Prioritizing the Planet

By Sanika Kulkarni

The challenges of sustainability, brand loyalty, and growth amid a global health crisis

Being a heritage clothing brand like Chicks during a pandemic comes with a unique set of challenges. Directors Alicia and Jennifer Tam, the fourth-generation heirs to the family business, describe this journey as a “roller coaster ride.” 

For a heritage lifestyle brand such as Chicks, most sales come from brick-and-mortar stores. Months of pro-democracy protests, followed by COVID-19 restrictions, struck a critical blow. The company experienced a 50% drop in sales in April, recovered briefly in May and June, only to take another hit in July due to the third wave of the virus in Hong Kong. 

During these difficult times, two main trends have come to represent survival for retail businesses: digital transformation, and sustainability. Despite the tumultuous effects of COVID-19 on the company, Chicks has taken this time to develop its ecommerce presence, and retained its core focus on sustainability. 

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the Tam sisters were already building an online presence for Chicks by selling its products on HKTVmall and building its ecommerce portal. The pandemic gave them the downtime needed to develop these digital efforts further, providing a seamless experience for its clientele. Chicks needed this digital infrastructure to cater to the evolving needs of a rapidly-globalizing customer base. 

Alicia and Jennifer recall a time where Hong Kong people living abroad were asking their friends to bring back Chicks apparel when they would visit. The brand’s long-standing, iconic popularity motivated them to think about taking Chicks global and exploring the diasporic market. 

“For 67 years, people have said ‘Chicks means quality,’ so it is really a confidence booster,” says Jennifer. 

Another key aspect of Chicks’ efforts to modernize its brand is investing in sustainability. Over the years, Chicks has partnered with suppliers that align with its sustainable mission, leading to changes in many aspects of operations and the production process. 

Among other projects, Chicks has partnered with a Singapore-based hygiene brand known as Bio-home, which produces cleaning products that use 100% plant-derived ingredients. By carrying Bio-home detergents in Chicks’s stores, they continue to support sustainable efforts in the market. 

Chicks has also partnered with the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) for the past two years. The first year was focused on optimizing Chicks’ supplier’s manufacturing process to lower its carbon footprint, and in the second, it trialed a blockchain-based supply chain solution to trace the origin of its fabric. 

While the sisters realized that the blockchain project was perhaps too ahead of its time for the company, the efforts still had a tangible benefit.

“This collaboration enabled us to talk to suppliers to promote the sustainability point of view from the material and manufacturing side,” Alicia explains. 

The main challenge that Chicks still faces when it comes to being sustainable is the price sensitivity of its existing customers. Something as simple as making the plastic packaging more eco-friendly was met with pushback from the team, not only since recycled materials are more expensive, but because the repacking process is also costly, and both together would have increased the retail price too much. 

Though easier said than done, Chicks needs to strike a balance between sustainability and meeting market demands. 

“[Sustainability] is not possible to do as one person or one company. It’s a whole collective effort for the planet,” says Alicia.

Chicks says that, ultimately, there needs to be a change in mindset surrounding sustainability, and the company is determined to be part of that change. In the coming year, the sisters are planning to conduct workshops to educate the younger generation on sustainability issues. By fostering greater demand for sustainable products, they hope to change the market and engineer a paradigm shift for generations to come. 

Sanika is Jumpstart’s Editorial Intern.

This article was written in partnership with Chicks.

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