our community. The best part of building a brand locally is that we are TALKING to our customers, getting their feedback, and seeing what more we can do to serve the awesome women of Shanghai.

The EDF is also a great opportunity to promote the design collective that many of us call our home base – the Nest shop, in Tianzifang. Seeing the number of great brands Trine Targett has put together under one roof is a testament to growing consumer interest in eco- friendly alternatives. The EDF is the perfect place for the Shanghai public to check out these new products and meet the people behind them.

5. Do you manufacture your garments in a factory or make use of local tailors in Shanghai?

We currently work with just one factory, in Nanhui, Pudong. We are, however, dedicated to building a small design collective and manufacturing facility in Kunshan within the next year. With several other eco-conscious brands, we will have a workshop in a carbon-neutral ‘factory’ space aimed at accommodating small units. This workshop will be open to any small-scale designer, local or abroad, who wants to ensure their goods are produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

6. Which commonly used fabric, do you believe, has the biggest environmental impact?

While the stats on the amount of pesticides used to grow conventional cotton are impressive (25% of the world’s insecticides, 10% of the world’s agricultural chemicals), plus most farmers use GMO cotton seeds, studies looking at the longevity and care of a garment actually assert that a polyester garment outlasts even an organic cotton garment. It has more to do with the sheer number of garments consumed and the mainstream acceptance of ‘disposable clothing’ than with a particular fabric. It would seem a poly blazer you wear for 8 years is actually less impactful, resource wise, than buying 2 or 3 cotton summer dresses each year.

7. What is your inspiration for next season? Where do you cook up most of your ideas for future collections?

Our spring collection, due out in March, will have another gorgeous print from an emerging artist we work with in New Delhi, named Anant Dayal. He painted several of our fall and summer collection prints, and is just incredibly talented. We saw one of his paintings and immediately thought the same thing, “I need to WEAR that!!” And so our collaboration began.

8. Any advice for future clothing companies looking to produce eco-friendly in China?

Contact us! We’re an open book and love to collaborate and share our lessons learned.
info@finchdesigns.com.

SONIA TAY launched New York-based Snoozer Loser back in 2005 out of an art
collective of the same name. She takes an environmentally conscious approach to fashion
by hand-printing materials with eco-friendly pigments, using vintage overstock fabrics,
and producing her lines on a made-to-order basis.

8 Comments

  • Missing

    Apr 11, 2011, 07.32 AMby dan antonov

    I’m currently actively planning for the 3rd annual China Cleantech Business Forum in Beijing. If you are interested taking part or sponsoring the event PM me: dan.antonov@chinacleantechfocus.com

    Previously the forum atracted 400 attendees and gained support from several well-recognized. This year’s forum is more ambitious in scope and will bring together a broad range of high-level professionals. http://www.chinacleantechfocus.com/2011chinacleantechbusinessforum.pdf

  • Missing

    Feb 2, 2011, 04.15 AMby esstatic

    What I want to know is does she really know how the factory workers are treated? Did she visit the dorms? Did she see what they are being fed?

    1 Reply
    • Missing

      Feb 6, 2011, 02.13 PMby hkaye

      Hi Esstatic, Great questions, exactly what I always wondered about before I moved to China five years ago. Yes, I absolutely check out the dorms of factories I visit, and we often eat in the cafeteria with the workers. Rice is at every meal, usually two vegetables and either fish or pork. Very little beef.

      As you can imagine, there are all kinds of factories here – from seriously crummy to very state of the art facilities run either as joint ventures with international firms, or Chinese firms that maintain international standards because auditors either live there or come by at intervals. Auditors are far less effective than workers with cell phones, though. Thanks to text messaging, email, blogs, and an increasing shortage of Chinese willing to leave home for factory jobs, the pay and the conditions of garment factories have improved significantly – and after the Foxconn (electronics factory) tragedies, minimum wage has just risen again on average 10% nationwide. The good factories, and because I’ve only worked with reputable international companies prior to starting my own local label, these are the ones I’ve spent a lot of time (weekly) working at, know that it pays to treat workers well (heat, a/c, decent food and dorms, pay overtime) because otherwise they just leave and they have to train new workers. And they’re getting much harder to find. Labor is gaining the upper hand here in China, which is partly why we’ll see so many garment manufacturing jobs moving on to Vietnam and Bangladesh this year in particular. I hope China will become more like Indonesia in the sense that instead of being dormitories for 18-24 year old migrant women, factories in China will employ local workers who return home to their families at night, and therefore stay with the same factory sometimes for decades. That’s the way it is in Indo, and the workers seem happier for sure, and the factories are super productive. This will likely happen as manufacturing moves from the now expensive eastern seaboard to the interior cities in China.

      A pretty interesting read is Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” if you want to read more about life in China’s factories and the migrant experience.

      All the best, Heather

  • 3882415_427398727_large

    Jan 27, 2011, 03.45 PMby landaizi

    没想到能在这里看到上海的照片,真是太叫人开心了。

  • 3882415_427398727_large

    Jan 27, 2011, 03.45 PMby landaizi

    没想到能在这里看到上海的照片,真是太叫人开心了。

  • 21536_123096anniday1_large

    Jan 27, 2011, 07.56 AMby britannica

    Oh man, this is so cool! In my opinion, this is at the very forefront of Chinese industry trends. Already, with wages predicted to rise in the future, China will no longer be able to rely on cheap labor to attract investment, so it makes sense that industries will eventually market themselves for quality. There was a day when Japanese goods were considered poor quality much as Chinese goods are today, so a day may come when “made in China” indicates good workmanship. :)

  • Imgp7178_large

    Jan 26, 2011, 10.22 PMby cidell

    What a great piece! I was in China in Summer 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the fabric markets of Shanghai. In Xiamen I was able to visit some wholesale suppliers and was absolutely captivated by the process. It’s amazing how the garment industry has helped lift China from poverty and I’m glad to see someone is looking at ways to make production ‘green’.

  • Burda_023_large

    Jan 26, 2011, 09.15 PMby runningwithscissors1

    I appreciate what they are doing, searching out eco-friendly raw materials and it does sound like they are walking the talk. Most of my concern with the whole Made in China thing is not just quality, but also that so much of the manufacturing in the world is now being centred in one country. That in itself is not sustainable for many reasons. We need to focus on spreading manufacturing out to other countries. I really hope that this and other “eco-friendly” companies start to address.

    • This is a question
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