A generation of Egyptian entrepreneurs seeks to break the paradigm by embracing ‘circular’ fashion and product design.
The past of Egypt is intricately entwined with the production of textiles, from the ancient linen clothing made of flax on the banks of the Nile to contemporary synthetics and the highly coveted Egyptian cotton or “white gold” of Egypt. The same is true for Egypt’s economy, where the sector accounts for 11% of all non-oil products and employs 1.5 million people. However, as the global and Egyptian fashion industries continue to expand, so do the problems with trash and sustainability.
One reason is that producing your preferred clothes requires a lot of water and energy; each kilogramme of fabric requires 200 litres of water, and chemicals like bleach and dyes seep into the Nile as noxious wastewater. The majority of the leftover fabrics and materials go down a one-way street to the landfill or incineration site in what is known as a “linear” process to receive, create, use, and then dispose of materials. As a result, the process is extremely wasteful.
By adopting “circular” fashion and product design, a model built on regenerative practises that minimises harm to the environment and offers a plethora of social and financial benefits at the same time — a win-win situation to be sure, but not without its own challenges — a generation of Egyptian entrepreneurs is trying to shift this paradigm. With Egypt being one of the largest “growth countries” in the world, characterised by quick industrialization, exorbitant “population growth,” and a rising need for resources, there is little room for companies that do not genuinely incorporate sustainability into their business strategy.
StartupScene spoke with some of the business leaders and economic experts who are demonstrating that environmentally friendly businesses are not fanciful ideas but rather essential parts of Egypt’s economic resilience and are frequently more financially astute than their wasteful counterparts in an effort to better understand the burgeoning field of circular fashion and product design in Egypt.
CLOSING THE LOOP
The “fast fashion” industry serves the purpose of producing affordable clothing for the Western consumer and is fundamentally supported by Western exploitation of the cheap raw materials and labour of the Global South, usually countries like China, India, Vietnam, and of course Egypt. According to a 2021 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a truckload of clothing is thrown away or burned every second around the world. Waste is then sent abroad and out of sight to developing nations in the Global South. An excellent illustration of this is Egypt, which, after Turkey and India, is the third-largest recipient of waste exported from Europe, getting 1.9 million tonnes in 2021.
To break free from this destructive paradigm, Egypt’s fashion and design industries have slowly started to implement “circular” practises based on the recycling and repurposing of their raw materials. These practises aim to “close the loop” or keep resources in use for as long as possible, reduce waste, and extract new value from used products. If the conventional production model is a one-way street, then this strategy is more of a roundabout that opens up new opportunities for societal advancement and economic resilience against global market volatility.
“Our motivation started off as a desire to have a positive impact on people and the planet.”said May Kassem and Ali El Nawawi, the creators of Sacer, an Egyptian company established in 2018 that offers apparel and bags made from repurposed materials, shared this.“We weren’t thinking of how to turn this into a lucrative business. We wanted to create jobs in humane working environments. When we started in 2018, none of this environmentalism was sexy or trendy in Egypt or around the world in general.”
According to Kassem and El Nawawi, they weren’t conscious of the economic value and resilience that circularity provides until constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession struck.
Kassem and El Nawawi claim, “When the pandemic came, we had to be super quick on our feet.” “To satisfy an urgent need, we chose to make cloth face masks out of deadstock and leftover fabrics from our very first manufacturing run in 2019. Our flexibility and circular strategy enabled us to enter the Egyptian market as one of the very first movers, and our sales at the time skyrocketed, enabling us to continue operating in the midst of one of the worst economic disasters ever.
Sacer is founded on the following circular principles, beginning with design: sourcing materials from dead-stock and waste; implementing lean manufacturing techniques with a zero-waste goal; using inks and dyes that are not harmful to the Nile’s water streams and that are plastisol free; upcycling products and materials; and assisting in the regeneration of nature at the start of our supply chain by only working with suppliers who work with biodynamic agricultural methods.
Sacer is not the only brand that approaches fashion holistically. A increasing number of SMEs in Egypt, including Reform Studio, UpFuse, Jozee, and Saqhoute, exhibit similar characteristics by drawing design inspiration from the materials in their immediate environment, both new and old. It’s also important to note that these cutting-edge circular companies, like Mobikya, Nafeza, and Turath, aren’t just found in the textile and fashion industries but also in product design, furniture, and home goods.
“I wanted to create a composite of materials that has the lifetime of a human being, something that’s both functional and aesthetically appealing,” said Rania Elkalla, CEO and creator of Shell Homage, explains how the company uses egg and nut shells as a sustainable and biodegradable material to make a variety of home furnishings, jewelry, and accessories that can be composted in your yard. Elkalla stated that the original inspiration for this came from a project he completed as a student that brought together product design and materials science.
“The idea was inspired by eating nuts and seeds as a family. We’d sit around the table and chat as we cracked nutshells open. I thought, it’s such a wonderful material, it’s like wood – and a lot of it is simply wasted: 57% of the walnut is the shell.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Egypt is one of the countries with the highest rates of food loss and waste, with 50% of fruits and veggies going to waste.
Regenerative practises and waste reduction are not a novelty to Egyptian culture and society, despite the fact that “sustainability” or “green fashion” have become buzzwords slapped on the faces of many brands and corporations today. For example, for more than a century, waste-collectors of Cairo’s “garbage city” district of Manshiyat Nasser have sorted the city’s waste by hand, saving about 70% of it from becoming landfill, which is 30% higher than the rate And rather than simply adopting Western standards of production, many Egyptian brands use sustainability to become more in tune with their heritage. For example, Reform Studio works with local weavers to revive an ancient craft that is in danger of extinction in Egypt, and local artisans are made an essential part of the team at the upcycling company UpFuse.
UNFOLDING AND RESTITCHING THE FASHION INDUSTRY: WHY NOW?
We spoke with Dr. Dalia Sakr, who has more than 20 years of experience advising governments and international development groups on energy, resource efficiency, and climate change, to learn more about the context behind the opportunities and difficulties faced by circular companies in Egypt.
“Why should businesses care to adopt circular practices? Firstly, a circular business model means you’re saving on energy, materials and water, which significantly cuts down on expenses and gives you a competitive edge,” Dr. Sakr explains.
“Then, you’re giving your products a unique edge that has a smaller environmental footprint, which is favourable to a certain client. It’ll especially improve the competitiveness of exports, given the growing demand for sustainable production in European and American markets – this would help fix the imbalance of trade within the textiles sector in Egypt.”
The rising prosperity of Sacer is evidence of this company’s “edge” in sustainability. “We knew we were doing well abroad, as our sales are on the rise in the stores where we are stocking, but recently, we have seen our brand recognition more locally on the rise too: stores are wanting to stock our products, brands are approaching us for collaborations, so we must be doing something right. Our team is also growing, which is allowing us to get more creative in seeking more business opportunities and expanding our portfolio as a brand.”Recently, rap artists Zaid Khaled, Idreesi, and Riff wore their clothing.mp3 is a good illustration of how green fashion is currently “in” in the music video for Khaled’s most recent song, “KNYMAKN.”
After beginning in Berlin and collaborating with Egyptian designers and galleries like ALIEL, F for Farah, and Afkarna Gallery to promote sustainable designs, Shell Homage has also developed clientele both domestically and abroad. It demonstrates how circular design creates new chances for creativity, teamwork, and value creation. Elkalla has received numerous honours for her work, including a European Design Award and a Green Product Award.
All of the people we spoke to identified the cost of purchasing the necessary technology and equipment to collect, sort, clean, sterilise, up-cycle, and create new materials as the primary obstacle to starting a circular company. The one-time initial investment in this machinery represents a daunting first move for SMEs, especially given the erratic value of the Egyptian pound today and the fact that the majority of machinery is imported from abroad.
Are SMEs with an interest in the climate eligible for any support?“A number of amendments were laid out in a new law for waste management in 2020, offering incentives for products that are less resource intensive. In addition, the Environmental Compliance Office (ECO) of the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI) provides some support for start-ups and green entrepreneurs,”Dr. Sakr mentions. The ITC (GTEX/MENATEX) program, of which Sacer is presently a beneficiary, is another such initiative.
“Egypt is also one of the main hubs for entrepreneurial ecosystems in the MENA region,” Dr. Sakr continues. “The annual Rise Up Summit is a good example of that. Incubators and accelerators appear ready to support businesses that clearly demonstrate sustainability and environmental passion, partly because of the certain ‘hype’ around eco-conscious brand identity. To be sure, FinTech companies are often the most appealing to investors, but the FinTech market is far more saturated.”
This year’s RiseUp Summit brought together influential individuals for a group discussion at the Grand Egyptian Museum to discuss design solutions made from recycled materials. Speakers included representatives from VeryNile, Shell Homage, Esorus, and two investors from the VC firm Averroes Ventures. Another initiative that brings together artists, designers, and businesspeople is “From Waste to Good Taste,” which has created a place in Egypt for the realisation of sustainable design concepts.
Awareness for renewed materials has grown through projects like the Egyptian Cotton Project that was initiated in 2020 by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and UNIDO to revive the cotton industry,” Dr. Sakr says. “There’s been some impressive preliminary results already: regenerated cotton yarn could save up to 70% of water and up to 40% of energy use, which we hope will encourage further initiatives.”
TAKING STOCK: THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Waste management is one persistent issue that companies encounter. The present waste handling industry in Egypt is plagued with structural issues and lacks a national collection infrastructure, making material waste an expensive burden to carry for companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
Businesses can recycle their waste materials by sending them to the Egyptian Clothing Bank, a nonprofit that collects and reuses clothing and other materials for free before distributing the new items to Egypt’s underserved and marginalised communities. This zero-waste outfit has established itself as a lynchpin in Egypt’s circular fashion industry by repairing, altering, recycling, and upcycling waste gathered from individual donors and manufacturers.
“The first time we gathered waste from a mass importer of clothes back in 2018, we took in 250 thousand pieces – most of it wasn’t even waste, but perfectly good pieces just in need of small repairs! We were able to spread the joy of free new clothes in 17 universities.”explains Eng. Manal Saleh, CEO and co-founder of the organisation.
The Egyptian Clothing Bank has also seen an increase in donations and assistance as interest in circularity gradually grows.“With the incentive of donation receipts that provide tax benefits, many more manufacturers, retailers, exporters, importers, and traders donate their waste to the Egyptian Clothing Bank — in 2022 we received 2.2 million pieces.”
However, as economist Dr. Sakr is quick to point out, circularity is still in its infancy both in Egypt and internationally.“There is still so much to do. The challenges for start-ups in an emerging economy are much more than the Global North.”
The lack of education and awareness about sustainability is still a major obstacle for company owners.“Investment opportunities for creative industries in Egypt and globally were at first very difficult to get, the suppliers were extremely few and, at first, the factories wouldn’t even know how to wrap our products without using polybags. Sometimes they’d even laugh at our suggestions for alternative packaging solutions,”From Sacer, Kassem and El Nawawi inform us.“The consumer lacked awareness on what organic cotton is, as well as concepts of up-cycling, recycling, labour conditions etc. We had to start an online consumer awareness campaign back in 2019 called ‘The Green Room’ inviting experts in circularity, environmental issues, and sustainable fashion to bring the message closer to our customers.”
According to our respondents, COP27 has made some progress towards changing consumer behaviour. “We’re genuinely happy to notice that the questions around sustainability asked by our Egyptian consumers are more sophisticated and more to the point,”Kassem and El Nawawi say.“In the past, we’ve been demotivated by the fact that we’re only a small handful of players and our sales have been driven mostly by the brand aesthetic rather than the environmental or social impact we have, but now we believe things are changing.”
WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT, MOVING FORWARD?
“We need more financial support and economic incentives for these business models, and more help to market their products, more capacity building offering boot camps and workshops, and educating the consumers. We also need more biodegradable material in circulation,”Elkalla from Shell Homage shares.
“I hope governmental trade councils recognize slow fashion as an ‘edge’ and an export opportunity like no other,” according to Eng Saleh from the Egyptian Clothing Bank. “Egyptians are very colourful, very fashionable, and creativity is in our DNA. The brilliant local designers on the fashion scene now are proof. I hope that more sustainable fashion designers emerge and call for further support.
Sacer thinks the media is also very important:“Allowing us to talk about real issues, challenges, successes and best practices will help bring our work into the mainstream. Seeing Sacer succeed in stocking in NYC, the Gulf, and Europe putting Egypt on the global map of sustainable fashion would definitely inspire emerging designers, convincing them that there is a huge potential. Seeing other brands succeed like Reform, Up-fuse or others in this space only makes this space more appealing for outsiders to know more about. Creating meaningful collaborations between these brands and other business-related suppliers will only give us all more weight locally, regionally and internationally.”