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Can the fashion industry in the Middle East design a sustainable future?

Brands are investing in new technologies and eco-friendly materials, but more needs to be done.

Can the fashion industry in the Middle East design a sustainable future?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

From emitting greenhouse gases to fair salaries for garment workers, the fashion industry has been tackling the notion of sustainable fashion. 

As younger consumers lean towards sustainable fashion and fabrics, global associations and NGOs advocate for better initiatives and industry standards. 

Over the years, disruptors have challenged the status quo and created eco-conscious products to create a sustainable industry with ethical practices. 

But most fashion brands still need to catch up to mitigate the industry’s harmful impacts, such as unsustainable materials, overproduction, poor labor practices, and pollution. 

“Fashion is responsible for 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global wastewater and uses more energy than the aviation and shipping sectors combined. And the scale of the industry is expected to grow over the coming years,” says Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and Executive Director of the UN Global Compact in New York. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an estimated $500 billion is lost yearly due to clothing that is barely worn, not donated, recycled, or in a landfill or burnt. 

Then there are fashion shows emitting around 241,000 tons of carbon emissions and producing waste from plastic water bottles, leftover food, and more. The fashion industry relies on materials such as cotton, polyester, and leather – none are sustainable or sourced in an environmentally friendly way. 

Reinventing business models and changing supply chains in the industry is an expensive process. 


According to experts, to tackle the crisis, the most effective way for brands to connect with consumers is through storytelling, values, and commitment to reducing their carbon footprint and building a purpose-driven community, and changing the world through sustainable products. 

“At this year’s UN Biodiversity Conference, we saw increased involvement from fashion brands, mainly the signatories of the Fashion Pact. Change is happening, but it is not happening fast enough,” says Jacob Abrian, founder of the Arab Fashion Council.

Abrian points out the great opportunity in fashion’s circular economy, which is valued at potentially $5 trillion. “The Middle East is still in the zygote stages regarding transactions and appropriating funding for sustainable businesses.” 

“Our focus is on promoting a buying less but buying better ethos. With a focus on top-tier fashion and brands, Dubai Fashion Week designers are positioned at the high end, crafting clothes built to last. Longevity is the truest form of sustainability. About 15% of our designers are considered sustainable, the  goal in the near to medium term is to work with leaders to incentivize creation of sustainable realities and solution-driven businesses.” 

In some ways, smaller homegrown brands can make quicker changes in their supply chain and production methods.

According to Dominic Nowell-Barnes, CEO and Founder of The Giving Movement (TGM), a UAE-based firm,  the fashion industry relies on materials such as cotton, polyester, and leather – none sustainable or sourced in ways that are healthy for the environment. Cotton, for example, requires a significant amount of water to grow, virgin polyester is made from oil-based plastics and doesn’t decompose, and leather requires animal cruelty in production.

“[Sustainability] can be targeted through the conscious use of materials, such as exclusively organic or recycled fabrics. Paying attention to  labels, zippers, tags, and packaging can ensure sustainability.”

Modern production focuses on cost efficiency first, which leads to production in countries with unethical labor laws, including low wages, unfair treatment, and unsafe working conditions. “One of the solutions to this is local production,” Nowell-Barnes adds.

Then to avoid overproduction and products in landfills, ensure that all products are sold or donated. 

Similarly, Basma Chaieri, Founder of Etika Jewels, has also been at the forefront of sustainability efforts. The brand has been recognized for carbon-neutral diamonds, which are lab-grown, requiring lesser water per carat.

“Mining contributes 125 pounds of carbon per carat, whereas growing diamonds in a lab only releases 6 pounds. We take our sustainability commitment even further by partnering with the Diamond Foundry to offer high-quality diamonds that leave zero carbon footprint, thanks to renewable energy,” says Chaieri.

In addition, recycled-paper cardboard boxes for shipping packaging and cruelty-free vegan-leather jewelry boxes are used. Maintaining minimal inventory, primarily producing made-to-order pieces to minimize waste. We continuously optimize our supply chain management to achieve greater efficiency,” she adds. 

Furthermore, the United Nations Global Compact encourages companies to align their operations and strategies with ten accepted human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption principles.

“Through our programs and global network of more than 17,000 companies and experts, we provide access to expertise, tools, and resources for companies to adopt more sustainable business strategies and operations. Many of our programs have focused on the fashion industry, including our work on water stewardship, climate and science-based targets, supply chain, and traceability,” says Ojiambo. 


A state of fashion technology report from McKinsey & Company reveals supply chain traceability is a key enabler for sustainability road maps. 

More than 50% of fashion decision-makers say traceability will be a top-five enabler in reducing emissions in their supply chains. And 67% consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor. 

Recently, many brands and organizations — from Reflaunt and Chalhoub to TGM are changing the fashion industry. Reflaunt, a tech company that brings resale-as-a-service to fashion brands and multi-brand retailers, is launching resale in the region with Chalhoub Group-owned Level Shoes. 

“Resell powered by Reflaunt is pioneering the circular movement with a program that entails a 70% store credit or cash value by trading in designer bags, shoes, and small leather goods by Level Shoes courier picks up,” says Abrian. 

Change is in the air. Brands are investing in new technologies and eco-friendly materials. But ultimately, Nowell-Barnes says efforts to change need to be collaborative. “In addition, there’s a need to minimize harmful manufacturing methods. With awareness, sustainable fashion has a promising future.” 

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