The world is buying more clothes than ever before but wearing them even less. Gone are the days our mothers used to keep their clothes packed away, to not only pass over to the next season but also to the next generation. People are less attached to clothes and more keen to jump on the bandwagon, stopping at the next big trend. This leads to the high street fashion sector growing ferociously, at least in Pakistan - a descriptor of society’s obsession with relentless consumption where dialogue and debate about ethical, sustainable fashion is few and far between.
World fashion is high on ethics these days; busy with buzz-words like eco-friendly and ethical sustainability in fashion. This simply means an approach where fashion maximizes the benefits to people and communities while minimizing the harmful aspect of the production. It covers ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing along with a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.
Internationally, the high street is struggling and has seen better times. Higher rent costs and a shift to online shopping have affected brick and mortar stores. A recent report looking at the health of Britain’s top 500 high streets showed a net 2,500 store closures in 2018, up 40 per cent in 2017.
Issues of sustainability, sourcing, ethics, labour, consumption and all of the nuances in-between are now stitched into their visceral experience of fashion.
In Pakistan, we wonder how the high street is faring; it’s difficult to ignore the fact that an equal number of stores have opened as they have shut down. Within the past year, Coco by Zara Shahjahan and Crescent stores have shut down while Chapter 2 and Zaha have opened new branches. The latter opened stores this week, with a grand launch at Lahore’s Gulberg Galleria in place of Elan, which has moved to a building nearby. The fast fashion sector definitely looks like its on the rise but then when will sustainability in fashion be addressed?
In Pakistan, fashion’s high street can be divided into a few categories. There is unstitched lawn, which is created in excess and bought in the same manner, rarely ever making it to the next season. Some of the brands doing well in this category are Elan, Zara Shahjahan, Sana Safinaz, Khaadi, Gul Ahmed and Al-Karam. Then there are western wear brands like Outfitters, One and Breakout to name a few; and then there is pret and ready to wear with the likes of Khaadi, Generation, Chapter 2, Beechtree and Ethnic by Outfitters, among others. Further across the local sartorial landscape there is also what we call luxury pret, which teeters between the high street and luxury wear depending on the business model a brand chooses to follows.
Sana Safinaz, Misha Lakhani, Sania Maskatiya and Elan produce much more in quantity than Shamaael, Zaheer Abbas or The Pink Tree Company would but are any of them held accountable to sustainable fashion practices?
Hammad Sohail, ex Head of Marketing at Outfitters and ex Marketing Manager for Levi’s says, "The high street is very much flourishing in Pakistan unless one is importing items. The fluctuating dollar rate has affected anyone whose supply chain doesn’t start locally." When asked about sustainable practices, he shares, "The industry landscape is not nearly implementing sustainable fashion the way it should be, whether it’s plastic usage or recycling of clothes."
As for Outfitters, leftovers are sold to vendors who get remaining clothes from brands to sell them forward. What those vendors do with the clothes is not something the brand generally concerns itself with.
Levi’s on the other hand has launched its Water Less products range that reduces the use of water in the finishing process by up to 96 per cent. "Levi’s is using this locally but it’s because their orders come from their sourcing company abroad, where the laws are stricter. Outfitters is still behind on being eco-friendlier because the government has not passed a bill about it or emphasized it. The laws aren’t there and water shortage, plastic wastage, fabrication, etc. has not been addressed by the government like it has abroad," he states.
ELO, Export Leftovers, a recent addition to the market is buying wasted fabric from export quality producers in Pakistan and has created a brand from it called Polo Republia. They also sell the few hundred extras from the companies that could otherwise contribute to over 60 million kilos of waste from such activities Pakistan produces in a year.
Generation, one of the oldest fashion retail brands, has always been on the right side of the social awareness debate. When the Creative Head, Khadija Rahman was asked about how sustainable their business practices are, she shared that they recently replaced their plastic shopping bags to cloth bags and they are planting a forest at the Generation premises to reduce their carbon footprint.
"We also addressed tree plantation and scarcity of water in a campaign and then had another for a zero waste wedding where everything was made out of second hand things. Jewelry was made from gota, paper, bottle caps - themes like pollution and recycling are very important to us."
Amongst the brand’s multiple lines are those that utilise indigenous crafts and techniques including indigo dying and rilli, which Rahman finds to be the most sustainable as they don’t use new technology but employ craftsmen in their own homes.
Rahman agrees with Sohail that fast fashion is growing but one wonders whether something that has to be produced as fast and for as little cost as possible can really ever be sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly? Ethically minded brands believe the single biggest issue stopping them from becoming more sustainable is the consumer, either through their lack of awareness of the issues faced by the industry or through an unwillingness to pay for sustainable products because everyone wants the cheapest product. So, can ethical consumerism really exist in the mainstream fashion market?
Our behavior is far more selfish than we might like to believe. Rational models of consumption are based on the idea that individuals make choices that balance costs and benefits. An ethical consumer will make rational judgements about purchases on the best outcome in terms of costs and benefits for them and the environment. But consumption, and in particular fashion consumption, is quite irrational. Purchase decisions, for fast fashion, are more likely to be driven by desires linked to pleasure and excitement. Therefore, the matter has to be approached in different ways; the onus is on the brand, the consumer and the government to create a more sustainable environment for fashion to thrive.