Eco-friendly fashion is the latest global trend that many in the trade are determined to turn into a sustainable norm. In the UAE, clothing retailers have designs on your old plastic bottles, writes Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane
If global trends are anything to go by, it might not be long before rubbish is transformed into ready-to-wear in the UAE.
The popularity of sustainable, eco-friendly fashion worldwide has been steadily on the rise and an event dedicated to the cause, Green Fashion Week, recently held its spring season in the United States.
Dubai-based designer Sohad Acouri took part in the event when it was held in Abu Dhabi last year, sending a collection of environmentally conscious designs down the catwalk.
“I use natural, eco-sustainable fabrics made from pineapple leaves from Asia, as well as organic cotton from Africa,” says Acouri. “I also recycle materials from previous collections, especially if they are rare, valuable fabrics – like pure silk made in Italy or France.
“My speciality is wedding dresses and evening gowns. It’s not always easy convincing clients that luxurious cottons can be combined beautifully with satin, tulle or lace, but I have to send a clear message through my clothes that I will only use chemical-free, sustainable fabrics.”
Earth-friendly fashion is not a new trend, and been championed for quite some time.
Vegetarian brand ambassador Stella McCartney only works with synthetic alternatives to leather and fur and Vivienne Westwood has, since 2013, worked with artisans in Burkina Faso to produce hand-woven and recycled fabrics for her womenswear lines.
High street brands have also successfully explored the eco-segment of the market.
Retailer H&M rolls out seasonal Conscious Exclusive collections, featuring ready-to-wear casuals and evening pieces made from ethical and organic materials. It has ambitions for all of its cotton to be sustainable by 2020.
Closer to home, large-scale UAE retailers like Splash, are also on board with ethical fashion.
The brand launched the line I am sustainability this spring and aims to make 40 per cent of its products environmentally sound by 2020.
“It’s a thoughtfully crafted collection,” says Splash’s CEO Raza Beig. “Materials include organic and recycled cotton, regenerated polyester and sustainable fibres like Tencel – which have been coloured with eco-friendly dyes.
“We also use environmental friendly and water saving manufacturing processes.
“We haven’t compromised on fashion or increased our price points and so far we’ve achieved a sustainable approach to 5 million garments annually, which is a significant number.”
Seasonal separates in the regenerated collection include cornflower blue print shirts for men and faded ripped jeans for ladies. All pieces come with a certificate guaranteeing their sustainable origin and almost half the collection has sold out across the UAE.
“The response to date has been positive and the consumer is becoming aware of the benefits of eco-friendly fashion,” says Beig. “We didn’t adopt the sustainable approach because it was on trend, we did it for moral reasons.
“Globally, the apparel and textile industry is the second most polluting in terms of overall environmental impact – second only to oil.
“As one of the biggest fashion retailers in terms of store presence and the volume we sell in the Middle East, we believe it’s our responsibility to initiate this kind of change in the region.”
To guarantee the longevity of eco-friendly fashion in the local marketplace, Beig believes designers need to embrace more innovative creative practices and look to alternative fabrics. One hurdle is integrating sustainable practices into a long and complex apparel supply chain.
Kris Barber, founder of UAE-based wholesale eco-clothing company Dgrade, is one of those seeking to encourage changes within the industry.
“We’ve been developing sustainable fabrics using plastic bottles for seven years,” says Barber.
“We’ve produced about 150 different fabrics – mainly from our supply chain in the Far East and Asia – and now, we’re trying to bring the process to Dubai.
“We want to create a circular economy with everything produced under one roof and in one plant, as a closed-loop manufacturing showcase by Expo 2020.”
Barber supplies UAE companies including Splash, Etihad Airways, Ski Dubai and Coca-Cola with lines of sustainable T-shirts, hoodies, shorts, overalls and bags.
To make the garments, plastic bottles are collected from recycling plants in India, Pakistan and China. They are compressed, flaked and heated and the melted plastic is used to produce a resin suitable for yarn production.
This is woven and knitted in the same way as any traditional fabric, as well as being blended with cotton and other natural elements, to replicate high-end polyester. The look and feel of the material is almost indistinguishable from the original.
“The fabric has the same properties as conventional polyester, we’re just reprocessing it rather than recreating it from scratch,” says Barber.
“We’re also producing the fabric in denim and it can be blended with merrell, which is the textile used in trainers.
“Plastic was invented in the 1960s to be recycled and turned into other products but the biggest challenge in the UAE is securing sufficient plastic to do that.
“Despite producing one of the highest tonnage of plastic bottles in the region, the country has one of the lowest recovery rates in the world.
“It’s less than five per cent here, compared to about 65 per cent in Europe.”
Barber will launch a nationwide campaign in September called #Simplybottles to encourage schools, offices and restaurants to separate their plastic bottles and enable Dgrade to stockpile them for their plant.
He is in discussions with ministries to push through the initiative, which will facilitate his company’s monthly requirement of 1,200 tonnes of plastic to produce clothing.
Most of the UAE’s plastic bottles end up in desert landfill sites where decomposition is estimated to take hundreds of years.
According to the World Economic Forum, after a short first-use cycle, 95 per cent of plastic packaging material – worth US$80billion to $120bn (Dh293.8bn to Dh440.7bn) – is lost to the global economy each year.
Last month, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Ali al Nuaimi, nephew of the Ajman ruler and renowned as “the green sheikh”, called for consumers to use filtered water from taps instead of bottled water. He also raised the debate for levies on plastic bags in shops.
“If they had to pay Dh1 for them, people would get rid of them,” says Al Nuaimi. “I would support a law but a lot of businesses are going to be resistant.”
Stepping up with a fashionable solution to the environment problem is home-grown business, The Green Eco Store.
Trending this season at the online boutique, which sells everything from gadgets to T-shirts, are reusable shopping bags from Dh45.
The Loqi designs, which come in a range of vibrant prints, are chemical-free and eco-friendly.
With the style of its products being equally as important as their green credentials, the company describes the totes as “extremely good looking,” and allowing the conscious consumer to “have their cake and eat it.”