Concious style

Sustainable fashion-designer Shahd Al Shehail talks candidly about conscious consumer habits and preserving craftsmanship with her women-led brand, Abadia

 

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As a leader in conscious fashion and educating people on sustainability, how far do you think people are from changing their consumer habits?

On April 24, 2013 the world watched on in horror as the death toll mounted in one of the worst industrial accidents in recent history. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, the eight-storey Rana Plaza building collapsed killing over 1,100 people and seriously injuring many others. As tragic as this incident was, it acted as a catalyst for change. When I first started out in this industry, experts would tell me that consumers didn’t care about how their clothes were made. But I believed then and I believe now that it isn’t that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.

Over the last six years consumer awareness about sustainability in fashion has increased dramatically and continues to grow. Every year, we see more and more innovation in sustainable materials and ethical manufacturing practices. It’s a lot easier for consumers to shop their values than it was six years ago. There are an incredible amount of ethical and sustainable fashion and footwear options out there for people now. We still have a long way to go, but change is happening and that’s exciting.

What is your opinion on fast fashion? How can we help consumers to buy less and pay more?

Fast fashion can never be a sustainable or ethical option, no matter how much brands try to convince us otherwise. The business model is very problematic. It’s based on speed, keeping prices low, and disposability at the expense of the environment and those who make the clothes. Approximately 150 billion new garments are created every year while at the same time, millions of tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill. Educating people about the fashion system is essential to behavior change and that takes time. We need to exercise patience and kindness and have conversations with as many people as possible. At the same time we have to live our values and be an example of what it looks like to have a more meaningful relationship with the clothes we wear.

 

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Why is sustainability important to you?

I believe it’s our responsibility as humans on this earth to take care of each other and our precious resources. This planet is the only home we have, we should treat it with respect.

Do you think sustainability has become a buzzword that companies use to make themselves sound like they are doing something for the environment, when really they are still contributing to waste and landfill?

The idea that sustainability is trending is a double-edged sword. On one hand it means people are finally discussing the issues and awareness is growing. On the other, without consumers having a good grasp of the concepts of sustainability, they can be susceptible to greenwashing when brands use buzzwords to try and paint themselves as more environmentally friendly than they truly are. We have to make a concerted effort to educate consumers and encourage them to ask questions so they can discern which brands are genuine and which are pulling the wool over their eyes.

 

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What is your ethos for Abadia and what makes the brand sustainable?

Abadia is an ethical luxury brand, owned and operated by women. We recognise that traditional crafts are intrinsically linked to culture and we value the knowledge and stories of the artisans that practice them. Unfortunately, the speed and efficiency of mass production has meant that many traditional crafts are at risk and are beginning to dissipate. Our mission is to preserve this craftsmanship and to generate sustainable income for the artisans so they are more likely to pass their skills on to the next generation. We work closely with artisan groups, developing and incorporating handmade crafts into our ethically made, timeless designs.   We also consider our impact at every stage of our design process. We respect the people and the resources that go into each of our pieces, from fabric choice, in-house manufacturing and timeless design.  We are not perfect, but we do strive to be honest and transparent about the work we do. The fashion industry can gloss over the stories of how clothing came to be, often hiding injustices happening around the world. We believe the people that make clothing should be as valued and respected as the people wearing it. At Abadia we are on an eternal journey of growth and encourage our customers to ask questions and challenge us.

Why do you feel sustainability and accountability in fashion are so important?

Sustainability in fashion is important because we cannot continue to put our heads in the sand and continue with business as usual. The fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and responsible for exploiting communities and their surrounding environment across the world. The clothing we wear should reflect the world we want to live in. Creating fashion in a way that respects people and the planet is the only way forward.

 

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How do you think fashion is impacting the world from a societal perspective? Do you think it has become a soulless industry? 

Fashion has the power to tell a story of who we are and where we’ve come from. Historically speaking, the clothes people wore were interwoven with their culture and heritage. In many parts of the world that is still the case but unfortunately many of us have lost that kind of meaningful connection to fashion.

Fast fashion and the increased availability of cheap disposable clothing has meant that we no longer value what we are wearing. We are disconnected from how it was created and the resources it was made from. We must reimagine our relationship with fashion and really start to value the garments in our wardrobe. If you understand the story behind the piece, you feel connected to it and are more likely to repair and preserve that item. I’ve often heard people say that they can feel the love that went into their Abadia design every time they wear it. That’s really beautiful and we need to seek out that kind of connection.

Do you believe in seasons and trends or do you think this has just become a vehicle for more is more?

Trends are one of the reasons the existing fashion system is so damaging. They perpetuate this idea that we are not enough unless we have the latest dress, bag, shoes, etc. This in turn ramps up consumption and fuels our obsession with newness.

At Abadia, we don’t believe in trends. We create timeless designs that we hope you will treasure for years to come. In the future I dream of seeing Abadia pieces from collections handed down to the next generation. Imagine the stories each garment will tell!

 

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Instagram makes us all feel like we need more. Do you think social media is healthy?

Instagram is just a symptom of a wider systemic obsession with consumption that exploits our insecurities in the name of sales. We need to actively take responsibility for what we post, how we engage and who we follow on social media. Instagram can be a really incredible tool to connect and educate people but we have to be conscious of using this social media in a way that aligns with our values.

What changes would you want to see fashion go through in the next five years?

I would love to see sustainability in fashion become essential for all brands, not just an optional value add. It would be incredible if in the future we were able to stop qualifying brands as ethical and sustainable.   

In terms of best practice we need to move the needle on circularity, recycling and regenerating. The sheer volume of fashion waste the industry is generating cannot continue and we need to focus on innovative ways to reduce the impact of the clothes we wear. Right now the technology is still in the very early stages of development and over the next five years I hope to see it move forward in leaps and bounds.

 

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