Benny Yuen's EARTH.er boutique sells products that are made in an environmentally sustainable way.
Photos: Edward Wong & Benny Yuen
One designer wants to show people how to look stylish without hurting the planet or taking advantage of others
By Mabel Sieh and YP cadet Jackson Ng
Hong Kong has always prided itself on its shopping. We have no problem getting the latest and most fashionable clothing and accessories on our street corners and in our malls. Not many consumers think much about where the products are from, or how they are made.
Then there's Benny Yuen Chun-wai, a native Hong Kong designer, who tries to promote environmentally sustainable fashion - starting with his own little boutique in the fishing village of Tai O, on the western edge of Lantau Island.
"Now, people in Hong Kong are becoming familiar with, and talking about, organic food," says Yuen, 26, whose family has lived in Tai O for four generations. "But fashion and clothing can be organic, too.
"The whole process of cloth-making, from planting the cotton, to dyeing the fabric, to sewing the pieces and selling them to customers, can be done in an environmentally friendly way," he says.
Last January, Yuen founded his EARTH.er brand and set up his boutique, the only one of its kind in Tai O. The shop sells a line of clothing and accessories designed by him, as well as other "fair trade" products made in a more responsible way.
"The name conveys the message that we are all part of the Earth and responsible for it," he says. "By adding the two letters 'er', it represents the role a person should take, as in 'teach-er' or 'design-er'. The mark in the middle isn't a full stop; it's the moon."
Yuen says he has long been concerned about what is happening in the world around him. He thanks his mother for exposing him to social issues, such as unfair labour practices, by taking him to political demonstrations as a teenager.
"I'd feel emotional when I'd hear on the news about people being exploited," he says. "I'd think to myself: 'Is it not my problem?'. And I know the answer is always yes."
With that in mind, he makes sure his products are as environmentally friendly as possible and benefit people on the lowest rung of the production line. And he is willing to travel far to work with them.
"I met some farmers in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who still know the traditional way of producing plant dyes. All my clothes are dyed naturally with plants: the yellow colour of the jacket I'm wearing is from jackfruit, the brown from ebony, a dark wood, and my blue trousers are from indigo."
He believes every consumer should take responsibility for their consumption. "I have customers telling me they throw away the clothes that don't fit, just like that. This attitude needs to change," he says. "I never say to people not to buy clothes; I'm asking them to think about what they're wearing and when they buy, do it out of consciousness."
His "conscious business" comes at a price, though. Yuen has not been able to give himself a salary for a year, after paying staff. What is more, he has decided to use a portion of his profits for charity.
Last year, his shop began sponsoring four needy children. He plans to continue to add four more every year. "I want to earn enough money to open a school for children in a developing country," Yuen says. He doesn't know how long his shop will survive, but he says that's not his biggest concern.
"The definition of design is a creation which helps to solve a problem," he says. "As designers, if we don't see the problems around us, we're not making good use of our creative power and exercising our responsibility to contribute to the solution."