(Bloomberg) — When she ran a company that sold American clothing labels in China, textile heiress Veronica Chou was a globe-trotting executive who made headlines for her socialite lifestyle and lavish 2012 wedding in Hong Kong. Now, she’s trying to clean up the fashion industry.
A member of the $2.7 billion family empire built by her father Silas Chou, the 36-year-old said she’s now devoting her time and money to startups that make one of the world’s most wasteful industries more sustainable. After selling the family stake in a Chinese joint venture with New York-listed Iconix Brand Group Inc. for $56 million in 2015, she started her own eco-friendly label, backing suppliers that are using innovative technologies to make materials and clothes.
Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg
“I’ve definitely changed my lifestyle and behavior,” said Chou, mother of five-year-old twin boys. “We have to look at how to cut back consumption and make things that don’t harm the planet. But we have to consume — we need to clothe ourselves.”
It’s a bold bet. Sustainable fashion is a sliver of the $1.8 trillion global apparel industry, which has ballooned over the past decade amid a boom in low-cost, quick-to-market clothing championed by the likes of Zara and her father. But Chou is joining a growing list of startups seeking to key into shoppers who are concerned about the impact on the environment, a market ResearchAndMarkets.com expects will grow to $8.25 billion by 2023.
The fashion business produces 20% of the world’s wastewater and 10% of carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to a United Nations report. It takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans, while the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is sent to landfills or burned every second.
“The industry is missing its own sustainability targets by a mile unless it changes course,” said Karl-Hendrik Magnus, a McKinsey & Company Inc. senior partner. “This creates a huge advantage for smaller brands and players focused on sustainability.”
Some 66% of consumers surveyed in a McKinsey study said they consider sustainability when making a luxury purchase. Still, only 31% of Gen-Z and 12% of baby boomers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, according to the consulting firm.
Big brands have begun to respond, with Inditex SA’s Zara this year pledging to use 100% sustainable fabrics by 2025. Hennes & Mauritz AB earlier committed to do so by 2030.
But deciding which technologies and materials will succeed is difficult. “It’s still fairly unclear which of the many great innovations that are in the market will scale and become dominant,” said McKinsey’s Magnus.
Chou’s Everybody & Everyone brand offers clothes such as blazers made from fermented agricultural waste, or lounge pants woven from a wood pulp-based fiber that uses 50% less water and produces half of the emissions of a synthetic equivalent. She’s also pushing her