In a city where brands rule, a new name is battling to make its mark: waste. The aisles at ECOLS, in Hong Kong's trendy Central district, are stocked with designer goods - stylish necklaces from France, a teakwood bookshelf from Thailand, a glitzy home-made vase, fashionable bags.
Purses made of sweet wrappers at ECOLS in Central, Hong Kong. [Edmond Tang / China Daily]
What sets them apart are the discarded materials they are made from: Tire inner tubes, sweet wrappers, pull tabs from drink cans and 16 mm camera film, to name just a few.
Some of the prices are eye-catching too. A chair molded from plastic water bottles by British artist Richard Liddle costs a cool HK$16,500 ($2,100).
"We've imported six of these (chairs) in different colors," said Stella Ho, the store's senior marketing executive. "We only have the purple one left."
ECOLS is among a wave of businesses trying to take advantage of the global resurgence in "up-cycling", a term coined in the mid-1990s for the art of making new items directly from waste products, rather than the traditional recycling approach of breaking them down into raw materials.
However, despite the success being enjoyed by stores in other parts of the world, thanks largely to a growing interest in environmentally sound products, industry insiders say the concept is yet to make an impact in Hong Kong.
With more than 200 products from more than 20 countries, ECOLS, which was opened by Ronald Lo and his wife, Phoebe Yuen, early last year, is arguably already the city's most established up-cycling store (at least 10 businesses have been opened in recent years).
"Some of our bags are as expensive as brand designs but every piece of ours has a story to tell," explained Ho. "Each ring-pull bag made in Brazil carries the signature of the woman who made it and buyers can send e-mails to thank her. People feel a more human connection with our goods."
Although some consumers are willing to foot the bill for pricey sustainable products (a woman recently spent HK$3,000 on an Italian handbag made out of old newspapers), the market remains limited and business is slow.
"Most Hong Kongers are not that keen on 'green' things, so the concept is hard for them to accept," said Ho. "There are still many inventive works we haven't brought here as we're afraid they might be too avant-garde."
The choice between a HK$500 brand product and one made by up-cycling for the same price "still depends on a shopper's sense of social responsibility and ability to pay", according to Siu King-chung, assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's school of design.
"In both of these cases, attitudes toward up-cycling is far from mature in Hong Kong," he said.
However, those supporting the movement say a paradox is evident: if people were less sensitive about the retail price of green products and sales improved, more traders would enter the market, which would naturally increase competition and lead to price reductions.
In the meantime, ECOLS is running market research with temporary stalls in the Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay districts (another is planned for Sha Tin). The Central outlet also hosts regular exhibitions to promote new works by up-cycling designers.
Lo and Yuen, who also run a LED lighting business, recently purchased equipment to up-cycle wine bottles, while their online ECOLS store is expected to go live this autumn.
The art of using discarded items to make new products is nothing new to Hong Kong. Poor craftsmen were known for collecting old wood and tires to recycle well before the 1970s.
"People make use of everything when times are hard," said Lo Wah-kei, who organized an up-cycling workshop in June this year to coincide with the city's recent Carpet, Banner and Leather trade fair. "As the city has thrived, shoppers have turned to luxury goods and confined the tradition to the waste can."
Although the concept is again growing in popularity, stores are struggling to find steady supply streams in Hong Kong and are instead forced to rely on imports.
"Hong Kong has eco-friendly designers but they're mostly still at the early stages (of development)," said ECOLS executive Ho. "Creations from abroad are pretty diverse. New York, Copenhagen and Tokyo offer some intriguing designs. Even less developed countries, like Kenya or the Philippines, produce good work."
The extremely populous city generates a large amount of waste that could potentially be up-cycled, yet designers often do not know where to find it.
Although some of them have worked out that getting the support of the companies creating the waste can help (organizers of the trade fair workshop toured industrial zones to convince companies to donate raw materials), Lo said the biggest headache is storage.
"Things are usually dumped in huge amounts but most up-cyclers don't have warehouses. We've been keeping our materials in a school and I don't know if we'll have to dump them when the new term begins," he said. "It would be better if there was a center to store all the materials collected and sort them fairly. That way everyone would be able to find what they want in one place."
Ultimately, to run a sustainable business, though, budding entrepreneurs need to have a sound business plan, he added.
"Not only do you need to build a material-collection network and make fine designs, you need the right producers and useful marketing strategies," he said. "After all, green products still need to make sense."
Due to the difficulties in finding raw materials, most up-cycling businesses in Hong Kong use just one type of material and have limited production volumes. High rental costs across the city also mean the vast majority of traders sell their goods online.
Covers prove popular
Wandering along the aisles of the Carpet, Banner and Leather show, one of the displays that stood out was the one by Billy Potts and Joseph Ng, two friends who make a range of products from taxi seat covers.
The duo launched Handsome Bag Company online after discovering Hong Kong taxi drivers change the covers in their cabs up to four times a year. They use the fabric to make bags, glass covers and iPhone cases.
"Billy came up with the idea to make bags with the material," said Ng, 25, who works full-time as an architect. "I thought it was crazy - it's such a humble fabric, just gray and black - but I like crazy ideas.
"Both of us were born and raised in Hong Kong and we're proud of it," he said. "So we wanted to challenge ourselves by keeping everything local: Designed here, sourced here and made here."
Although the company has been running just for a few months, preparations actually began in early 2009. It took almost a year to find all the suppliers and producers they needed.
"I approached lots of crafts people," said Potts, a 24-year-old lawyer, as he helped Ng set up a stall at the Mini Design Mart, a bustling weekend flea market at a creative arts center in Kowloon district. "They gave me a dozen reasons but basically the answer was the same: No. They thought it was crazy."
Their luck only changed when they found a working women's association, which agreed to sew the seat covers.
"We pay (the women) a fair price. They proposed the price and we accepted it. We are not trying to exploit people to maximize profit," said Potts, who explained he and Ng spend much of their spare time collecting, cleaning, cutting and sorting the fabric. The designers try to reuse as many old materials in their products as possible, such as making the straps on their bags out of taxi seat belts.
"Ironically, it's actually more expensive to use old (seat belts)," said Potts. "They can cost up to HK$20, whereas new ones can be bought for just HK$5 downtown. Also, old seat belts are hard to collect because no one keeps them. They're hard to unscrew so people just dump them with the car."
Despite the trials of setting up the company, the duo were rewarded after just three weeks of launching their online business with 20 orders.
During the last Mini Design Mart in Kowloon, about half of their stock was sold, with one shopper even buying the taxi roof light they were using as a display. So far, the most popular item is a black, "dull-looking" tote that retails at HK$1,000.
"Our products are not perfect yet by any means," said Potts. "We've had a lot of advice from friends and customers, such as adding a separate layer inside or using brighter colors for the lining. We take them all seriously."