Christina Dean ‘Redresses’ the planet

Christina greets me with a hug in Marylebone station as if we are old friends. As the founder of Redress, Asia’s largest environmental NGO, she is always keen to meet anyone interested in her determination to clean up the fashion industry, her fresh face radiates with an eagerness to chat.

Perfectly dressed in clean lines that show her “capsule wardrobe” style, it is hard to believe that this 39 year-old woman has been rushing between Hong Kong, London, and her “official” home in Tunbridge Wells for the past three days.

With only an hour to spare, we head to a nearby coffee shop. While we walk she tells me about her “crazy” few days of meetings, networking events, panel discussions and spending time with her four children at home. Clearly a woman in demand, she has been juggling meetings all day.

We order our green tea. “In a mug please!” Christina says, as the barista leans toward a disposable cup. She begins to tell me about the talk she attended the previous evening at The Conduit Membership Club on the ‘Fabric of Life’: “It’s always great to meet new, smaller-scale designers,” she yells as we search for a seat in the crowded station café.

She is a regular speaker at environmental sustainability talks around the world including at her own TEDTalk You are what you wear, in 2014. We find two wobbly stools in the corner of the room and perch ourselves down as she says, “I have always and will always do these for free, people need to be informed.”

“The consumer has more power than the industry.”

Educating the world about the effects of the fashion industry, both on the planet and people, is how Christina has spent the last decade. But this has not been her only career. After growing up in South Africa and the UK, she followed her parents and trained as a dentist. However, after a few years of work, it was clear that dentistry was not a good fit. “I realised I just don’t like hurting people,” she laughs.

Finding a love of writing, she went back into education at London College of Communication to study Journalism. While pursuing her new career in Hong Kong she mainly wrote about environmental topics. This is where she really engaged with issues of pollution in fashion. “It’s hard to ignore the pollution in Hong Kong,” Christina says.

Hong Kong is one of the most polluted cities on earth and throws away a total of 340 tonnes of textile waste daily. In the face of this, Christina launched Redress, which has grown to become Asia’s largest environmental NGO.

Since its launch, Redress has undertaken a number of projects to raise maximum awareness of the fashion industry’s effect on climate change. The Eco-Chic fashion shows, launched in 2008, quickly became popular with designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg as a way of showing cutting-edge sustainable designs. In 2010, Redress partnered with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on a sustainable fashion show, seminar, and exhibition; a display of solutions for fashions pollution habit.

Christina Dean

Christina Dean: by Lucinda van der Hart

In 2011, the first Eco-Chic Design Award was offered to emerging fashion designers with sustainable solutions. These solutions vary between reworking ‘dumped’ fabrics and creating designs using environmentally-friendly materials. “Not only does this encourage emerging designers to make sustainable designs but it was a way of showing consumers that sustainability is stylish,” Christina tells me.

The first award-winner went on to make a recycled collection with Esprit. “I felt so proud that our work had entered the mass market, that high street consumers could purchase something less harmful to the environment.” Christina says as she reflects on her company’s achievements.

Christina marks 2013 as one of the highlights of her career, where she “put the problem of the fashion Industry on her own back”, by wearing only clothes headed to landfill for 365 days. Christina explains that so many things are thrown away because they have been poorly made.

“We are all walking around in rags,” she says. This is because we demand clothes to be made at such speed and at such low prices that we can only expect poor quality. They are not made to last and can break within a year of purchasing: “People don’t bother repairing buttons or sewing up holes when they paid less than £10 to buy it.”

The “dumped clothes” challenge she gave herself only made her excited to do it again. “Although it’s a tragic issue, I’ve had so much fun!” Her positivity is infectious.

Christina is looking forward to a similar project but on much a bigger scale, which is coming this year. While scribbling on her notebook: drawing diagrams and circling buzzwords, she tells me of her future plans.

Redress wants to make a short film where the team goes directly to textile waste collection sites and take randomly chosen bags of dumped clothes. They will then style them and create different looks.

“I hope this will make people see their clothes in a different way,” she says. These clothes have been thrown away without much thought, so Christina suggests that we try to re-style them, revive them, give them a second life. This project aims to raise awareness of the huge number of perfectly good clothes that are thrown away on a daily basis.

With such passion for sustainable clothing, Redress created their own clothing line in 2017, The ‘R-collective’. Collaborating with the winners of the Redress Design Award, such as Lia Kassif (2017 Redress Design Award), the brand works the best emerging sustainable fashion designers to make beautiful clothes from luxury recycled fabrics. It functions as an option for ‘the conscious shopper’ to find well-made, impactful clothing.

“You need an emotional bond with your clothes.”

After being featured alongside sustainable fashion advocates Stella McCartney, Livia Firth and Safia Minney in The True Cost documentary in 2015, Christina saw the impact that film could make on changing the mindsets of the public. Redress released Fashion Frontline, a documentary that celebrates emerging sustainable fashion designers by creating a recycled design competition – this was quickly followed by Fashion Frontline 2.

Those who participate in the competitions come from across the globe for a chance at first prize; the Redress Design Award. They all have their own creative ways to rework used clothing and prevent more textile waste. Christina speaks produly of the young designers she has worked with in the past: “They are all such interesting people to work with and they have opened my eyes to the possibilities that lie in textile waste.”

Clearly catching the bug for documentary film-making, which builds i=on her journalistic training, Christina is now developing a series of short films that she hopes to release next year. She says it’s an exciting project: “I want to break it down, to look at each step of the supply chain, getting in there myself.”

The series will include a day in the life of a tannery worker; someone who works with toxic chemicals that are used to turn cow skin into leather. I ask Christina about the dangers of filming amongst this kind of work. “Children are working with these chemicals every day, I can at least spare one of [my days] to share their story.” Her determination is clear, it is a brave pursuit but bringing the realities to light is imperative to Christina’s work.

Redress mainly focuses on the textile industries effect on climate change, but now aims to take it further by looking at the social justice and animal welfare issues that have always surrounded fashion. She shakes her head and holds my arm as she tells me: “There are so many elements that need to be brought into the spotlight, for example, exotic skins is of real interest to me.” Many designers in the industry use snakes and crocodiles in their garments and the process of acquiring the skins is harrowing.

Although the past ten years have seen huge changes in the fashion industry, Christina’s core messages stay the same: Through education and raising awareness of the reality of fashions production line, Christina encourages consumers to buy things with thought; things that they really love.

“Clothes have the power to change the way we feel and act.” By purchasing something with little thought, it’s unlikely that it will be the perfect fit, last forever and you will not love it enough to repair it. “You need an emotional bond with your clothes,” she believes.

Christina urges the consumer to vote with their money. “The consumer has more power than the industry,” she tells me. She hopes to activate change in those she engages with.

All too soon it’s time for Christina to rush off. She gives me a warm hug and I am left inspired and hopeful for the future of fashion.



Featured image by Kris Atomic via Unsplash