Sustainable and ethical fashion gaining currency in Egypt

The Rosette blazer from Saqhoute, above and above right. The Saint Catherine embroidered wide belt from Jozee Boutique, right. (Supplied)
Updated 01 June 2019

Sustainable and ethical fashion gaining currency in Egypt

  • Critics of fast fashion say manufacturers should focus on quality products
  • Fast fashion is plagued by ethical concerns, including the treatment of factory workers

CAIRO: Fast fashion is defined as “inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.” While it is affordable, fast fashion is plagued by ethical issues, including the treatment of garment-factory workers.
Its effect on the environment — from the disposal of cheap apparel to the pollution of natural resources — is also a growing cause for concern.
Some entrepreneurs in Egypt are confronting these issues by creating more sustainable and ethical fashion solutions.
One such entrepreneur is Norhan El Sakkout, founder of Saqhoute sustainable fashion.
“We need to eradicate the system,” El Sakkout said. “People need to consume less.”
Coming from a fashion-brand owner, this may sound counterintuitive, but El Sakkout is confident of her business philosophy; fashion should focus on producing quality products.
“My products are priced higher than fast fashion, but my designs are versatile and long-lasting,” El Sakkout said.
Shopping is not only about fashion and price. For many, how their clothes are manufactured matters.
Josline El Kholy, co-founder of Jozee Boutique, an ethical fashion brand, believes companies are ultimately responsible for informing their customers about their products.

“The responsibility is on us (fashion brands) to raise awareness on how our clothes are produced. They (customers) have to know the story behind the product.”
El Kholy, who founded the brand with her husband, Ezzeldine Moukhtar, works with men and women across Egypt to produce bespoke embroidery on their clothing.
The key, according to El Kholy, is having a good relationship with employees.
“Our relationship is like a partnership. We don’t rush things. They (employees) work at their own pace, in their own homes, and can be creative with embroidery. It’s more like a collaboration instead of an employer-employee relationship.”
Such collaboration is also valued by El Sakkout, who believes in paying a fair wage to the people who produce her clothes.
Although, the minimum wage is common for workers in Egypt, El Sakkout prefers to pay above-market rates. “I pay people to live a dignified life,” she said.
But higher wages also mean higher costs for consumers. Not everyone is willing to pay more for a local brand, particularly given Egypt’s economic conditions.
“This is something that we struggle with today,” El Kholy said. “But once (consumers) know the story of how our clothes are made, they are more appreciative of the product and its uniqueness.”
Beyond pricing, sourcing fabrics is important for any sustainable and ethical fashion brand.

Natural fabrics such as organic cotton, linen and wool are commonly favored by conscious designers, particularly if they are grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers and use less water.
But natural and organic fabrics are not always easy to find in Egypt. Despite the global popularity of Egyptian cotton, many local manufacturers rely on imported cotton.
El Sakkout tries to source locally produced natural fabrics, but she is not always successful. “Sometimes I’m able to find 100 percent locally produced cotton and linen in the market. At other times I’m not.”
As a result, she often relies on using blended fabrics, which is also important for supporting local craftsmanship.
“Currently, we have a problem with job creation in Egypt, so using what’s available in the domestic market helps keep our heritage and crafts alive,” she said. “It’s not an all-or-none approach.”
Meanwhile, El Kholy also faces the same problem. “It takes effort to get the type and quality you want, but you have to be persistent and knock on all doors,” she said.
Regardless, sustainable fashion is a growing trend across the world and Egypt is no exception.
Although Egypt was slow to embrace sustainable fashion, the practice is now growing steadily as people become aware of the importance of ethical and conscious consumerism.
Sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have aspect of today’s fast-changing business world.
“Any new business entering the market will have to keep sustainability in mind,” El Sakkout said. “That’s where the world is heading. The concept may be relatively new in Egypt, but we can bridge the gap and cross over really fast.”

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of The Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


The Room Place: A window to Egyptian art 

The shop partners with Fair Trade, a social enterprise in Egypt that works with 2,300 artisans. (Supplied)
Updated 2 min 22 sec ago

The Room Place: A window to Egyptian art 

DUBAI: Located in the heart of the UAE, The Room Place in Jumeirah, Dubai is a store that exclusively sells traditional crafts made by Egyptian artisans. 

The shop partners with Fair Trade, a social enterprise in Egypt that works with 2,300 artisans in about 17 villages and is divided into 75 crafts, to sell, promote and market handmade work both locally and globally. 

The founder of The Room Place, Amira El-Serafy, told Arab News: “Artisans get very excited about working with Fair Trade because they secure a number of added value and benefits to them and to their families. They immediately get the fair amount of cash.”

“You can’t really see imperfection in handmade stuff,” said Amira El-Serafy, founder of The Room Place. (Supplied)

“We work together to ensure that their work environment is safe. We also work together on literacy programs and we try as much as we can to erase illiteracy from their areas,” El-Serafy said. 

In her store, in an Arabian-style souq that “complements the interior of the shop and the products,” the Dubai-raised Egyptian entrepreneur sells home-decor products that range from palm-leaf baskets, embroidery work, wood-carved goods, rugs, pottery and alabaster items. 

Ninety percent of the artisans Fair Trade and The Room Place work with are women. (Supplied)

“The idea of making sure that traditional crafts do not disappear is itself a message,” said El-Serafy, whose background is in advertising and journalism. “We have so many beautiful traditional crafts that we need to shed light on. We can easily compete with mass production and on a different scale because every piece is unique.”

If the artwork is not handmade, the machines the craftsmen use are made by them. “There isn’t machinery that burns fuel emitting toxins into the environment, no. They are aware of the environment,” El-Serafy said. 

If the artwork is not handmade, the machines the craftsmen use are made by them. (Supplied)

Ninety percent of the artisans Fair Trade and The Room Place work with are women. “This shows how they are becoming more independent and are able to sustain their own income,” she said.  

“Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you think their perfection is in their imperfection?’ You can’t really see imperfection in handmade stuff. It’s too beautiful on its own. You can feel texture, you can feel color, you can sometimes feel the clay in the items,” she said. 

Fair Trade works with artisans in about 17 villages and is divided into 75 crafts. (Supplied)

The goods sold at The Room Place are made to be suitable for the Gulf region, but without losing the traditional element. “For example, people here like the bigger pieces of pottery because they use it for display,” El-Serafy said.