Céline Semaan: ‘We must look at waste as a new resource’

An image from the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit. (Supplied)
Updated 11 February 2019

Céline Semaan: ‘We must look at waste as a new resource’

  • Arab News talks to the Lebanese founder of the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit
  • The Sustainable Fashion Summit is the brainchild of Lebanese entrepreneur Céline Semaan, the soft-spoken CEO and founder of Slow Factory

NEW YORK: On a frigid afternoon in New York on February 1, the road to Manhattan’s Turtle Bay area was paved with fashionable footsteps. Kicking off New York Fashion Week, collaborators including industry experts, designers and scientists came together at the United Nations headquarters for an all-day summit focused on sustainability in fashion. The conversation centered on providing a platform to highlight success stories related to innovation and social justice, and map out action plans in which civil society and industry leaders can collaborate and embody the summit’s slogan: “Good for the Earth, Good for the People.”

“The UN is not necessarily known for high fashion,” Robert Skinner, executive director of the UN Office for Partnerships said to a full house of about 400 attendees. Riefqah Jappie, International Trade Center Representative to the UN opened up the dialogue by saying, “It is good for the earth, good for the people — and it is good for business.”

Scary stats flashed before our eyes as different speakers reminded us that many designers are making beautiful products— that simply don’t last. They end up in the trash, or the ocean.

The Sustainable Fashion Summit is the brainchild of Lebanese entrepreneur Céline Semaan, the soft-spoken CEO and founder of Slow Factory, a “design innovation lab focusing on sustainable practices.” It’s mission, as described on its website, is to “make clothing and accessories with a political message, known as #FashionActivism, and donate proceeds to humanitarian and environmental causes.”

Celine Semaan. (Supplied)

Wearing a snazzy red velvet suit, her dark curls slicked back into a neat bun, Semaan, who is also a writer and a director’s fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, told Arab News about the urgent message behind the summit.

An image from the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit. (Supplied)

“I didn’t study fashion so I didn’t come from that world and I don’t come from that sort of education. I came from a different angle,” she said. “We need a redesign of the current system with the environment at the heart of it. Not to harvest virgin resources that destroy natural resources. We need global pressure and to shift marketing budgets to (research and development).”

It’s not a new message, but it is one that seems to be gathering momentum — aided in no small part by the Japanese ‘tidying’ expert Marie Kondo, whose new Netflix show dedicated to helping people rid their closets and houses of unwanted belongings, has been hugely popular.

“I really love the KonMari (Kondo’s lifestyle brand) concept, and that’s how I live my life personally,” said Semaan. “People are editing down their belongings, so there’s a lot of new waste. And there are a lot of companies, like Helpsy (which disposes of garments ethically), because someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure.

“We must not look at waste as waste, but as a new resource,” she continued. “I started (to look at it like) that over 20 years ago and I really think that I lived this way because I had to travel so much. Everything I have fits two suitcases.”

Semaan’s family left Lebanon for Canada as refugees during the Lebanese Civil War, and getting dressed up, she has said, was a way of establishing her identity in a country that wasn’t her own.

A childhood photo of Celine. (Supplied)

“As Arabs, we use beauty and fashion as coping mechanisms in situations of chaos,” she told Arab News. “As a Lebanese woman, I grew up (learning) that beauty and your appearance is self-respect and your dignity. Of course, we do it for the gaze of the ‘other’ but I really find inspiration from my peers and the women around me who always look stunning. Being in control of how we look and how we present ourselves to the world is an important aspect of our culture.

“We go see refugees in camps and they still are looking great,” she continued. “That does not to diminish their trauma — it enhances their humanity and celebrates their dignity and confidence.”

Semaan has first-hand experience of this. Slow Factory has collaborated with American Near Middle East Refugee Aid (Anera) — a non-profit that provides humanitarian and development aid to the Middle East — to run educational programs in refugee camps.

“It was very interesting that the beauty and fashion program was the most popular,” she said. “If you feel shy, you put on a little bit of mascara and eyeliner. It’s such a wonderful, humble way to look at it and to create empathy with these groups.” And, she adds, it’s a side of refugee life that is rarely depicted in Western media.

Staying stylish, Semaan contends, does not have to break the bank. Or the planet. “I am looking at how we can use less instead of purchasing to fill a void. If you want to be sustainable, it’s a lifestyle choice and a spiritual understanding. We (need to) realize our patterns and compulsive purchases. Today’s fashion supply chains mimic those of colonial era trade routes. It is time to decolonize. Everything you make turns into food or poison,” she said.

“I save up before buying a piece. Most of the things that I have, I keep for a very long time. I mend them. I take my shoes to the cobbler — I change the sole and the color. I have pieces I can pass down to my kids." Anything that doesn't get patched up or passed on, she said, she recycles.

There are a few items, she admitted, that she considers ‘must-haves’ in her wardrobe at all times, including “a good pair of denims, a good pair of flat ballet shoes, and a good pair of running shoes.”

An image from the UN’s Sustainable Fashion Summit. (Supplied)

“I wear a lot of white shirts — simple ones; I take the ones my husband doesn’t need,” she added. “Oh, and a few vintage blazers and a very good Christian Dior one that reminds me of my grandmother.”

Semaan’s commitment to reducing waste and looking after the environment is something she’s passing on to her children too. Traveling to Lebanon has given them more of an understanding that the lifestyle they have in North America should not be taken for granted. “They visit Lebanon and they understand that there is no electricity at times, and no water,” Semaan said. “So when they come to New York, they feel the luxury.

“My kids come to my Slow Factory office and see my work,” she continued. “In my household, we are very aware of water usage and we do a lot of arts and crafts with the garbage. They do have plastic toys, but they understand the impact of plastic — by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish (in the oceans). We buy biodegradable toothbrushes. My daughter told me she wanted a (plastic) toothbrush, but I told her, ‘That’s going to return to the earth as a toothbrush, but your toothbrush will turn into a tree.’ She uses that to (explain) to their friends.”

Her daughter’s ability to communicate her family’s lifestyle choices is the kind of skill that Semaan believes will be vital for future generations, in order to slow and, hopefully, reverse the damage that has already been done to the planet.

“I think it’s important to talk about this without guilt,” Semaan said. “They’re the ones who will inherit the earth.”

Startup of the Week: Coco Sabon’s natural skincare

Coco Sabon. (Supplied)
Updated 21 May 2019

Startup of the Week: Coco Sabon’s natural skincare

  • Coco Sabon’s customers are mostly Arab women aged between 20 and 40, “though we have many loyal fans that span different age groups and come from all over the world”

RIYADH: The healing and relaxing powers of nature are at the heart of Coco Sabon’s philosophy.
Launched by Dr. Cynthia Mosher — an American living in Riyadh — the skincare firm is committed to sourcing high-quality, natural oriental ingredients that provide the skin with gentle care and nourishment.
“I launched Coco Sabon in November 2015 at Alfaisal University’s first bazaar,” she said.
Mosher, who completed a bachelor of science in natural health sciences, said she hoped to do something more than simply diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatments. She also wanted to have time for other important things and people, so now she is working as an educator, training a new generation of medical students.
She encourages people to make healthy choices when it comes to ingredients they use on their bodies.
“I fell in love with formulating and creating beautiful, natural skincare products. I continued my creative journey while pursuing my medical degree, which deepened my commitment to develop ‘do no harm’ skincare based on natural ingredients,” she said.
“Layered with my admiration of Arabian culture, the rich regional ingredients, and my passion for integrative medicine, I developed a deep sense of holistic self-care that guides my formulations. My love for the fragrances, natural remedies and skincare routines of the Middle East are the heart and soul of Coco Sabon.”
There is a growing demand for Coco Sabon products. “After years of requests from family and friends to make and sell my products, I tested the waters, so to speak. We sold out of everything that day.”
She added: “About six weeks later we were invited to participate at the Gathering in Al-Bujairi in January 2016. We had a crowd of customers nonstop for three days and again sold out of everything. It was a decisive weekend. Coco Sabon was born and we have not looked back since.”
Mosher’s family and friends offered encouragement, but one of her strongest supporters was her best friend, Audrey Wilkinson. She said: “Audrey was my supporter, helper and adviser. She now works with me, formulating and producing our candles, cremes and face care line.”
Coco Sabon’s customers are mostly Arab women aged between 20 and 40, “though we have many loyal fans that span different age groups and come from all over the world.”
The brand offers a wide range of products, including soap, bath bombs, scrubs, cremes, face and body oils, perfumes and candles.
“Everything is produced by hand in small batches here in Riyadh using natural, safe and organic ingredients, sourced locally wherever possible,” Mosher said.
Coco Sabon believes in supporting local businesses and in sourcing the best ingredients possible. The store also designs its packaging and hand packages, labels and wraps each item, selling through an online store (cocosabon.com), Instagram, WhatsApp, and local popup shop events.
Mosher has also started offering workshops on making her products.
“Some might think that to be unwise because I could very well teach a future competitor,” she said. “Well, that’s true for the medical students I teach now. Should I withhold my knowledge for fear of them becoming better doctors and doing better? Of course not. The more knowledge we put out there, the better our society will be. The workshops also help build community.
“I connect with people who are curious, who want to learn how to create and how to make good choices for their health. I welcome workshop students young and older (my youngest so far was just 6 years old), and I encourage them to take what they learn and use it to improve their lives and that of others around them. If they make a business out of doing so, then good for them. We all have something to offer the world,” she said.
Mosher is happy that she created a job she loves. “Sometimes I miss practicing clinical medicine, but I remind myself that I am helping people make healthier choices for their bodies, their minds, their souls and the planet,” she said.
“That’s a special kind of medicine that I believe can help heal the world.”