Marrakech. Just the name conjures up visions of Talitha Getty reclining on her sun-drenched terrace, the Rolling Stones’ hedonistic trip and, of course, the frenetic pulse of the Medina. The city is painted in my mind’s eye in saturated technicolour. Clichés of exoticism and bohemian history abound, but on researching a trip for my fashion and tech company, FashMash, I never expected to discover it has serious sustainability credentials too.
Morocco is the second most sustainable country in the world – coming in just behind Sweden – as measured by the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index, which ranks a country’s efforts to prevent climate change by factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy and more. Here are just a few of the impressive statistics:
- The country’s aim is to have 52% of all its energy come from renewable sources by 2030.
- Plastic bags were banned in 2016.
- The country boasts Africa’s biggest wind farm at Tarfaya while Noor Ouarzazate in Morocco is the world’s biggest concentrated solar power farm. By next year, almost half of the country’s energy will be provided by renewables.
But does the city live up to the hype of the statistics?
The pulsing heart of the old city sits behind ancient walls. Its labyrinthine medieval layout is best discovered by getting lost (though incredibly, Google Maps had a pretty good grasp of its winding streets!). After a time, alleyways become familiar and the refined organisation of the space becomes apparent: it is divided into souks each peddling its own product – from Souk Kchacha stalls heaving with local dried fruits, to Souk Haddadine awash with the light and colour of its ironware and ceramics.
Souk des Teinturiers
Thread further into the Medina (ask locals, it is a maze!) and you will find the Souk des Teinturiers (dyers’ souk). Look up! Natural wools in technicolour dyes hang drying from the roof. As with so much on the Medina, this is more than commerce: step into the dyers’ workspace as they fire up the kilns to dye before they share their textile of choice: Moroccan sabra. This cactus silk agave fibre slips to the touch like liquid. It is dyed by hand using crushed natural colours from the Atlas Mountains.
Socially Enterprising Shops
Other highlights include the breadth of social enterprises in the area. Cooperatives like Al Nour (Rue Laksour 57) and Al Kawtar (3 Derb Zaouia Laftihia) both purvey products by local women with disabilities, in turn paying for salaries, training and childcare. Expect to find meticulously embroidered linens and crafts.
On an upcycling front, discover Creations Peneumatiques (110 Rue Riad Zitoun el Kedim). The clue is in the name: its ingenious mirrors, boxes and accessories are made from tyres, as well as tin cans. Chat to the owners and staff – like most of the locals we met, they are rightfully proud of their trade and have fascinating explanations of its creation.
A shadow is cast somewhat when most stall holders wrap your purchases in newspaper (excellent) before passing it to you in plastic bag. Sadly, the 2016 ban is not respected here, and we found this in most stalls. Meanwhile the main square, Jemaa el Fna, bewitches the senses with its street performers and heady local life. But dawn to dusk you will find the disheartening sight of performing monkeys and snake charmers. You will also be confronted with shops heaving with such a quantity of product it’s almost impossible to step through the entrance, from fake designer goods to sports memorabilia. This is all a stark contrast to the delight of Moroccan’s traditional products found deeper within the souks.
But once back in the cool of your riad courtyard, unwrap your finds from the aforementioned cooperatives and local initiatives. I found ours were even more dazzling outside of the Medina, reminding us of the traders’ emphasis on sustaining ancient craft and technique, and filling the heart with optimism.
WHERE WE STAYED:
The trip to Marrakech, as well as opportunity for me bask in the glorious colour and craft of this enchanting city, had an additional purpose: a planning and inspiration trip for FashMash with my co-founder, Rachel Arthur. As a community and speaker series that focuses on the intersection of fashion and innovation, sustainability is a topic that fascinates and preoccupies our members. We have interviewed the CEO of Bolt Threads who is bioengineering sustainable fabrics, as well as Google’s Head of Luxury on how their pioneering new project looks to fix fashion’s environmental data gap (read more in Robyn’s article here). It was important that our base for the stay inspired us as much as trips to the YSL museum and Jardin Marjorelle…
Away from the frenetic pulse of the Medina sits the luscious Palmeraie and Jnane Tamsna is its oasis. Ochre and saffron walls, artisanal objets d’arts chosen by its owner Meryanne Loum-Martin and gardens planted by her ethno-botanist husband Gary Martin. But aside from the serious style, we were excited to arrive here for its sustainable credentials: 16 hectares of organic gardens (5 on site), an effective waste water management system, employment of local people, support of Moroccan artisans in its boutique and more.
Upon arrival, I had a chat to the charming Meryanne (the family-run nature of the hotel means you will often see the owners or their fabulous daughter Thaïs to tell you about their property or just catch up on your days). She explained her journey into ethical living began when she married Gary 32 years ago. Not only is he an ethnobotanist but also founder of the Global Diversity Foundation, a charity which supports biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods in Morocco, as well as environmental leadership worldwide. A recent project included the ethnobotanical garden at Taliba boarding house which helps girls pursue formal education while making them aware of their environment. Unlike many charitable causes in hospitality, this is ingrained in the hotel’s culture, many guests (including ourselves) are asked to donate to the charity in lieu of standard room payment upon departure. What a happy note on which to end a trip.
As for those beautifully landscaped gardens, they are replete with the luscious produce for which the country is renowned and which put British vegetable markets to shame. We were lucky enough to get a taste of it (quite literally) with a garden tour and cookery lesson from Behija – the head chef who has worked with the family for 21 years. Together we cooked vegetable and fish tagines under her clever instruction, then ate them together in the courtyard under the vines. I have always loved this slow-cooked stew but the simplicity and flavour that can be achieved when using ingredients this fresh is remarkable.
Meryanne’s hotel is ever-evolving. She told me that this year’s plans include terraced gardens cultivated from waste water and increased innovation in energy. She reflected that her guests are becoming more interested in ethical travel; most notably they realise lush green lawns are not feasible in the desert. These gardens, with their twisting pathways in the dappled shade of olive trees, have been landscaped to not rely on lawns for stylish aesthetics. This is not the case for many in the area where a huge amount of water is wasted to maintain them.
Douar Abiad, Palmeraie, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Images: (L) The vegetable tagine; (R) Dining in the courtyard.
WHERE WE ATE:
Also within the Jnane Tamsna estate: the new Ethnobotanica Cafe, a social enterprise dedicated to supporting sustainable livelihoods in Moroccan communities. Stop by for home-baked cookies, raw pressed juices and Bloom Coffee (roasted in Marrakech). It’s also the place to buy fresh produce from the gardens or authentic local products to take home (more suited to the flight!). Favourites include saffron, cornucopia couscous varieties and herbal glycerine soap – the same bar soap you will find in your bathroom (a relief after the typically plastic-wrapped cosmetics of most hotels in the city).
Douar Abiad, Palmeraie, Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Twist through the streets of the Medina to find this 4-floor restaurant. Ask for a table on the roof to soak up all the atmosphere of this buzzing venue which has a strong focus on local, seasonal ingredients. Its chefs work closely with traditional cooks, farmers and producers and work, as far as is possible, exclusively with produce and ingredients found within the local markets or nearby farms. The menu is full of vegan and vegetarian options: go for mezze followed by cauliflower roasted in ras-el-hanout, harissa and turmeric. Still hungry before you dive back into the maze of the souks? Saffron scented Moroccan Date cake was the best pudding we tried in Morocco.
1 Derb Aarjane, Marrakech Medina, Morocco
This non-profit supports and trains local women from disadvantaged backgrounds in culinary and hospitality skills. Open for lunch only 12 noon-3.30pm, expect to taste some of the best local flavours you will find in the city in an atmosphere where charm and conviviality pervade. Inspired to take the taste home? There are cooking classes every morning and baking classes in the afternoon.
Rue Allal Ben Ahmed et Rue Ibn Sina Gueliz, Marrakech
Images: (L) Ethnobotanica Cafe; (R) Nomad
In many ways, Marrakech could teach European cities how to lead in sustainable tourism. The only downfalls that we noticed on this trip are the result of consumer tastes, not the locals. After all, copious fake designer goods are only there by demand. Likewise, tourists are warned to be conscious of water potability and hygiene, so plastic excess is there to reassure them. As a visitor, get involved in the city’s efforts. Ask questions to the friendly shopkeepers and restaurant staff on products’ provenance. If you do spot negative practices, consider pointing them out politely. There are practical efforts too: shower in the afternoon or evening. This is the time when solar water heaters power the water, saving gas energy.
All in all, the combination of traditional, local and national efforts makes the country’s efforts in sustainable tourism as magic as its famed technicolour bohemian roots. Long may it continue and evolve.