When environmental and social challenges start to heavily impact both a business’s image and its performance, adopting a sustainable business model can no longer be considered a luxury.

That’s especially true in the fashion industry, which is not only one of the most polluting in the world in terms of water waste (20%), but also in terms of carbon emissions (10%), according to a UNECE report published in 2018. On the social and societal level, the industry is also widely criticized for failing to offer decent work conditions and salaries to a majority of its workforce, not to mention its issues with gender equality and inclusivity. For example, the non-profit organization Remake underlines the fact that it takes “a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break.”

These challenges are particularly serious in the MENA region, where most countries are very vulnerable to climate change and where inequalities are particularly harsh. *This is pushing brands to promote sustainability. The Middle East is the most unequal region worldwide in terms of revenue repartition: In 2020, only 56% of national income accrued to the top 10%, and only 12% went to the bottom 50%, according to the World Inequality database.

Learning to value the digital

“Today’s world has taken major strides in understanding the mistakes generations before made in depleting natural resources and harming the environment, especially in the fashion industry. Nevertheless, driven by consumers’ appetites for new trends, new clothes, new accessories, and the “more” mentality, many of us in the industry have failed to make the changes needed for a sustainable brand, and a better future”, says Dima Nawbar co-founder of L’Atelier Nawbar. “We believe in making effort through everyday choices in life and business that consider human and ecological health, because we believe in the importance of acting now, for the future to exist” adds Dima’s sister, Tania.

Maya Mukhi, one of the three Indian-Lebanese sisters (with Meenat and Zeenat) who founded jewelry makers Mukhi Sisters, considers that “sustainability is becoming more and more of a lifestyle” that “starts at home” with the most basic actions, including things like saving paper. For Hassine Labaied, the Tunisian founder of the young, yet already notorious handcrafted scarves and shawls brand Skila, sustainability is the best way to create a strong brand DNA and a cost-efficient business model. “Our brand is rooted in Tunisian traditions and every step of our manufacturing process has been thought out to reduce our environmental impact and offer decent working conditions to our tailors and their communities,” he explains.

While the goals of sustainability are the same for all, every brand has its ways of achieving them. “After Covid-19, we learned to value the digital and online world, and therefore we are working on developing our online platform to serve our ecological purposes; reducing carbon emissions and creating a user-friendly experience that is safe and true to the brand’s identity”, says Dima and Tania Nawbar.

According to them, everything L’Atelier Nawbar creates and delivers “is made using ethically sourced materials from Switzerland and Belgium, under the laws of Fair Trade.” The sisters assure  that it they are also “highly considerate of the depletion of natural stones today, and use safer alternatives such as ecological stones, sometimes referred to as lab-grown stones”, explaining that these “eco-stones chemically, physically, and optically emulate those mined underground, with a lighter carbon footprint weight than natural ones. We also favor the use of recycled gold by melting it and using it in many of our new collections,” they say.

Second life

In terms of social sustainability, L’Atelier Nawbar is also “dedicated to training and hiring socially disadvantaged and displaced men and women who are passionate and skilled – regardless of their age,” said Tania Nawbar.

For the Mukhi sisters, sustainability also starts in the workplace with both simple procedures and more sophisticated approaches. “Zeenat designed the furniture of our office in 2013 or 2014 in a modular way, and so we have been transporting our office furniture with us to three different locations over the years and have adapted them to our new space; the same applies to our showroom furniture,” says Maya Mukhi before adding, “After our move from Downtown Beirut to our showroom in Dora, we repurposed the main metallic structure of our store (when we were told not to and that we were better off throwing them away), and have given a second life to it by turning some of the pieces into new mirrors with stands, a clothes stand, the base for tables and counters as well as a new metallic structure”.

Also “when it comes to our brand and jewelry, we repurpose gemstones and give them a second life, in addition to that, we work with new stones that are certified as ethically sourced whenever possible. And when it comes to our colleagues at work, we make sure to create a healthy environment where teamwork rules,” concludes Maya Mukhi.

Finally, among all the choices made by Skila in building a fully sustainable brand, the  decision to use the remains of a second hand silk reel bought in Switzerland might well be the smartest of all. “The quality is the same, but the price is lower, which allows us to manufacture quality products without waste and at optimum cost” concludes Labaied.