Yan prioritizes repurposing discarded and leftover materials from workshops and factories to prevent environmental harm, enabling sustainable fabrics in fashion.
In today’s world, sustainability is a critical issue that extends far beyond the usual suspects. While we often think of fashion as an industry focused on style and trends, the clothing we wear carries a substantial environmental footprint that we can’t afford to ignore.
Fashion’s Environmental Wake-Up Call with Sustainable Fabrics
According to a recent report from the Apparel Impact Institute, the fashion industry was responsible for approximately 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. However, its environmental impact doesn’t stop there. Cotton production requires a staggering amount of water, textile dyeing and finishing processes contribute to global water pollution, and synthetic fabrics like polyester release microplastics into our oceans and waterways. Shockingly, roughly 85% of all textiles generated in the United States, which amounts to about 14 million tons annually, end up being either incinerated or consigned to landfills. What’s even more concerning is that as the fast fashion market continues to expand, carbon emissions from the fashion industry are projected to soar in the coming years.
Amid growing awareness of its outsized environmental impact, some suppliers, manufacturers, business leaders, and consumers have begun advocating for a more sustainable fashion industry. However, for jewelry designer Jianhui Yan, sustainability has been a core principle since he first opened his shop on London’s South Bank nearly two decades ago. Yan recently shared his insights and vision at the “Building a Greener Planet” event, part of the Columbia Climate School’s lineup of events for Climate Week 2023. In this interview, we delve deeper into Yan’s work, exploring what drives his innovative and sustainable approach to fashion.
Jianhui Yan’s Fashion Background
Jianhui Yan, when asked about his background, shared that he was born and raised in a small rural village during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During his childhood and teenage years, he often spent time alone in the mountains, nurturing his love for plants, trees, flowers, birds, and animals. This deep connection with nature has profoundly influenced his design philosophy, and he emphasizes the importance of being kind to nature in all his creative endeavors.
Regarding his journey into fashion design and his commitment to using recycled materials, Yan explained that he began by selling antiques and vintage items at Portobello and Spitalfields Markets in London to pay off his MBA debt in England. During this time, he started crafting necklaces from broken vintage pieces. Over the past 18 years, his work has evolved from those early creations to his recent Aqua Collection, which incorporates recycled plastic water bottles. Yan firmly believes that the most sustainable materials are those already in existence, and he views sustainability as a lifelong mission dedicated to making the planet greener.
Jianhui Yan’s Commitment to Repurposing Materials
Yan further discussed his approach to sourcing materials for his designs. He primarily acquires discarded or offcut materials from workshops and factories, preventing them from ending up in landfills. He also occasionally purchases leftover materials from factories that are discontinuing specific lines or facing financial difficulties. Each material, no matter its size, holds significance to him, as it can either be harmful to the environment or valuable if repurposed.
When asked about the challenges in achieving a more sustainable fashion industry, Yan highlighted the need for fast fashion companies to shift their focus from profit maximization to addressing the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. He stressed the industry’s substantial energy consumption in producing new materials and its negative consequences for the planet. Yan urged fashion companies to consider the long-term well-being of future generations as they strive for profit.
Regarding the impact of individual choices on sustainability, Yan firmly affirmed that individual actions can indeed make a difference. He emphasized the collective effort required to slow down environmental problems and make the planet greener. He encouraged people to recognize the impact of their daily choices on the environment, acknowledging that these choices can either positively contribute to or harm the planet.