Ethical Fashion In Pakistan: How To Shop Mindfully

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Ushah Kazi

Married to books, in a relationship with food, playing dress up since 1993. An unabashed pop-culture junkie. Come talk movies and lifestyle with me!

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So, some time ago, I was speaking to a friend about ethical fashion in Pakistan. In particular, because of her sizeable social media influence, she had been approached by a clothing brand in Pakistan. They were hoping to have her promote them, and she wanted to be sure that she didn’t support questionable production practices. 

To help her, I shared a handy list that I’ve started applying to Pakistani fashion brands. This is basically my litmus test. As conversations around consumption become more nuanced, I find that a lot of Pakistanis are conscious about their impact. Especially, when purchasing luxuries, such as fancy clothes. Ethical fashion in Pakistan, is thus having a bit of a moment. Up-cycling, slow-fashion and the like have become buzzwords. But, don’t let the presence of impressive jargon confuse you. We are in the very early stages of having these conversations. This would explain why we don’t have local equivalents of official titles, or bodies that govern production ethics. 

And yet, time waits for no one; this conversation is long overdue. While local bodies, and stakeholders continue to work towards being more mindful, our consumption habits also have to change. So, here are some steps I take, to be more ethical and conscious of my choices. 

1. Buy Less, Be More 

The number one way to be more mindful, and ethical in your choices, is to limit them. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that the global fashion industry was responsible for 10% of carbon emissions. While environmentally ‘green’ alternatives are great, research has indicated that buying less is much more sustainable. And I know that in our capitalist happy culture, shopping is akin to happiness. But take it from someone who thought otherwise once; you don’t need to buy stuff to be happy. 

Tip: If you haven’t already; now would be a great time to embrace a ‘capsule wardrobe’. Basically, this means that you severely limit the size of your wardrobe. Last year, I took part in Project 333.

Started by Courtney Carver, the initiative challenges you to limit your wardrobe to thirty three items, for three months. Simultaneously, challenge yourself to not only buy less, but also be more mindful in your purchases. (More on that later). 

Even if you can’t limit yourself to the exact number for long, restricting your wardrobe is strangely liberating. It makes you realise that you really don’t need twenty thousand pairs of shoes. (Trust me). Since I started my capsule wardrobe journey last year, I have been able to severely limit my purchases. This also means that I am able to save up, and only purchase quality, ethically produced items. 

2. The Art of The Craft 

I think this should go without saying, but the most gut wrenching cost of unethical production is human. Too many garment workers are not paid liveable wages, and have to work in unsafe conditions. In Pakistan, local crafts and practices are also threatened, because they are not scalable to meet mass-market demand. Simultaneously, artisan communities, that rely on a craft or skill for their livelihood, have borne the brunt of this trade off. 

So, whenever I can, I make it a point to opt for and support artisan centric brands. Some really prominent names in Pakistan are working closely with artisans. Brands like Koel, The Pink Tree Company and Rizwan Beyg make it a point to preserve craft and empower artisans. Also, Polly and Other Stories is a marketplace that works with a number of small businesses and artisans across Pakistan. 

The caveat is that these pieces are usually more expensive. But again, this is in large part down to higher wages afforded to the workers. Also, as the industry develops innovative modes of production, the price points will also shift. Some time ago, Rizwan Beyg told me that he creates hybrid designs that combine machine and handcrafted embroidery. His garments are finished by hand, by craftswomen trained via his Bunyaad project. This allows him to offer them liveable wages, while also ensuring a price point that his customers are happy with. But as a rule of thumb, consider supporting brands that openly support their workers. 

Tip: Pay attention to the brand’s story. As I mentioned, Pakistani design houses that work closely with artisans, usually have to manoeuvre around a higher price tag. This is a disadvantage, because save for the select few, most Pakistani consumers are very sensitive to prices. Consumers could make exceptions however, if the product aligns with their personal ethics. So, if brands are working closely with artisans, they WILL say so. Visit their websites, social media channels, and even message them. If this is a part of their ethos, they will make sure that you know about it. 

3. Green Washing 

I think it would be fair to say that some production practices are objectively more ethical than others. When I visited the country some months ago, certain practices were being prioritised by purveyors of ethical fashion in Pakistan. In particular, there was a serious push for natural, or as they are known in Pakistan, vegetable dyes. Synthetic dyeing techniques have had a devastating impact on water bodies, particularly in poorer countries. The damage in many cases is irreversible. This is a real tough pill to swallow for Pakistan. On the one hand, water scarcity is an imminent concern, yet simultaneously, exorbitant Lawn sales are almost an annual ritual. 

Dyeing in Pakistan

If you don’t know what a Lawn sale is, I’ll set the scene. Picture garish, synthetically dyed fabrics, rock bottom prices and deliriously wealthy women fighting over a price tag. It is not pretty; ever.  

Thus, conversations about ethical fashion in Pakistan focus on natural dyeing techniques. Particularly because block-printing, which uses natural dyes, is also a revered cultural craft. Brands like Blocked Textiles have been able to champion block-print, and simultaneously produce in small batches. Remember the less is more rule; businesses that produce less, have a smaller carbon footprint. And, are more ethical in that sense. 

However, be sure to take various facets of seemingly better options into account. For example, while natural dyes are non-toxic, and thus better than synthetic dyes, they are not perfect alternatives. You’d need a lot of land to cultivate the ingredients for such dyes. Also, cotton, which is the preferred cloth for natural dyeing, requires a lot of water to be produced. 

Tip: Pair natural dyes with the capsule philosophy. I have completely sworn off Lawn. And, if and when I do purchase a print, I pick block-print from a brand that I know produces mindfully. 

4. Fail Safes 

This one isn’t limited to fashion, but rather ethical consumption as a whole. There are alternatives to what we opt to purchase, that are significantly more ethical. Three have been on top of my list, because they are such simple changes. 

Firstly, opt for soap bars over liquid soap. When we’re talking about reducing waste, this is a much better option than a plastic bottle of liquid soap. 

And speaking of plastic bottles, opt instead for glass whenever you can. Glass can be recycled more times than plastic, and breaks down much quicker. With that said, always recycle empty glass bottles rather than just tossing them in the bin. (Although really, that should be a general rule of thumb). 

And finally, reduce the use of plastic bags. Cloth bags are a really easy alternative, that are also very readily available. Titli makes some really lovely designs, and donates proceeds to charity. 

Titli Pakistan

Also, Mashion did a great list of sustainable alternatives. It’s a great place to start making more mindful choices. 

5. Amazing Race 

Okay, it’s time; let’s talk about fast fashion. By now, even the most oblivious amongst you will have heard about fast fashion; and how it is the devil. To keep the definition neutral, fast fashion is just a business model with a really fast inventory turnover. Styles go from ramp to rack really quickly, and we are talking new stock every two weeks or less. 

Fast fashion

This type of a production cycle raises many issues. In order to stay competitive, fast fashion brands will cut corners. Employee salaries are slashed, health and safety overlooked, and garment quality compromised. Thus, workers are exploited, and clothes are so disposable, that they end up in landfill sites quite regularly. 

Needless to say, supporting this kind of a model is about the least ethical thing you could do. Thus, if we want to see more ethical fashion in Pakistan, we have to move away from fast fashion. But, here’s the issue; how do you know that a brand is following this model? Because, you see, unlike artisan empowerment, very few brands openly celebrate such production practices. 

Price used to be a good indicator, and in some cases it still is. If a branded kurta costs Rs. 1000, then how well do you think garment workers were paid by the brand? Because remember, a chunk of the markup goes to the ‘brand’. And the workers are almost always bearing the brunt of the burden. But increasingly, you also have brands that charge premium, but still underpay workers, and compromise on quality. 

Tip: Instead focus on turnover. If a brand has new stock every week, and the quality is subpar (which it will be) then something is amiss. 

6. Small Wonders 

With this said, I have also seen ventures that have quick turnover, but are doing their best to be mindful. I won’t name them, but I saw a tailoring service that offered three day tailoring. But, they also gave a large percentage of their profits to their all-women workforce. It is not ideal to be offering such fast service. It places a lot of stress on the employees, and ultimately still encourages the immediate gratification mindset. Many people, if they have the option of getting more quicker, will buy more. 

But, given the competitive field that they’re in, I can imagine why they want to advertise speed. And also, they genuinely want to empower their employees, which is always a plus. 

Tip: Often, small businesses and artisan collectives will genuinely want to help. They will also be more than willing to talk about what they’re doing. So, read about what they are doing, ask if you have to and cut them some slack. They might not fit every criteria to be called ‘ethical’ but, they might be doing what they can with what they have. Try to see if you’d be okay with supporting them. 

7. Tailor Made 

This of course brings me to tailoring. Once upon a time, when the Pakistani fashion industry was a handful of design ventures, tailoring was the norm. The problem is that we never really empowered, or valued our tailors. 

tailoring services

Karachi streets are still littered with independent tailors, whose profit margins are remarkably slim. Consistently low income has meant that these independent businesses have not been able to compete with the mass-market. More importantly, they have also not been able to amass sizeable personal wealth. So, if you have the opportunity to empower independent tailors, please do so. 

Tip: Please, in the name of all that is still sacred; do not haggle with them! Pay the man the amount he is asking for, or settle for less fancy embroidery. But please, don’t expect him to work overtime without compensating him. It’s 2020; please develop a little empathy. 

Ethical Fashion In Pakistan; Demand Side 

Obviously, a lasting shift towards ethical fashion in Pakistan has to cover all bases. Something to be said about the push for carbon neutral or carbon negative production. Fashion brands have to start looking inwards, realising that time is a luxury, and making sweeping changes. 

But, in the absence of overseeing bodies, consumers also need to be mindful of their choices. And while, those choices are limited in Pakistan, they do still exist. It is possible to be mindful, and mitigate your environmental impact, and empower the labour force. It is possible to still have fun with fashion, but just make better choices. But perhaps most importantly, it is possible to educate ourselves, know and then do better.

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Emma Hayes

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