In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, co-host Janet Bush talks to Edwin Keh, the CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel. It was set up in 2006, with the aim of becoming a center of excellence in research and development in the fashion and textiles industry. The institute has won awards for garment recycling and for its work on a yarn that captures carbon dioxide from the air. Keh is also on the faculty at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has long experience in the retail business, working for Walmart and Donna Karan, among others.
Janet Bush (co-host): Michael, supply chains are very much in the news at the moment. During the pandemic and now in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have learned quite how vulnerable they can be. But they can also be very long. If you were to rank global supply chains for length, where do you think the fashion and textiles one would sit?
Michael Chui (co-host): My hunch would be it must be one of the longest. The fabric starts its life in a cotton field or even nowadays maybe in a lab. There is dying and processing, and then manufacturing of garments. Cost is such a key consideration in fashion that it tends to take place in low-wage emerging economies. But design may take place in any number of locations. And then everything has to get to consumers, and they are all over the world. And of course many of these stages aren’t very positive for the environment.
Janet Bush: Yes indeed. Our guest today has been working on supply chains in the retail industry for many years and now at his institute in Hong Kong he has been thinking hard about how to shorten the textiles and fashion supply chain and crucially how to make it more sustainable. They are inventing new materials and reinventing processes.
Michael Chui: Wow. I am very much looking forward to hearing the conversation. Over to you, Janet.
Janet Bush: Welcome, Edwin. I’m so pleased that you could join us today. I just wanted to ask by starting a bit about you, your background. Where did you grow up? What did you study? What were your interests?
Edwin Keh: Thanks for having me. I grew up in Hong Kong. I don’t sound like I’m from Hong Kong because my wife is American, and this accent is for good in-law management. I studied urban design. My undergraduate degree is [in] urban design. And I thought I was going to be a sociologist.
In fact, I was on my way to get my PhD in sociology when I took what I thought was a summer job working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the [UN]HCR, in one of the refugee camps. And I had one of the most frustrating work experiences, because I was watching people die unnecessarily in refugee camps. And I couldn’t figure out how to get resources to them. That actually prompted a shift in my thinking.
I went to business school. And that got me down the road to looking at enterprises and supply chains. And I stayed in supply chains for about 30 years.
Janet Bush: So do you regard yourself as primarily a businessman?
Edwin Keh: Accidentally, I think. I was always curious about organizational behavior, organizational structures, and how groups of people organize themselves to get things done in a more efficient manner. And business was a much more efficient way of looking at that rather than not-for-profits, where they don’t have as clear and/or sharp metrics.
But I also took a left turn, if you will. As you mentioned in your introduction, I got to a point in my career in which I stepped off the corporate ladder and decided I wanted to spend more time thinking, doing more research, and do something different. And so I stepped off to run a research institute and became an academic and a researcher, to find out more about how I screwed up in the last 30 years of my career.
Janet Bush: You say that, but did you enjoy being in business? You were in retail, largely. How did you get into retail? And what was fun about it?
Edwin Keh: I got into retail because I thought it was a fascinating way to learn more about the world. And particularly in the textile, apparel, and fashion industry because for whatever reason, we built this very, very long, globalized supply chain. It is probably one of the most globalized supply chains of any industry in the world.
I’m very curious about how these things work. It fascinated me. And it’s not a very static area. There’s so many changes. There’s technology, science, and all the new trends. And all the social movements that came along during my career. So I found it endlessly exciting.
But I did feel, at some point, that I wanted to understand the causality behind the phenomenon, which is why I stepped off. One of the reasons why I stepped off.
Janet Bush: In a recent interview, you were described as the godfather of Hong Kong’s fashion sustainability industry. And it’s clear that your institute is doing lots of extremely exciting work. But what led you to focus on sustainability, having been in retail and having been so close to the fashion industry?
Edwin Keh: I was trying to figure out what was going on. We did a large survey with stakeholders. And three big domains, three big answers I kept getting over and over again as I talked with people were: they really wanted to solve for sustainability, because that’s something that everybody in every part of the supply chain was asking for, seeking solutions for.
And Industry 4.0. what do we do? We’re going from a labor-intensive to a more technology-intensive industry. How do we respond to that? And then, are there ways in which we can take the materials, the learnings, the supply chain, and the processes in this industry and use it in other, adjacent industries?
Hospitality and high-performance sports. Elderly care. All those things became interesting domains for us. So those three domains have driven the work of the research center the last ten years. And they sort of overlap into each other frequently.
Sustainability, for sure, has been something that has caught the imagination and the attention of a lot of stakeholders with our work. I think that’s what we’ve become known for.
Janet Bush: Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what your institute is doing—the revolution that’s happening in fashion and sustainable materials—how big is the carbon footprint of the fashion industry?
I’ve read very arresting figures from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Every year, the foundation says, the fashion industry uses enough water to meet the consumption needs of five million people. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of annual global carbon emissions. And that’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. I would love to get your take on those figures, and give me some of your own.
Edwin Keh: I think those are all educated guesses, would be how I look at those. I think they probably are as good as we can approximate today.
The fashion industry is certainly quite water-intensive. The dyeing, the processing, the wet processing that we do for our materials consume a lot of water, pollute a lot of water, and it is probably not the most efficient use of our valuable resources that we have.
There are some numbers that would indicate that the industry is about five gigatons [of greenhouse gas emissions annually]. Some are higher. That depends on how far back you go into the supply chains—tier two, tier three, types of activities that drive some of this consumption.
Certainly there are other industries that are much bigger contributors to the problem. This is a significant and a high-profile contributor to the challenges we face. Almost all fashion purchases are discretionary purchases.
None of us will freeze to death this winter if we don’t buy another jacket or something like that. It is something that is much more manageable and controllable. There are other industries that produce a lot more emissions, but those may be much harder for us to look for alternatives to.
Janet Bush: To a certain extent, you’re pushing on an open door because of the discretionary nature of fashion. And that will depend on how we all collectively, as consumers, change. And I’ll go back to that point. But if you break down that carbon footprint, it seems to be a combination of dirty production, as you mentioned, and waste. So on the dirty production, how is the institute thinking about that aspect of the footprint?
Edwin Keh: For sure, if you look at the manufacturing part of the supply chain, that is where the opportunity is. That is where what type of materials we choose, how we process the materials, how we manufacture the materials, how we transport the products—that’s where the biggest chunk of any fashion brand supply chain carbon footprint, that’s where that sits.
I mean, we can all change all the light bulbs in the store to LEDs, and it won’t move the needle. On the other hand, if we change something further upstream from there, that’s the opportunity. But I think, to your point, it’s not only the carbon footprint, it’s also a lot of the other unhealthy things that we produce. The chemical waste. The solid waste. The dirty water, and things that we emit into the air. All those are opportunities for us to think about how we can improve on that.
One way to think about this challenge, or this opportunity, is if we think of our telephones. The telephone we’re using today and the telephone we were using ten years ago is a completely different piece of instrument. It provides so much more functionality. It connects us. It protects us. It informs us. It is a tool that has changed with the times and with our needs.
If we bought a T-shirt ten years ago and we buy a T-shirt tomorrow, it’s essentially the same thing. This is the heaviest, dumbest system that we carry around with us. And it is passive. We have to take care of these things, our clothes. The other tools that we use take care of us. I think the opportunity is that we haven’t moved and changed. Nor have we progressed with the changing environment and lifestyle requirements.
Janet Bush: So that’s a huge scope to make a big difference.
Edwin Keh: Yes, yes. I think there are. We just haven’t—for all of the modernity that we think of this industry, it’s quite conservative. I remember talking to a brand recently, a luxury brand, and basically they said, “We haven’t changed suppliers for three generations.”
This “we’ve been doing this forever,” they’re very proud of that. And I was thinking, but why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you embrace stuff? There are things that—we certainly have been slow. The opportunities are there.
Janet Bush: Why do you think that the fashion business, in the broader sense, is so conservative?
Edwin Keh: A couple things. Fundamentally, the relationship between the user of fashion products and the fashion brands and designers, if you will, has changed. And the industry is sort of trying to recapture some of its glories of its past.
Once upon a time, say, up to the 1990s, designers dictated to consumers what is beautiful, what the trends and the fashion magazines tell us, what the looks should be. That was a top down-event. Today it’s a bottom-up event.
It’s a very social, very peer-to-peer type of activity. And yet we still have these illusions that we still have this old industry that we want to somehow preserve.
Maybe it’s the mating calls of dinosaurs or what-have-you. But I think secondly, too, there are some things that work. And we just haven’t figured out how to change with the times, because it has worked good enough. Or it’s profitable enough so that we don’t want to make the big changes. We’re all busy, right? This changing tires on a moving vehicle is hard.
Janet Bush: Just exploring a little bit more the dirty production and the fact that this is a very thirsty industry, I believe that you are trialing, in India, a material that came out of your recycling efforts that is very, very water absorbent. And that it is possible that it might be possible to grow cotton with much less water. Or any water. Could you tell us about that? Because it sounds fascinating.
Edwin Keh: We’re actually on our third large-scale experiment, growing experiment, with this. We’ve been interested in cotton, and cellulose in general, because we want to look for some future solution that is cellulose-based. And perhaps some protein-based solutions, so that it can take the place [of] a lot of the petroleum-based materials that we use today.
In the cellulose experiments, we were messing around with recycling of cellulose. We’d been looking at, What are some high-value outputs that we can create with these recycled materials? And one of the answers is, we functionalized cellulose, recycled cellulose, into a super-absorbent polymer. This is a polymer that absorbs about 30 times its weight in water, and then it releases it. And then it does it again repeatedly.
We looked at this as an opportunity to improve the root health of cotton plants while they’re growing. And we’ve been successful essentially now, to grow cotton without irrigation. Just using this material. It pulls moisture in from the ambient environment and stores it and releases it in the appropriate time, right at the root. And so cotton grows faster. The quality of cotton fiber is better, because the overall plant is healthier.
And the yield improves per acre. Double-digit yield improvement on a per-acre basis. So we’re quite excited about this. Right now we are scaling it up in India to make sure that we get the proportions right.
But we’re also developing the second generation of this material, in which we’re adding nutrients into the polymer so that it can also take the place of fertilizer and things like that. Concurrently, we’re also working on a third generation of this material to do all of that but in a much more efficient manufacturing process.
We’re juggling a couple of balls there. But the whole idea is—places like India, you already see the effects of climate change and extreme climate. A lot of the places that we’re working with have had really, really hot summers. There are some that have very little water. Other places have flooding.
I think going forward, the places where we can grow cotton traditionally may get narrower and narrower. What if we have these types of materials that can help us grow cotton? Grow it faster, because we were working directly with farmers in this project.
Can we get another season out of them? So that they not only grow more cotton and are healthier yields, but can we do it more frequently?
Can we use this material to improve the soil health so that we put some of the nutrients back into the soil? And can we grow cotton in marginal land? Places that in the past just weren’t right to grow cotton? These are all things that we’re trying to work on as quickly as possible. The challenge with this project is that every time we have an experimental question, it takes six months to answer it, because that’s how long it takes to grow cotton.
Janet Bush: The other exciting project is this apron, or this fabric, this T-shirt that “eats” carbon from the air.
Edwin Keh: It’s actually half a project. We’re halfway through it. But Fotografiska, the Swedish museum, heard about it, coincidentally, because we do some work with the H&M Foundation. They got very excited about it. And it’s now a part of their uniform in the restaurant. A very nice restaurant in Stockholm.
We have been functionalizing cotton materials to absorb carbon dioxide. Because we’ve been interested in biodiversity and carbon neutrality as part of our recent research themes. So we developed this functionalized cotton material that absorbs it, and in T-shirt form, it’s about one-third of a tree. A day’s worth of carbon dioxide that is absorbed just in the ambient as you use this shirt.
We were very excited about it. That’s the first part of the experiment. The second part of the experiment that we’re working on right now is a chemical release mechanism. Can we keep the carbon dioxide that we sequester in a solid form? We’re working on some calcium carbonate–based types of solutions.
We’re basically trying to develop a detergent so that as consumers wash this material, it pulls all the carbon dioxide out and keeps it in a solid form. What happened there was that we told the museum, “Yes, we’ve figured out the absorption part. We’re now figuring out the sequestering part.”
They talked to us a little bit more about it. And we said, “Well, one of the mechanisms that we found success in doing the release part is that if you just heat up the T-shirt, then the CO2 gets released again.”
They got very excited about it. Because they said, “Well, what if we release the CO2 in our greenhouse?” And I say, “Oh, that’s cool.” Because then, there, the plants can use it as part of the photosynthesis process and actually then you have this cool cycle.
They just happened to have, in their basement, a sealed greenhouse where they grow their salads and their herbs. So they have a very elegant little loop. It’s a uniform during the day, and then at night, they take all the uniforms and they put it in the greenhouse. It gets heated up. The carbon dioxide gets released. The plants use it. And they take the uniforms out in the morning and the cycle goes over again.
We’re very happy about that idea. And we’re looking at solutions like that for sequestering. Can we take CO2 that we produce during the production process and use it as food for plants? So that we can use it in the growing of cotton, let’s say. And so that we sequester the CO2 that we produce? And that stays stable in a cotton form? It’s the beginning of exploration. We’re very excited. We’re looking for different products out of that.
Just so we contextualize this, we’re a small, applied research center. We start about 20 to 30 new projects every year. We have about 50 to 60 ongoing projects. We’ve completed about 200 projects. We have a lot of research going on. And we recently decided that we’re going to put all of our sustainability research in one lab. And we found that we have an inventory of 60 to 70 sustainability-, circularity-, recycling-related projects that we’re building out.
Janet Bush: Of all these projects that you have on the stocks or are planning—without giving away state secrets, which are the ones that excite you the most?
Edwin Keh: One of the things that we have observed is that the best opportunities for making breakthroughs, and for disruptions, are at the extremes of the supply chain. If you get as close as possible to the raw material, you can influence where we start. What do we work on?
And then if you get very close to consumer or post-consumer, at the point of sale, there’s opportunities to work on new business models. We’ve talked about the material side, we have ongoing research. We have a cool hydroponic project.
We were building something called “the world’s shortest supply chain,” where we go from raw material to garment all in—I’m shooting for, like, one 40-foot container, but my team tells me it has to be two 40-foot containers. Completely discharge-free. Self-sustaining. Enclosed, location-free type of solution where you can grow anywhere and make anywhere. We’re excited about that extreme.
We’re also looking at different types of cellulose source. And the places that we are most excited about are looking at one—agricultural waste. Which there’s a lot of effort around the world on. Also saltwater-based solutions. Anything that we can grow in the oceans, so that we don’t have to compete with food for resources on the land, we think will be a good idea.
Lots of work there. And then on the other extreme, the point-of-sale and the consumer side, we’re looking at new business models. Highly intelligent business models. And new value. Can we sell services instead of products? How do we monetize ideas? How do we engage customers in different ways? And then the extended life of materials and products. How do we build in second use, third use into materials and products that we create?
Those two extremes, and then post-consumer recycling and all that. And building consumption-based economy solutions. Because things that we want to recycle, they are in the wrong parts of the world. They’re in the consuming economies where there are no capabilities to do any type of processing.
The factories are in the manufacturing economies. We have all this material there. Are there ways that we can provide highly intelligent, highly effective, highly automated solutions so that these can be processed into other, high-value materials so that they can be used again and again? Cool things like that are ongoing.
Janet Bush: When we did our research at MGI on the Bio Revolution, we talked explicitly about innovation being the start of the journey. Then it’s commercialization, then it’s adoption. So it’s interesting that you’re talking about business models. Because that clearly has to be a huge part of your thinking. And obviously is.
How far are we along that journey with some of the innovations that you’ve been talking about? How far have we got to go to get to the commercialization and then the adoption, to the scale that will make a real difference?
Edwin Keh: The nightmare scenario is too little, too late, right? That we have these things, but we don’t get there till 2040 or something like that, by which time we’ve had some irreparable damage to our environment.
One of the things that we’re excited about is a disruption to the innovation model itself. How can we get solutions to the marketplace faster? A couple of principles. A long answer to your short question is, one, we think that most real-world challenges are multidiscipline.
It’s a science problem. It’s a logistics problem. It’s a business-case problem. And you have to solve all of them for it to have a marketplace. What we’re doing is that instead of building scientific domain expertise, we intentionally put groups of people, groups of researchers from very different domains, together to collaborate on projects together.
We intentionally, in most of our projects, have different stakeholders up and down the supply chain, working together on these solutions so that we take into consideration the manufacturing challenges, the pricing challenges, the end-of-use or distribution challenges in the solution.
Working in quite a multidiscipline approach and trying to solve everything, one of our mantras there is that closure is overrated. And things will be a little bit messy. Just live with it.
The third principle we have there is what we call the software innovation model, which is that we are aiming for 1.0. We want to release 1.0 as quickly as possible. So we have a sense of impatience and a sense of urgency. And we don’t try to have perfection before we roll most of our solutions out. It’s the 1.0. We know that it’s got some bugs. We know we’ll have some patches along the way.
But we want to throw these solutions out in the marketplace as quickly as possible, and we’ll make the fixes and improvements as we scale up. It’s messy. It’s a little bit—you have to be confident that it’s solving the right things. And you have the confidence that if we have these exciting challenges and they are meaningful and useful, that the right people, the right help will come along. People will help us with the right solutions.
It is the conviction that we will get there. Because it’s the right thing to do. Failure is OK. But we expect to be successful. It’s a little bit of a tightrope walk. But you are optimistically impatient, I guess. Or something along that line.
It’s quite a roller-coaster ride for some of our team members. Especially our younger team members. If they’ve got their PhD, they tend to be quite more disciplined. And we say, “Well, throw that out the window. Let’s take some risks.”
Janet Bush: Going back to the consumer, is there a danger that consumers like me will stand in the way because they won’t adopt? Obviously you get to the point where everything is sustainable. Anything that they’re being offered on their online retailer is sustainable.
At the moment, there’s a smattering of dresses and T-shirts that say, “ecologically this” or “sustainable that.” I don’t know whether they are. And I tend to try and choose them if I like them. But it has to be a lot more than that. The scale to reach a tipping point has to be much bigger. How do you see the consumer reacting to all of this?
Edwin Keh: There’s a couple of perspectives that we have on this. You’re right, there is enough consumer education in which there’s aspiration for consumers to say, “I want to be greener in my consumption, in the choices I make.”
But also, on the other hand, there are some consumer inconsistencies. I’m still looking at the price tag, and that drives my behavior. But I think every day that becomes less and less of a challenge. It’s a matter of how do we communicate with our consumers so that we help them make decisions that ultimately give them the utility that they were looking for in their consumption in the first place?
One of the things, as we talked with stakeholders through this pandemic, is quite interesting. I think the pandemic also shaped a lot of consumer behaviors. Before the pandemic, it was quite clear that aesthetics is the most important thing the consumers are looking for. Does this make me look good?
During and after the pandemic, while that is still important, there were additional questions. Because “Does this make me look good?” And “Does this make me feel safe?” also became questions.
“Does this make me feel good?” we thought was quite interesting because the last thing consumers want is to feel guilty about their consumption. I’m buying this, and I’m destroying the world with this consumption. That doesn’t make me feel good.
How do we have enough transparency and disclosure to help consumers say, oh, peace of mind. Here are the social implications of what you are doing. Here are the environmental implications of your choice. It makes you look good. Maybe you should feel good.
Finally, the utility is also around my relationship to my clothes. Are there some functionalities, high-performance characteristics, that keep me safe or make me have more peace of mind in using these products?
We want to support all of these types of changes with consumers. With the brands, what we are saying is, look, once upon a time, this was a challenge with your CSR department. Five years ago, let’s say. Today, this is a conversation we wanted to have with your CFOs.
Because I think there are going to be clearly winners and losers in this. It’s a zero-sum game. We can’t grow the consumption and volume anymore. In fact, we have to shrink our consumption model. We’re using too much resources. We’re selling too many clothes, and we’re making consumers buy too many clothes.
The only way we’re going to grow, successful brands are going to grow, is by taking market share away from the competitors. And the brands that are part of the solution, the brands that are one of the good guys in these types of challenges of sustainability, probably will be the winners.
You have to really be in that right pack. And therefore this is now a survival, and this is now a growth, and this is now a financial challenge. And you need to invest and put money behind making sure that you’re one of the first movers in this trend. That message resonates well with brands.
Consumers, I think, they are not only price-sensitive—they still are—but I think they are also value sensitive now. How does this make me look? How does this make me feel? What utility am I getting out of this? And I think this is where we can give a more complete solution as consumers consume.
Janet Bush: I just wanted to go back to something you said earlier when you were talking about business models. You were talking about exploring what services that you could provide. I didn’t really understand what that had to do with sustainability. And I just wanted you to explain more about your thinking.
Edwin Keh: A great example and a great experiment we’re doing with that is our Garment-to-Garment Recycle System. This is a retail recycling business. The first store opened in 2019. It’s still operating as a standalone, for-profit.
There, what we’re asking consumers to do is bring your old clothes. And then, at the store, we’ll break them down into fibers. We’ll make yarn out of them. And we’ll take the yarns from your old clothes, and we’ll 3-D knit you new clothes.
So there, we are providing a service. We’ll give you new-looking clothes. You’re just bringing the raw material for it. We have been trying to—not successfully so far, but we’ve approached several designers and said, “Why don’t you sell designs? Why do you have to sell products? Come work with us. Help us program these. We’re not artists. You guys are the designers.”
Right now, if you go into our shop, the question we ask is, “V neck or crew neck?” Because those are the only two things we know how to program. But come help us program some better stuff into our 3-D knitting system. And it’s your design, we’ll put your label on it. And you’re selling the design.
So are there digitized solutions, like that, of selling services? I think there’s a lot of effort to figure out leasing and rental and resale. I don’t think anybody has cracked the code on that. But those types of services are important for us to explore.
And then on the other side of that are predictive analytics. How do we get the right clothes in the right style, in the right color, in the right size, to the right store, at a price that consumers are willing to pay so that we end up making less but selling more?
The profit comes from reducing the dead stock and the inventory risk that a lot of brands are faced with because of this dynamic marketplace that we’re in. It’s harder and harder to use regression analysis, which is most of the systems that buyers are using today. You know, what sold last season is what I want to buy next season.
That doesn’t work when the market is shifting so quickly. And that doesn’t work when you’re trying to expand into another new international market or something like that. So we’ve developed some forward-looking tools, instead of regression. Looking for information out of social media and other peer-to-peer communications. And looking at trend directions, and how things flow from one economy to the other economy. So that we can make more accurate manufacturing and logistics decisions. Those we’re fairly excited about.
Janet Bush: We’ve taken up a lot of your time, and I could go on and on. But I just wanted to finish, if that’s OK, with some very quick-fire questions. My first one is, what makes you the most pessimistic?
Edwin Keh: We’ve touched on it, which is too little, too late. We have short attention spans. We tend to focus on something, but not very long. And unfortunately, things like climate change [are] a long slog that will need decades of focused attention. So that’s a concern.
Janet Bush: What makes you most optimistic?
Edwin Keh: I don’t think that humankind will be extinct because of the fashion decisions that we make. We have, so far, as a species, solved every major challenge that has come along our way. And I know we can do this as well. It’s just getting the right people working on the right problems.
Janet Bush: If you didn’t specialize in retail, fashion, innovation, what would you be doing?
Edwin Keh: Well, first of all, I don’t think I’m a specialist at all. I have a very short attention span. I think that I’m in a great place because this job allows me to explore very broadly. But if I were not doing this, I would probably be very excited to work with some of the social challenges that we see around the world today. And some of the economic opportunities. There are just so many things that don’t require a lot of effort but can yield a lot of results for a lot of people.
Janet Bush: That kind of takes us full circle, because you started working in refugee camps. So that’s where your heart lies?
Edwin Keh: One of the things that you don’t want to happen is, you don’t want to turn 60 and then look back and say, oh, I wish I had done that. I wish. And if that happens to be I wish I had climbed Mount Everest, well, you can’t do it—your knees won’t get you there anymore.
I think we all need to optimize in everything that we do, to say, “How am I going to be most happy? How am I going to be most useful when I look back on things that I’ve spent my time on?”
Making sure that we focus on those, the biggest, the most audacious challenges, will be cool. The geek term for it is, make sure that you don’t have regret avoidance regression analysis.
Janet Bush: On that almost impenetrable note, thank you very much, Edwin. It’s been a real blast.
Edwin Keh: Thank you, Janet.