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Arab designers respond to demand for sustainable fashion

In addition to new styles, Arab Fashion Week in Dubai also showcased the work of "slow fashion" designers who are trying to reduce the industry's environmental impact.
Arab fashion

While progressive ideas like sustainability and inclusive fashion strutted as the main attraction on Arab Fashion Week’s catwalk Saturday, the buying power of attendees and of regional fashion consumers is shifting behind the scenes.  

The Dubai Design District’s quarterly event hosted 35 designers from across the region and globally, including the sustainable start-up brand Atelier Forger — the first Syrian label to debut in the history of the event.  

“It’s black and white,” said Tarek Abou Samra, the brand’s creator, describing the simple classic-chic style of his clothing line — and also the dire need to be sustainable, as the future of the planet, and fashion, depend on it.  

Syrian designer Tarek Abou Samra walks on stage after displaying his women’s fashion line at Arab Fashion Week in Dubai, Oct. 14, 2022. 

“Fashion is the second-most polluting industry in the world,” said the creative designer, who practices slow fashion, or conscious fashion that focuses on quality rather than quantity to support the local environment and craftspeople.  

For materials, he uses an organic supply chain of slower-to-produce cotton to avoid damaging chemicals and high water consumption. To manufacture, he works with a handful of hand-picked artisans in Beirut to create his signature forged brass buttons.  

“This is the part of fashion you don’t see,” said Abou Samra, who believes that the global fashion industry lacks transparency and that buying ethical clothing is a growing priority among consumers.  

Destructive design  

As a whole, the fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s annual global emissions, according to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in 2019, which is more than the annual impact of international flights and maritime shipping combined.  

It is also resource-intensive, using significant amounts of water, land, and pesticides for the farming of raw materials, including cotton.  

About 20 percent of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment. Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean yearly, which cannot be extracted from water and spreads through the food chain, the report stated.  

Despite these figures, measuring the various impacts of fashion and retail on the environment is difficult, as it is interwoven into various industries.  

“The Gulf is a heavy weight when it comes to retail,” said Mahdiah El-Jed, an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and sustainability advisor in the UAE. Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria are regional textile manufacturing hubs, she told Al-Monitor, and their economies depend on it.  

“Tunisia and Morocco’s textile industry flourished due its proximity to Europe,” explained El-Jed, with Inditex, the parent company of Zara, producing fast fashion products and employing Moroccans.   

“Similarly to the greenwashing problem of the fashion industry, we’ve seen the fashion industry pledge itself to bettering its diversity and inclusion practices in the past couple of years, with marketing attempts at showcasing diversity in ads and on the runway for example, all the while maintaining status quo when it comes to its workers working conditions, the majority of whom are people of color,” El-Jed told Al-Monitor.  

But she said this is likely to change as fashion companies face increasing scrutiny from initiatives such as the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), launched in 2018 at COP24 in Poland, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.  

As ESG ratings spread, investors will increasingly expect companies to be transparent on the treatment of all the workers in their supply chain, said the sustainability consultant, in addition to disclosing their environmental impacts, decarbonization efforts, climate risk exposure, and mitigation plans.  

Conscious buyers 

The global ethical fashion market size is expected to grow from $6.93 billion in 2021 to $7.57 billion in 2022, according to the Ethical Fashion Market Size and Growth Analysis report.  

While this is still a tiny percentage of the greater $2.5 trillion dollar global fashion industry, reports McKinsey, it’s a growing market. And it has increasingly attracted the buying power of Arab shoppers.  

“The MENA region is definitively becoming more interested and active in ethical retail,” said Celeste LoTurco, a director at PwC Middle East Government and Public Sector services.   

About 75% of Middle East consumers say they buy from companies that are environmentally conscious, compared with 54% globally, according to a 2022 PwC report. Also, nearly 72% compared to 55% globally say they choose products with a traceable and transparent origin.  

This consumer mindset has impacted the greater fashion and retail industry as well, said LoTurco. “North African manufacturers are integrating and promoting sustainability into their textile and fashion supply chains. The Moroccan government is providing incentives for fashion companies to be sustainably certified,” she added.  

The UAE is among the most active countries in sustainable fashion, said LoTurco, establishing councils looking to develop a sustainable design industry and recognition of its designers in the region, in addition to launching initiatives such as online aggregators to collect luxury secondhand items.  

Fashioning sustainability 

 Emergency Room Beirut models walk on the platform in unison to deliver the finale of the “Borderline” line at Arab Fashion Week in Dubai, Oct. 15, 2022. (Image courtesy of Emergency Room Beirut)

Some start-up brands feel that the burden of being sustainable still sits heavily on their shoulders in the regional industry.  

Emergency Room Beirut designer and founder Eric Mathieu Ritter told Al-Monitor that he works with local artisans in Lebanon, paying them about ten times the standard salary for clothes makers.  

“As a sustainable brand it's always very hard to come and arrive in a market that is not built for us,” said Ritter, describing the added finances and labor required to be a true slow fashion brand.  

Fast fashion has a massive waste problem. Clothes production has doubled over past 15 years, yet only 1% of it is re-used to make new clothes, according to the World Economic Forum.  

To contribute to the solution, Ritter created his entire clothing brand from upcycled materials, repurposing the fabric of old clothes he gathers from the streets of Beirut and Tripoli.  

While he says succeeding as a sustainable brand in the industry is a constant struggle, he found encouragement from events such as Dubai’s Arab Fashion Week, where he shared his upcycled ready-to-wear collection called “Borderline” on the last day of the event to a supportive, and growing, audience.  

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