By Sonya Rehman
While there have been a smattering of local clothing brands that have attempted to incorporate certain elements of sustainability into their business models, Pakistani fashion still has a long way to go before the fashion industry endeavors to shift towards eco-friendly, fair and ethical practices.
“Sustainability has become a buzz word nowadays,” states Abdul Rehman, a research fellow at Michigan State University and the founder of Aangan, a slow fashion brand launched in 2020.
“It’s good to see more local brands promoting sustainability, however, only a few of them move beyond using sustainability as a marketing gimmick and hardly any of them have been able to implement a completely sustainable model. Sustainability is often limited to the final product alone – in fact, it is completely overlooked when it comes to production and sustainability.”
Working closely with his mother, Nasreen Jabbar, who once dabbled in fashion design and needlework in the 70s, Rehman states that he tries to keep Aangan as sustainability-conscious as possible. From locally sourced material (bought in Bahawalpur and interior Sindh), to using eco-friendly, biodegradable packaging (which always includes a handwritten note on recycled paper), the designer states that Aangan’s accessories line is almost always created from upcycled fabric.
Islamabad-based fashion designer, Anuje Farhung, always felt a pull towards adopting a sustainability-conscious approach to her work ever since completing her graduate degree in fashion from the United States.
“I’ve always been interested in fabric, the sculptural quality of it and how you can manipulate it. I was playing around with that a lot during college. I was also looking at other people’s work and it was honestly so exciting…the kind of technology there is, the prototypes you can make are endless.”
However, it was only until the pandemic hit that Farhung began seriously focusing on material ideation in eco-friendly fabrics. Collaborating with Sarah Khan, a Peshawar-based biologist, on biodegradable sequins (made out of algae), Farhung states that consumers can be convinced to move towards eco-friendly fashion.
“If it’s affordable and has some amount of longevity, why wouldn’t anyone want to shift to sustainable fashion? Look at rural communities the world over, they’ve been incorporating sustainable practices in their daily lives since time immemorial. But today we live in a world of fast consumption and fast fashion and we’re all guilty of fueling it. The important question to ask is, when you make a fast fashion purchase, what happens afterwards? How does it impact your environment and your community?”
Having launched her fashion start-up, Frower, in 2017, Sarah Cheema says that over time she felt herself moving away from trends and becoming more intrigued by handcrafted apparel that had a story to tell. Besides, through her label, launched in collaboration with her sister, Maimoona, Cheema felt the urge to return to her roots.
“Our region has such a rich history of textiles and the craft techniques that stem out of it like embroidery, weaving, dyeing, and block printing amongst so many others, therefore, we already have such a strong, sustainable template engrained in our culture; all we need to do is be mindful of the impact our choices have on the earth, stop chasing fast fashion and be critically regional,” she says. “For me, personally, the mastery in craft is important. I choose artisans who are experts in their fields, many of whom have been doing this for generations because they understand the ethos of the craft, it’s not just a job for them.”
Arslan Athar, a writer based in Lahore, believes that conventional fashion houses in Pakistan need to be proactive in terms of making tangible, far-reaching changes in their practices.
“A brand in Pakistan claims to be 100% sustainable, but many reports show that their back-end works like a fast fashion brand, so it seems like currently, they’re dealing with choosing what parts of sustainability keep them profitable and appealable. I believe the root cause of this is the fact that fashion in Pakistan has just not accepted the fact that they’re a polluting force,” Athar states.
“Sustainability needs to be more than just a mini collection you release on Independence Day, it needs to be the ethos of your business. Where I’m seeing potential is on Instagram – small businesses are really encapsulating what it means to be sustainable. I’m more forgiving with their interpretation of sustainability because they are ‘small’ and have fewer resources, and so far, they seem open to discussions about how they can be more sustainable and how they can help the environment more. These small businesses is where I see potential and where I see growth, and I hope they become the moral compass for larger brands to become more sustainable.”
Zain Ahmad, the creative brains behind Rastah, a high-end streetwear brand, echoes Athar’s sentiments. For one, Ahmad thinks that local brands need to strive to be more self-reflective regarding whether or not their supply chains permit them to be eco-friendly, and to not mislead their customers by loosely using the “mantra of sustainability as a marketing tool.”
Working specifically with handloom artisans and local craftsmen in Lahore, Rastah continues to feature the faces behind its limited, much-coveted pieces through their digital platforms.
“It’s very important for brands to talk about what they’re doing to make their work sustainable – simply stating your garments are handmade is not enough. Who made your raw materials, what’s the story behind them? Transparency is key.”
Spearheading her social enterprise, Zuka Accessories, in 2018, Mehr F. Husain regularly collaborates with local craftspeople on products that she sells through her Instagram page.
“We’re in desperate need of creating a circular economy,” she says, “Pakistan is rich with human resources and crafts. We have ancient traditions. I fail to understand why we are unable to take all these and expand in the craft sector to create an industry that caters to all socio-economic segments. For a country that is extremely vulnerable to climate change and economic hits, it is imperative that local brands connect with communities to create cycles of sustainable practices and products. This, in fact, can push for more creativity and encourage innovation as well.”