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[EYE] ‘Save clothes, save the planet’: Activist advocates for sustainable fashion

Non-profit group exposes fast fashion's environmental and labor costs, advocates sustainable solutions through clothes bartering, repairs and more

By No Kyung-min

Published : April 27, 2024 - 16:01

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Jung Ju-yeon, founder and executive director of Wear Again Lab, poses for a photo on a roof terrace at her office's building in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 5. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald). Jung Ju-yeon, founder and executive director of Wear Again Lab, poses for a photo on a roof terrace at her office's building in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 5. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald).

At a clothes market in Seoul’s hipster capital of Seongsu-dong, shoppers were looking for something other than the latest trend.

The one-day market, named “21% Party,” brought together conscientious consumers to barter over clothes and attend repair workshops and other engaging programs under the concept that "the most sustainable clothes are in your wardrobe.”

“The name originated from our 2020 survey results, where we discovered that, on average, 21 percent of respondents’ clothes sat unworn in their closet,” Jung Ju-yeon, the event’s organizer, explained in an interview. She is the founder and executive director of Wear Again Lab dedicated to promoting sustainable fashion.

“The actual figures, I suspect, are probably higher,” she added.

'21% party' embroidered on a piece of fabric at a 21% Party held in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 20, 2024 (Wear Again Lab) '21% party' embroidered on a piece of fabric at a 21% Party held in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 20, 2024 (Wear Again Lab)

‘Wear Again’

Before Jung founded Wear Again Lab in 2020, she had no involvement in the fashion industry, environmental movements, or any form of civic activism.

"I wasn't an environmental expert," she said. "But I felt the urgency of addressing this issue in Korea.”

During her stint as head of the Korean Cultural Center in Paris, Jung took particular notice of the priority France put on environmental factors in policy-making decisions.

She noted that South Korea, despite its dynamic fashion scene, lacks awareness about the industry’s environmental impact.

On a mission to expose the industry's environmental footprint and champion sustainable practices, Wear Again Lab has broadened its scope from hosting mended-clothes contests and clothes-swapping parties to advocating for legislative change.

The past weekend’s 21% Party marked its fourth edition.

Jung said that the weeklong event aligns with the week of April 24 to commemorate the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013 -- a tragic incident that claimed 1,113 lives and left approximately 2,500 casualties.

And clothes swapping is just one aspect of the program.

"We also offer varied workshops aimed at extending the lifespan of clothes through sewing, hand painting and knitting,” she said.

The workshops aim to foster a change in perception among Koreans, moving away from favoring new clothes over old ones, as if only new garments can convey a refined image.

"One of the male participants (of the clothing repair workshops) shared with me that he leads a sewing club at his company. Apparently, his coworkers were inspired by seeing him mend a hole in his socks with colorful thread.”

Jung hopes the 21% Party will evolve into a nationwide campaign, with the participation of various, community-level organizations.

"Besides the main event held in Seoul every April, those keen on organizing similar gatherings in their communities during the same week can do so using our party toolkit," she said. "Moreover, outside of this timeframe, we collaborate with other organizations and corporations to host individual events throughout the year."

As of January 2024, the lab has seen 4,317 people take part and almost 10,000 clothing items swapped over the course of 34 parties.

Participants gather to choose second-hand clothes at a 21% Party held in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 20, 2024. (Wear Again Lab) Participants gather to choose second-hand clothes at a 21% Party held in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 20, 2024. (Wear Again Lab)

Environmental stakes and beyond

According to the lab, out of the 150 billion items of clothing manufactured worldwide each year, 73 percent end up in landfills or are incinerated.

Spanning from cotton cultivation and clothes manufacturing to transportation and disposal methods, the fashion industry has a significant environmental impact.

"Every stage of clothes-making involves varying degrees of environmental damage," she said. "This includes the excessive use of pesticides in cotton cultivation, the use of a multitude of toxic chemicals in textiles and clothing production, and the emission of carbon into the environment during production, manufacturing and transportation."

She also cautioned against the dangers of microplastic pollution in the ocean.

"Even when washing synthetic clothes, significant amounts of non-biodegradable plastic materials are released into our rivers and oceans," she explained. "Moreover, plastic fibers such as polyester and nylon can pose a serious health risk as we inhale their particles simply by wearing them."

As part of its efforts, the organization's fashion activism extends to influencing changes in laws and policies to promote eco-friendly fashion.

“South Korea lacks a specific definition of clothing waste and regulatory measures regarding the responsible disposal of leftover clothes," she stated.

"What's more problematic is that we remain ignorant of how fashion companies dispose of their surplus stocks, as many of them refuse to sell them at discounted prices to avoid cheapening their image."

Therefore, she added that, akin to France's anti-waste law enacted in 2022, aimed at eliminating waste and promoting more circular practices across diverse sectors, the organization is advocating for the passage of a similar law within the clothing industry here.

She further shed light on the toll exacted by inexpensive fast fashion on the environment as well as laborers in other nations.

South Korea reportedly exports around 300,000 tons of clothing annually, including fibrous waste. While some of these exports reach Southeast Asian and African vintage markets, a significant portion, as Jung points out, ultimately becomes landfill fodder in these developing nations.

"Moreover, in underdeveloped countries in Asia, the working conditions of garment factory workers are substandard, similar to those faced by Korean factory laborers in the 1970s and 1980s," she explained. "Furthermore, an even more pressing concern is the prevalence of child labor."

Believing in the power of knowledge to drive action, she expressed that awareness of this human rights issue would motivate individuals to engage in the organization's activism.

In fact, despite the organization's modest scale, she remains hopeful due to the overwhelming participation of younger generations in their activism. Over 95 percent of party attendees are in their 20s and 30s.

"As many of these young Koreans are avid fashion consumers, a significant number have chosen to take the industry's adverse effects seriously," she remarked.

Furthering this line of thought, she argued that consumers must transcend passive acceptance of fast fashion's trends. By actively considering the far-reaching consequences of their clothing choices, they can catalyze positive change in the fashion industry.

Jung Ju-yeon, founder and executive director of Wear Again Lab, poses for a photo near her office in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 5. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald). Jung Ju-yeon, founder and executive director of Wear Again Lab, poses for a photo near her office in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 5. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald).
Participants learn how to knit at a 21% Party's workshop held in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 20, 2024. (Wear Again Lab) Participants learn how to knit at a 21% Party's workshop held in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, April 20, 2024. (Wear Again Lab)