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.