Putting Quality and Design at the Centre of Chinese Fashion

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Awareness of the sourcing of materials for fashion has been on the rise in the past decade. Concerns about how the global fashion industry functions and its impact on the environment have given rise to savvy retailers who take care over the sourcing of their materials and the working conditions of their employees. Consumers have shown a willingness to pay a little more to know that a garment is sustainably produced and has the lowest possible impact on the environment.

The global textile industry is the second biggest consumer of water in the world. The dyeing processes used by these manufacturers do extensive damage to the water table that is used for drinking water.

In China, there have been violent demonstrations over working conditions and increasing concern over the health consequences of many modern manufacturing methods. In order to get change, new business models need to emerge, and consumers and customers need to be educated and to demand better-quality, low- or non-polluting products.

One business has accomplished something remarkable: it has succeeded in producing high-quality, ethically sourced products while also employing vulnerable people who have significant care duties and need a flexible and understanding employer.

NuoMi (http://www.nuomishanghai.com) has three stores and a store/design studio in Shanghai, China. NuoMi means “sticky rice” in Mandarin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_Chinese). It was founded by Filipino fashion designer Bonita Lim, a mother of four, who uses her business to help single mothers and the less fortunate.

NuoMi is also pioneering sustainable and green goods for the Chinese market. This is unusual in a country more known for its sweatshop, low-wage manufacturing industries that have propelled the country into an economic powerhouse.

NuoMi sells women’s clothing made from sustainable sources while creating jobs for people from disadvantaged communities. There are organic cotton, bamboo, silk and wool garments, and no artificial dyes or synthetic materials are used.

The design team works on colourful knitwear, dresses and baby clothes. They also offer a custom order service.

“When I was 13 or 14 years old, I dreamed of building a special company that could help people who have trouble finding a job,” Lim told the Global Times.

“I called the name of my brand NuoMi, which is (the) Chinese name for sticky rice … Our company works like sticky rice; we support and love each other.”

Born in the Philippines and educated in Canada, Lim had become frustrated while working with the Filipino government and wanted to help the poor. She started NuoMi in 2006 in Shanghai, a city booming as China’s economy continues to grow. It is also a city with a population with long-standing sophisticated consumer tastes. Shanghai had been home to various foreign concessions before the Communists took power and its population was exposed to foreign languages, cultures and tastes.

Lim became a single mother after she divorced, and this experience made her sympathetic to how hard life is for single mothers. Drawing on her passion for fashion, she hired a designer to work with her on designing a line of clothing.

“I was surprised that many of my friends really liked my designs, so they asked me to design clothes for them and introduced some clients to me,” Lim told Global Times. “I tried to design and sell clothes abroad. I got a lot of good feedback, but it exhausted me so I decided to work in Shanghai.”

Despite starting out as a hobby, the business had built a network of 20 clients. It had become impossible to just do it part-time so she formalised the business as NuoMi.  She began hiring single mothers in prison in the Philippines and designed clothing that could be easily made by them.

“Those single mothers in prison were very anxious because they had no way to help their children. Most of them committed crimes because they needed money for their kids,” Lim said.

By 2008 she had built a professional design team and now had 60 clients. With the brand NuoMi growing, she opened its first store. This has grown to four stores in Shanghai. Most of the company’s workforce is now in Shanghai but they are still people living in a vulnerable situation.

Nuomi’s newly opened store in 2008 carried a spring and summer collection of long dresses made from bamboo, cotton and soya. These fabrics were chosen for their breathability in the hot, steamy Shanghai weather.

One of the employees is 52-year-old Zhu Linfang, who takes care of a stroke-damaged father and a mother with liver cancer. “I was introduced through a friend. They paid me more than other companies. At my age almost no company wants to hire me, but working for NuoMi, I earn between 2,000 yuan (US $300) and 3,000 yuan per month,” she said.

Other employees look after ill children and have care duties that occupy much of their time. They do sewing and make toys for NuoMi.

Lim takes the time to train the employees to make sure they can do the work to a high standard.

“I tried to design products that were both suitable for them to make and could be sold in the market,” she said.

NuoMi also sells environmentally friendly glycerine soaps in flavours from mango to chocolate, jewellery made from recycled industrial materials and bathwear, pillows, and purses. The stores even carry matching mother-daughter and father-son clothing.

Wisely, service is offered in Chinese and English to customers – Shanghai is a popular destination for tourists. NuoMi is clearly a trail-blazer and a business to watch.

Resources

1) Ecodesignfair: Eco Design Fair is a bi-annual grass-roots community event whose purpose is to showcase eco-conscious designers and products to general consumers. Website: http://www.ecodesignfair.cn

2) Nest: Another eco-conscious design company in Shanghai. Its motto is “design with a conscience”. Website: http://www.nestshanghai.com/nest.html

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