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Ethical fashion: it’s so right now, but it’s granny chic too

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Dubai-based sustainable fashion brand Palem

Sustainable fashion is a buzzword that’s becoming a sound business proposition, particularly for MENA manufacturers returning to the thrifty practices of their grandparents

The QR code on the clothing label takes you to a field where the cotton is grown. Shoppers can swipe to see the cotton being picked by hand and gathered into fluffy piles, before it is sent to nearby “gins” for the separation of lint and seed.

The next pictures show spinning and weaving before dyeing, cutting and sewing the final garment – a process that takes three to four months from start to finish. 

“The customer will see all the phases, from cotton picking to the day it becomes a garment,” said May Kassem, co-founder and COO of Scarabeus Sacer, a sustainable clothing brand in Egypt.

The images will be available via an app that uses blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrency, to digitalise the supply chain so customers can trace the origin of their clothes.

“It’s going to help people understand what sustainability is all about and why it’s different,” said Kassem, who is also a co-founder of the Sustainable Fashion Alliance, which launched in Egypt last year.

Person, Human, Face
Egyptian sustainable fashion brand Scarabeus Sacer

Educating the consumer

The potential is huge. One of the major challenges facing sustainable fashion brands in the Middle East is lack of awareness among shoppers.

“We have to do a lot of work on educating the consumer, explaining the materials we use, how they’re better and why our clothes are more expensive… People are still hesitant to pay that premium,” Kassem said. 

Fast fashion brands can pump out clothes at a fraction of the price, so sustainable clothing companies must make their case to compete. These higher costs, a shortage of eco-friendly materials and available machinery, and limited know-how make it difficult for new brands to launch.

“Nowadays, we feel like we are fighting against giant fast fashion actors and small brands cannot make it,” said Juliette Barkan, co-founder and creative designer at Palem, a sustainable fashion brand based in the UAE.

Shopping habits are starting to change, however. While sustainable fashion still accounts for a fraction of the $55 billion fashion market in the Middle East and North Africa, more of the region’s consumers are citing sustainability as a factor in their purchasing decisions. 

PwC’s Global Consumer Insights Survey 2021 found that seven out of 10 Middle Eastern shoppers said they engaged in sustainable behaviours, with respondents from the region consistently outscoring global survey participants.

“The MENA region is definitely becoming more interested and active in ethical retail. North African manufacturers are integrating and promoting sustainability into their textile and fashion supply chains, while the Moroccan government is providing incentives for fashion companies to be sustainably certified,” said Dr Celeste Cecilia LoTurco, director at PwC Middle East government and public sector services, ESG and sustainability.

While sustainable fashion has become a buzzword in an industry that revolves around trends, the concept of sustainability has been part of Middle Eastern traditions for generations. 

“Sustainable living practices are inherent in our grandparents’ culture and with the age of capitalism, fast fashion and hyper-economic growth, these sustainable practices have been eroded and forgotten,” said Norhan El Sakkout, creative director of Egyptian sustainable fashion brand Saqhoute, and another founding member of the Sustainable Fashion Alliance. 

However, the past four years have seen a tremendous increase in demand for sustainable fashion, making her optimistic that the sector will evolve.

Clothing, Apparel, Shirt
Egyptian fashion brand Saqhoute, founding member of the Sustainable Fashion Alliance 

Support for sustainable fashion

“More and more brands are becoming aware that they need to address environmental impact and social justice when it comes to how their businesses operate. It also makes economic sense and is far more financially sustainable in the long run,” said El Sakkout. 

With Sharm El Sheikh due to host the COP27 climate change conference later this year, the government is also taking steps to support the sector.

Around 2,000 cotton farmers are being trained in sustainable methods as a result of Egypt joining the Better Cotton Initiative in 2020 to advance the industry and improve production methods.

“The government is implementing a lot of changes to improve the quality of Egyptian cotton, incentivise farmers and increase the supply of organic cotton,” Kassem said.

The country’s cotton industry was hit hard by the pandemic after companies cancelled orders and farmers began replanting cotton fields with food crops to survive the slump.

But on a global scale, the pandemic accelerated the sustainability revolution with Gen Z shoppers in particular starting to make decisions based on sustainable retail practices, followed by millennials and Gen X.  

“They are willing to pay up to 10 percent more for sustainable fashion,” LoTurco said.

Meanwhile in the MENA, 64 percent of shoppers described their purchasing habits as more eco-friendly in the past six months, according to the PwC survey.

The global ethical fashion market was valued at almost $6.3 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $10.2 billion by 2025, according to the Business Research Company 2022 Report. 

With the fashion sector booming in countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the MENA is well placed to drive this growth and become the next big sustainable fashion hub.

“The next five years in this sector will continue with a push towards sustainability, as we closely approach the 2030 UN SDG target of achieving sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources,” LoTurco said.

“If today sustainable fashion is considered a niche product, over time it is expected to widen its consumer base becoming the option of choice.”

Part of the growth will be down to innovative technologies, including the use of 3D printing and robots for sewing and fabric creation.

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain and data analytics are also expected to drive development, supported by the acceleration of the global sustainability agenda with the wider implementation of regulations and standards including those on sustainable supply chains, recycling, waste and water management.

The UAE at the vanguard

Within the Middle East, the UAE is one of the most active countries in the sustainable fashion sector. 

Residents’ average annual fashion spend stands at $1,600 per shopper – twice the average of an American shopper, according to PwC – so the country is well placed to drive demand for sustainable fashion in the region.

“For the UAE, we see a dynamic growth of the sector supported by competitive labour costs, extremely low import duty and low corporate tax, availability of high skilled labour and a stable economy in addition to a number of specific initiatives to support sustainable fashion,” LoTurco said.

Barkan has seen the shift among Palem shoppers, who are now starting to ask more questions about the benefits of slow fashion alternatives.

“No one can deny the impact of the fashion industry [on the environment] today. Customers have been aware of this for several years now and are turning to brands that consider sustainable fashion as a pillar of their development,” she said. 

The $3 trillion global fashion industry accounts for as much as 10 percent of carbon emissions and almost 20 percent of wastewater, according to the UN environment programme, consuming more energy than aviation and shipping combined.

Statistics on the total number of garments purchased every year vary widely, from 80 billion to 150 billion according to the World Economic Forum, with consumers wearing them an average of seven times before they are binned.

Clothing, Apparel, Sleeve
Palem shoppers are starting to ask more questions about the benefits of slow fashion alternatives

“It is far better to buy fewer products even if they aren’t sustainable, rather than a lot of conscious products just to feel better about yourself,” Barkan said.

The problem for sustainable brands is making money from a business model built around a low turnover with longer-lasting products that rarely need replacing.

Add the higher price point and it’s easy to see why fast fashion maintains a firm lead. But the time will come when sustainable fashion can compete with its mass- produced counterpart, according to Emma Barber, director of DGrade, which makes uniforms from recycled plastic bottles in the UAE.

 “With the demand for polyester growing and more pressure being put on crops like cotton, there will come a time when actually we will all be at price parity, and it will be a no brainer for companies to switch their procurement decisions from making regular uniforms with conventional polyester to making them out of a sustainable form,” Barber said. 

DGrade converts used polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles into polyester, a process that emits 55 percent fewer carbon emissions than the production of virgin polyester yarn. 

Global demand for polyester is huge: 53 million tonnes were produced last year, just 4 percent of which is recycled. 

“The companies we work with understand how important it is to save resources…they can justify the slight uplift in cost with the good news message and products that stand the test of time,” Barber said.

If nothing changes, the fashion sector is on track to account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, fuelled by an insatiable demand for new garments, with the average customer buying 60 percent more clothing than they did in 2000

But the change in recent years is that sustainability is moving from a buzzword to a sound business proposition, and this offers hope for the future.

“When we started in 2010, nobody was talking about the conservation of resources or carbon emissions in relation to clothing, it just wasn’t on the agenda,” Barber said. “Now people understand they can tangibly make a difference.”

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