“No business can exist on a dead planet.”
This was the underlying message of a press conference today announcing Lebanese designer Rami Kadi as the United Nations Environment Programme’s (Unep) regional goodwill ambassador for sustainable fashion in west Asia.
Kadi has been a long-term proponent of sustainable fashion, most notably in his spring / summer 2020 collection, where he created a dress made entirely out of plastic recovered from the ocean. The material was converted into threads that were woven into a light fabric. “Even the sequins were made from reused plastic,” Kadi explains. “So there was zero waste while producing this dress.”
He was also the first designer in the region to embrace the virtual fashion show – before the pandemic made them de rigeur. “We are proud to have done it before it became a trend. We felt it was more responsible and a way to reduce the planet’s carbon footprint. “
His most recent offering is another exercise in sustainable thinking, although this time born out of necessity. The latest collection was created after the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, which damaged Kadi's home and atelier. "We were about to shut everything down," the designer admits, "but then we thought, let's do this collection by recycling everything we have.
"When we produce a dress for a client, it is a unique piece, since we might do four or six or eight samples of embroidery and those samples would usually be thrown away; we throw out lots of stones and crystals, lots of threads.
"What we did for this collection is we took all the stones and all the sequins and removed them, and we recreated new pieces out of them. Even with old fabrics. We used to buy lots of fabrics. We'd buy 100 metres and use 20 metres, and the rest we would give away or throw out. Now with those fabrics, I re-dyed them into the colours I wanted, and I created a collection from what I had left in my atelier."
For Garette Clark, sustainable lifestyles programme officer at the UN Environment Programme, this is a prime example of sustainability in action: "Looking at your resources, at how you reuse them, at how you keep them in the system longer."
Unep West Asia’s sustainable fashion programme was launched this year "to encourage the region’s consumers to become more responsible and environmentally conscious, to promote circularity, and sustainable consumption and production, while also encouraging cross-cultural collaborations to discover innovative solutions”, Clark explains.
The press conference also included a panel discussion about the current state of sustainability in the fashion industry. Panelist Bandana Tewari, lifestyle editor, sustainability activist and former editor-at-large of Vogue India, highlighted the need for fashion consumers to take personal accountability for the consequences of their purchases.
“It is about taking personal responsibility for social impact and social change. We have a moral duty to take personal ownership and see how we are behaving as consumers and what are our own acts that degrade the environment."
It’s time for a #fashiondiet, she continues. “We need to cleanse our hoarding mentality. We are suffocated by the stuff we accumulate in our lives. This doesn’t mean we don’t support the fashion industry, or we don’t support creative designers, or that we don’t want beautiful things in our lives – it’s just buy less, buy things of value, buy things that we don’t throw away. And that’s something we as consumers can do individually. You don’t need any corporation or institution or brand to tell you this. Let’s be cognisant of where we put our hard-earned money – let’s not put it into things that go into landfills,” Bandana insisted.
The Unep sustainable fashion programme will consist of four key pillars, explains Sami Dimassi, director and regional representative of Unep West Asia. These include awareness, where the public will be educated on the impact of the fashion industry through campaigns; education and advocacy, to “allow the youth to become accustomed to a more sustainable way of living”; collaborative efforts to develop innovative solutions with industry experts; and finally, policy framework, where science will be used to provide reports and studies that aid governments in drafting relevant policies.
"It is no longer an unknown that the textile industry utilises a lot of the world's natural resources, which are being consumed and disposed of inefficiently," says Dimassi. "In principle, the take-make-dispose model currently adopted by the fashion industry, as well as it consumers, has had a potentially long-lasting impact on the environment through pollution, excessive use and depletion of natural resources, biodiversity loss and a tremendous amount of waste. The sustainable fashion programme will push the industry to shift towards more sustainable practices."
Part of that process, says Tewari, involves peeling back the layers of an industry that is not known for its transparency, to highlight the human hands that lie at the heart of the clothes we wear.
“The idea of being a sustainable brand takes a lot more transparency, a lot more effort, and perhaps even money, to make visible the very invisible hands that have existed in the industry thus far."
Within this framework, Kadi says his role as a goodwill ambassador is "to act more responsibly and to encourage other designers and fashion students to become more aware of this programme that we are working on." His industry insight will be invaluable in helping the United Nations Environment Programme understand the inner workings of the fashion world, while it is hoped that his own sustainable approach will help promote lasting cultural and behavioural change across the region.