We Need To Include The Middle East In The Sustainable Fashion Conversation

Image: Clothing production for Kuwait-based sustainable fashion brand Maya, Credit: Maya

The sustainable fashion movement is notoriously exclusive, dominated by the same Western voices. Saja Elmishri investigates why the Middle East is often left out of this discussion, and what we can learn by looking to both Arabian designers and consumers for a new creative perspective.

The fact that Arabs do not care about sustainability is a popular misconception. 

Although stereotypes linked to the trope of oil-rich Gulf states or throw away culture in the Middle East continue to reign supreme, there is a burgeoning movement among Arab millennials from Kuwait to Tripoli who are passionate about ensuring that sustainable consumption becomes a priority for their generation.

“In Bahrain there is a massive mending and repairing clothing activity,” says Rawan Maki, a designer and PhD researcher at London College of Fashion, who is from Bahrain herself. 

Maki upholds that Arab customers are increasingly going out of their way to seek sustainable products on the market. “We don’t need to give something a Western definition in order to get involved in the Western scene” she continues. “It’s time to challenge whether sustainability is geographically limited to so-called developed countries.”

Images: ‘Timeless’ collection by Rawan Maki, Credit: Rawan Maki, Spring / Summer 2020 by Maya, Credit: Maya

While there is a profound desire for ethical purchasing among modern consumers, it’s arguable that sustainable fashion continues to be something of a niche discussion. Although fair wages and representation should be bottom line requirements, the movement is often dominated by an all-too-exclusive rhetoric.

According to industry experts, buyers in the Middle East are taking increasing pride in investments that have a positive contribution to society rather than financial gain.Conscious spending in the Arab region is on the up, and customers are becoming more knowledgeable about eco-friendly products that reflect their values. So, why is the Middle East still left out of the picture when it comes to sustainable shopping?

“The fashion industry is endemically racist and exploitative of people due to the horrendous working conditions caused by the West in the South,” explains Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a global movement that calls out for a fair, safe, clean and transparent fashion industry.

In a growing industry like fast fashion (up 21% over the last three years) lower paying garment jobs are typically found to be occupied by people of colour and 80% of these are women. As such, Castro maintains that fast fashion has spiralled out of control, making it “difficult for the system to be inclusive.” It’s possible that this deep-set discrimination affects the way we think about sustainable fashion too, and the select voices which often dominate the conversation.

Image: Sewing ethical and sustainble clothes in Egypy for Maya, Credit: Maya

Yet Arab consumers refuse to be sidelined, instead using the platforms at their disposal to fight brands and systems that unethically exploit workers, spreading the word through social media campaigns, pressure groups, and creative new approaches to clothing. Muneera Al Mulla, co-founder of Kuwait-based brand Maya, is hoping to challenge the western narrative of sustainability by producing timeless collections for women based in the Middle East.

“Arab customers are interested in sustainability and there is a crowd that wants to buy sustainably, which has become evidently clear during this pandemic,” said Al Mulla, referring to the coronavirus crisis. “Maybe now people will realise what they should buy and shouldn’t – especially if they are going to be wearing it at home and multiple times a week”.  

“The awareness is growing around sustainable fashion here in Kuwait because the customers are seeing the added benefits [of the natural fibres] on their skin and they are realising how important it is,” said Al Mulla. 

“We are directly involved with our factory in Egypt and when we are transparent about who makes our clothes and the workers background, I found out that this gives a personal touch in comparison to the fast fashion brands”. 

Image: Fall / Winter 2018 by Maya, Credit: Maya, Student work from DIDI, Amal Alsuwaidi, Studio project The Forever Shirt: a gender neutral shirt design created utilizing home grown kombucha leather and linen, Credit: Amal Studio

Noorin Khamisani, a fashion educator based in Dubai, points out that previous attempts of the West trying to engage with the East through releasing so-called ‘modest’ collections simply didn’t go far enough. Rather than simply trying to cater for an Arab market, brands should be actively listening to perspectives outside of their own sphere in order to grow. 

“For once, western brands should learn from the Middle East and let them lead the conversation and not the other way around,” said Khamisani. “Young creatives need to be supported into the industry of sustainable fashion if we want to see more diverse designers in the Arab region. There is a strong creative scene here and we need the West to start listening and engage with us.”

“Misrepresenting consumer opinion and not having a clear idea of the movements happening in each individual Arab country can become a recipe for disaster,” she added. “There is a risk of making sustainability not suitable for people in the East.”

While fashion industry needs to work on diversity and representation, this work needs to involve actively incorporating perspectives and creativity from other cultures, as well as being situation specific. 

Arabs do care about sustainability and they need to be included in this conversation as well.