The Tidal Wave Of Sustainable Fashion Is Approaching, But Is Pakistan Catching Up?

The Tidal Wave Of Sustainable Fashion Is Approaching, But Is Pakistan Catching Up?
The global fashion industry had been expecting a reckoning, but that it would come in the shape of a global pandemic was unanticipated. For years, the case against fast fashion and exploitative production techniques had been accumulating, and when Covid forced everyone to halt, the moment for reinvention had arrived. Sustainability became more than a far-off ideal or a marketing buzzword, as brands realized it was entirely possible to slow down production while still making profits. While the progress has been slow, the fact that there has been progress at all is a relief.

As in the case of most cultural diffusions from the global north to the global south, it takes a while for countries like Pakistan to catch up to the latest discourse. Sustainable fashion has been in the West's industrial lexicon for many years, but only now is the conversation stirring up in Pakistan. Although the Pakistani fashion industry continues to remain dominated by seasonal loose-fabric lawn sales, the ready-to-wear sector is seeing a slight shift in trends.

Womenswear brand Generation pioneered the Pakistani ready-to-wear industry some 40 years ago. It's very inception was a move towards sustainability, as the founders strove to reject imported (and non-biodegradable) polyester fabrics and instead opt for local cotton-based cloth instead. But today, Generation takes the commitment to sustainability a step further, and has set up a dedicated department for the cause. The brand's new category, called 'reGENERATE', utilizes surplus fabrics to create new apparel in an effort to reduce waste from their main product lines.

The brand's production cycle has two main seasons —summer/spring and winter/fall, as well as two additional collections for each of the two Eid festivals. Each season is then divided into further collections, all of which are planned a year in advance to figure out exactly how much fabric would be required. Khadija Rehman, the CEO of Generation says, "We limit our quantities because our production still employs a lot of analogue technologies such as hand block printing, handmade ajrak, applique etc, so there is a cap on how much we can make by hand and maintain our quality."

Maintaining that Generation has always strived to maintain quality and durability, Khadija explains that the brand produces clothes created by craftspeople whose skills have been passed down from generation to generation, so that the clothes too, can be passed down from generation to generation. "Naturally, they come at a cost," she says, adding, "But we’ve got such a loyal pool of customers who are willing to pay a premium because they know that our clothes are made to last."


While shifting to cotton does make for a product that is biodegradable, it also raises the question of the feasibility of using a water intensive raw material — 1 kg of cotton requires 10,000 litres of water on a global average— in a water scarce country. International denim brand Levi's has its own innovative approach to this dilemma. Like a lot of other brands, Levi's uses hemp to make their garments. However, the brand has found a way to 'cottonise' the hemp, resulting in a product that's as soft as cotton. Mir Zia Mahmood, the Levi's country manager for Pakistan and East Europe says, "Hemp requires less water and land to grow, improves soil health, and needs fewer pesticides."

The brand in 2011 also introduced their Water
The founder of Levi's, Levi Strauss started the Eureka Innovation Lab in the late 1800s, which continues to research fiber, fabric, fit, finish and functionality and test ideas in-house to see if they are viable and scalable. "Naturally we want to sell more, but we believe if we sell you a quality durable product, you will wear it for many years to come," says Mir Zia, adding that the average Levi's customer buys one pair of jeans per year, but even if that were to go up to two pairs, it wouldn't be so bad.

A Breakout outlet in Packages Mall, Lahore.

Compared to both Generation and Levi's, Pakistani western wear brand Breakout takes a different approach to sustainability. Instead of looking towards its production techniques, Breakout chooses to focus on the ways it can achieve sustainability in its logistical operations. Managing Director Ahmer Farooq tells TFT that in an effort to reduce the carbon footprint, Breakout has shifted its production facility close to its warehouse."We are also swiftly moving towards supplementary use of solar energy at our production facility" he said. 

Breakout Summer Collection

While Breakout's production model churns out a whopping six collections each year, each with a four month cycle from design board to retail shelves. Ahmer says the brand understands that incorporating sustainable techniques can be expensive, and it's definitely an uphill task, but their commitment to a practice that is better for everyone in the long run makes it worth it.

A collection by local fashion start-up Aangan, as covered by Sonya Rehman for Forbes.

To date, most of the heavy lifting in the realm of sustainable fashion has been done by smaller, indie brands. For bigger names that dominate the market, sustainability has been more a buzzword, than a promise.

With major players like Generation paving the way for quality fashion, this might change in coming years. If major brands begin to think about sustainability as not just the end result, but also in terms of what goes on at the back end, at the workshops and the factories and the warehouses, perhaps we might have a chance to catch the wave after all.

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.