Novetex's chairperson is prioritizing sustainability to fight textile waste and is committed to reviving Hong Kong as a major industry hub

by Michael O’Neill

When Ronna Chao took over leadership of the family textile business in 2010, she was joining a company that was still adapting to major industry disruptions.

Founded in 1976 by Chao’s grandfather, Novetex had been a major player in Hong Kong’s once flourishing textile and clothes manufacturing industry. By the turn of the new millennium, however, the huge changes to manufacturing in the region — most significantly the opening of the economy in mainland China — had changed everything.

This meant that by the time Chao came on board as company chairperson, the industry — and Novetex itself — was operating in a much more challenging environment. Adding to the pressure, Chao herself had no direct experience working within the textile sector. “Although I grew up hearing stories about the textile manufacturing arm of the family business, getting into it was not part of the original plan,” she said.

Undeterred, Chao was ready to continue the vision of her brother, who she had succeeded at Novetex and who initiated the implementation of a number of new practices and systems. High on the priority list was the issue of sustainability. Ten years on that topic remains the company’s most urgent concern.

“We recognize that sustainability is the future,” Chao said. “We have been in the textile and apparel industry for almost 50 years, and this journey toward sustainability began over a decade ago for us. We believe innovation is key to staying relevant and keeping us top of mind to our customers.  Environmental awareness and protection are more important than ever to our customers’ customers and we want to be able to present sustainable options at the supplier level. Sustainable business is good business.”

Textile recycling remains a big challenge

Chao recognizes that good intention alone will not be enough to tackle the sustainability issue within the textile industry  and that it is no easy task. Globally, an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually, with much of that ending up on landfill sites. According a report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, only 12% of clothing is recycled globally. 

“Compared to plastics, paper and glass, textiles are recycled at a far lower rate, and for several reasons,” said Chao. “In our own experience, the fact that clothes are often a complex blend of several different types of fibers is a challenge.  There are also different constructions of materials that make them difficult – even impossible – and inefficient to process.  Add to that zippers, buttons, and other fixtures, which make proper separation or sorting a labor-intensive task.”

Part of Chao’s solution at Novetex had been to develop a proprietary mechanical recycling system, known as the Billie System. The machine takes pre-consumer textile waste in the form of excess inventory or raw materials, as well as regular discarded textiles, and puts them through a six-step process, resulting in sanitized slivers that can be spun into yarn. 

“Once spun into yarn, these can create entirely new, usable products, promoting a circular economy,” Chao said.

To support the Billie System, Novetex opened a new facility in 2019 — the first textile mill to open in Hong Kong in over half a century. The mill recycles the fibers before they are delivered for textile production at Novetex’s plant across the border in mainland China.

The primary environmental benefit of the Billie System is that it is water-free and doesn’t emit hazardous discharge or chemical waste. “There is also a great deal of automation, which ensures a high level of efficiency,” Chao adds. “For instance, we use automated color sorting and robots to transport the fibers within the system. The way the system has been designed, the combination of old and new technologies, is what makes the Billie so innovative.”

Chao accepts that Novetex’s efforts are just a beginning, pointing out that its facility tackles barely 1% of the textile waste produced in Hong Kong alone. “Upcycling has been gaining ground for a few years, but it’s still not as common as we need it to be. To really move the needle, the whole chain from design to sourcing to production to retail must embrace a mindset change in unison. It requires creativity and innovation on the part of designers and brands, as well as a change in perspective on the part of consumers,” Chao said. 

Ideally, she said, recycling and upcycling should be taken into consideration in the design and creation of everything, not just apparel. “At a consumer level we need to support products created with pre-existing materials, recognize that ‘recycled’ can still be valuable, and ensure our consumption patterns mirror our values,” she added.

Building a future for Hong Kong’s textile industry

Aside from sustainability, another issue that engages Chao is the future of the textile industry in Hong Kong. 

During the rapid industrialisation of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, textile manufacturing was one of the city’s key economic pillars and at that time its textile industry was arguably the most successful in Asia. By the late 1980s, the industry had begun to decline, due to increased operating costs, coupled with mainland China’s economic reform, which would eventually result in the mass relocation of factories into the mainland.

“Like most things, there are stages and cycles in the industrial development of a city, country or region,” Chao said. “The cost of operation is one major factor that affects where the hubs of textile manufacturing are located.  When land is scarce and the price of labor goes up, it is only natural for operations to move to places where these costs are lower.” 

As one of the main textile players during the boom years, it is only right that Novetex is now playing a crucial role in shaping a new, diversified and more sustainable future for textile manufacturing in Hong Kong.

Chao points out how with increasing automation, the development of new materials and manufacturing processes, and the application of AI, the limitations on traditional manufacturing are being lifted. “The concept of micro-factories making smaller collections for designers and brands is also catching on. As long as there is a need for textile products, and as long as we continue to focus on offering innovative solutions, I believe the industry has a lot of prospect.”

All of which points to a degree of optimism for the future of both Novetex as a textile pioneer and for Hong Kong as a business location.

“We see Hong Kong as a design and merchandising hub which plays an important and integral role in the entire textile/apparel industry,” Chao said. “Novetex, with its presence both in Hong Kong and in China, operations spanning R&D, trend-setting, sales and marketing, and production, deep relationships with its wide network of international and regional customers, and long-term collaborative partnerships with organizations such as the H&M Foundation, puts us in a unique position to positively influence the industry in Hong Kong and beyond.”