How eco-friendly abayas are a perfect fit for UAE's sustainable vision

UAE businesses are embracing technology and adopting green policies to protect the planet

Zein Altawil with her line of sustainable abayas. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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Forward-thinking companies are embracing sustainable solutions to help the UAE go green – including turning plastic bottles into clothing and crafting biodegradable abayas.

Businesses across the Emirates are answering the call to protect the planet on the road to the crucial Cop28 climate conference, being held in Dubai from November 30 to December 12.

The UAE has called for collective action – from individuals and organisations alike – to help address pressing environmental challenges facing the world.

In May, 28 companies in the country's industrial sector signed up to a “climate-responsible companies pledge” at the 10th National Climate Ambition Dialogue, overseen by the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

In line with the country's long-term eco-friendly vision, a number of establishments are already taking significant strides towards a better future.

The National spoke to three businesses leading the charge.

Sustainable abayas

A drive to make the traditional abaya – a robe worn by millions of women across the Arab world – more sustainable is being led by a young Palestinian entrepreneur.

Zein Altawil, 24, a computer science graduate at Khalifa University and founder of Yello, wants to make production of the garment more ethical and better for the environment.

She said the making of a single abaya could generate 12kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

“I quickly realised there was a gap in the market for sustainable abayas,” said Ms Altawil.

“So, I decided, why not fill that gap myself? My hope is that when you wear a Yello abaya, you don't just feel the softness on your skin, but [you] also know you're making your carbon footprint lighter.”

Ms Altawil said her plan was initially met with some scepticism, but she has since won over the doubters.

“People not only grasped the idea but began to appreciate the profound impact of merging sustainability with tradition.”

She said the company uses “natural, biodegradable, hypoallergenic, heat-resistant, durable” fabrics, allowing for the abayas to last for longer and reduce waste sent to landfill.

The young entrepreneur wants sustainability to be at heart of everything she does.

With the abayas, she gives a reusable tote bag and a biodegradable thank you note that can be planted.

“My dream is for Yello to be synonymous with sustainable shopping … we’re not just shaping fashion; we’re crafting a legacy for future generations,” said Ms Altawil.

Regular abayas made from silk often cost Dh20 per meter, however for a sustainable one the cost is closer to Dh100, not including taxes and delivery.

Ms Altawil says she imports all her fabric from Spain because there isn’t an industry for sustainable silk here.

Turning plastic bottles into clothing

A company in Dubai is helping to improve recycling rates by turning millions of plastic bottles discarded each month into clothes.

The team at DGrade said the more items they make, the less plastic waste that ends up in landfill.

From T-shirts to jackets and caps to face masks, the high-quality yarn made from recycled plastic bottles replaces traditional polyester yarn.

“To make recycled polyester uses 50 per cent less energy, 20 per cent less water and produces 55 per cent fewer carbon emissions compared to conventional polyester manufacturing,” Emma Barber, director of DGrade, told The National in a previous interview.

Bottles are washed, shredded into flakes, melted at high pressure and extruded, before being spun into a polyester yarn. Some of the flakes are also melted into pellets and sold off to companies to make recycled bottles.

The business has worked with Expo 2020, Yas Marina Circuit and Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel, and regularly teams up with schools to boost the environment cause.

This factory in the UAE can recycle 1 billion plastic bottles a year

DGrade's recycling factory in Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD).

The water bottles are collected through the Simply Bottles Initiative that educates and engages schools, communities and businesses in the collection process.

“We work with over 250 schools in the UAE, plus businesses and events, to collect and recycle their plastic bottles,” said Rebecca Rich, head of marketing at Dgrade.

“They are processed into flake and then supplied to local packaging manufacturers.

“We are supplying as many companies as we can that are already buying, so we don’t promote buying more. What we do is we work with companies that are already producing uniforms or making clothing, and we provide them with a sustainable alternative.”

Dgrade’s factory has the capacity to recycle a billion bottles a year. They recycled more than 250 million bottles in 2022.

A company which started out with two employees in 2010 now employs 50, as it aims to be a driving force for good.

Boosting water security

Manhat, an Emirati start-up set up in 2019, is harnessing the power of the sun to bolster water security.

The innovative company has embraced cutting edge technology to generate fresh water from the ocean without electricity. The process involves speeding up the evaporation of ocean water and capturing it on the surface.

Dr Saeed Al Hassan, co-founder of Manhat, said it is crucial to find ways to produce clean water while mitigating the impact on the environment.

Manhat uses the sun's heat and the process of evaporation, instead of classic distillation techniques.

“Traditional desalination techniques have a larger carbon footprint. Operational desalination plants emit around 76 million tonnes of CO2 annually,” said Dr Al Hassan.

“Emissions will increase to about 218 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2040.”

Dr Al Hassan wants to use the fresh water collected for irrigation at floating farms.

Water scarcity remains a pressing concern around the globe.

The UN said 2.2 billion people still lacked safely managed drinking water in 2022, with 703 million without a basic water service.

The invention was tested in partnership with Abu Dhabi Ports where a prototype was unveiled.

“During this collaboration, we deployed our initial prototypes at Abu Dhabi Ports' facilities and successfully validated our technology,” said Vishnu Vijayan Pillai, co-founder of Manhat.

“We demonstrated the capability to produce freshwater from seawater without electricity.”

Updated: September 19, 2023, 11:16 AM