Ethical Hijab

The word fashion often reminds one of beautiful, tall, lean women who use their bodies to display clothing in the most favorable light. Thoughts of runways, models, and constantly changing trends with subsequent sales are frequent companions to the concept of fashion.

The most mindful, and spiritually inclined among us try to avoid thinking too much about this subject, as it is normally associated with superficiality and waste. Truth of the matter is, that we all wear clothes, and the choices we make when we purchase clothing has an actual impact on trends in the fashion world, on society at large, and on our environment.

Muslim women in particular have a very special, growing stake in the business. Just look at the recent fashion shows thrown by major labels and established designers in the Middle East. Look at the new advertising campaigns by Gap, H&M, and Nike, just to name a few. This is the impact we have on the established fashion industry: we are a growing market; fashion-houses want our attention. As has been reiterated by many online. But let’s not be overly flattered just yet.

Did you know that the fast fashion industry is among the top ten most polluting industries in the world, preceded most glaringly by the fossil fuel industry, and according to more recent statistics tourism, and agriculture, among a few others?

At least 75% of all clothing donated to charities and thrift shops ends up flooding developing countries, crippling the locally sourced and produced small fashion companies.

But wait, there’s more. Did you know that 85% of purchased clothing doesn’t even make it to the thrift store and goes directly to a landfill near you? Or that some of the most profitable clothing manufacturers reside in predominantly Muslim countries (such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines), where women must leave their families behind to work extra long hours in difficult conditions to be able to partly pay for bare living expenses?

In fact, many of the synthetic materials used in the production and dyeing of fabrics are causing irreparable damage to the workers handling the substances, and to the natural environments in which the residues are dumped with no regard for safety or ecological standards? Cotton is among the fabrics with the biggest environmental footprint in the world because of the tremendous amount of water needed to irrigate it, and the types and quantity of pesticides used to maintain non-organic fields profitable?

But, perhaps you didn’t know any of this. Are you still excited to be finally recognized as a premier target market for fast fashion? Or are you having second thoughts?

Let me be clear. I love beautiful clothes. The Prophet (SAWS) encouraged us to look our best. Clothing is a reality that we all must contend with, and if a little flare comes into play, why not? Respecting hijab doesn’t mean you need to look frumpy.

There’s no question about the human inclinations towards beauty, and I’m not arguing against it. What I am trying to get across, is that with increased power (purchasing power in this case), comes increased responsibility. Our God-given amana (obligation) to care for the Earth should not be transgressed because of our vanity.

Our responsibility for respectful treatment of our neighbors, sisters, and brothers, should not be compromised by our desire for cheaper and more plentiful clothing. There must be a balance between looking good and doing good, and this is where we could benefit from drawing a line in the sand.

Does this mean that we should only buy natural fibers, sourced from organic products, through fair trade means, at equitable prices? That would be awesome! But let’s face it, that amount of conscientiousness can cost a small fortune, and in some areas of the world, is still an unlikely possibility.

A few small changes like a bit more mindfulness in our purchasing choices can go quite a long way. Easy steps that can lead us in a more positive direction are:

These simple choices can send a clear message to retailers that you won’t go for those types of materials. If retailers stop carrying such products, labels will stop producing them.

Sending an email to your favorite brands inquiring about the working conditions of seamstresses and encouraging ethical practices through social media can do wonders. Just look at Fashion Revolution and the most recent #Burnburry affair.

In case you missed it, five years ago a manufacturing plant in severe need of repairs collapsed in Bangladesh, killing nearly all of its staff, who were inside sewing garments they could scarcely afford to purchase themselves. As a result of this tragedy, #FashionRevolution was created, and the movement towards holding fashion labels accountable began in earnest.

As for Burberry, it became known that the company had incinerated over 37 million US dollars worth of fashion clothing, accessories, and fragrances rather than risk lowering the value of the brand by selling them at sale prices. The #burnberry hashtag garnered millions of retweets, and the company took notice, releasing a press statement that promised never to incinerate its unsold merchandise again, and expanded on their recycling initiative to reuse and donate programs instead. In the same statement they also promised not to use real fur trimmings on their garments, in favor of vegan alternatives.

This response happened within less than 48 hours of continuous tweeting. So, don’t think that retweeting and emailing doesn’t make a difference. It does! I have it on good authority that each email that a fashion company gets about its products is counted as equal to 500 similar customers who hold the same opinion but just didn’t bother to put their thoughts on screen, and press send.

How often does it happen that your vote counts for 500 different people? Not often! So why waste this power? The US and Canada encourage companies to incinerate unsold goods by not levying taxes on them if destroyed. Writing to your local and wider Governments to have these incentives changed to reflect more environmentally friendly concerns, might be another step you may choose to take as well.

Finally, how much better would you feel about wearing something that was made specifically for you (not by accident, not as an afterthought), using the most natural and ethically sourced, renewable materials, manufactured by people who are valued as human beings, respected as skilled workers, and paid accordingly?

Wouldn’t you feel so much better knowing what went into each piece of clothing you wear? Wouldn’t you feel more confident wearing clothes that you know were done with halal intentions foremost in mind, respecting each step of the process from fabric sourcing, to final product?

I know I do. And I know I shop a lot less because of this thought process. I consequently contribute less to unfair labor practices, environmental pollution, and I support companies that pride themselves on their ethical dealings, and are transparent about everything they do.

I’ve also dabbled in a more minimalistic lifestyle, which is in line with my fashion sense and my ethical values. Not to mention other considerations of a more political nature, such as country of origin (is this a country that is famous for human rights abuses? For scant or no environmental controls?). This is very easily remedied by avoiding products made in such countries.

Don’t forget the tremendous impact boycotting South Africa had on Apartheid. Our money does talk, so let’s make it speak loudly, clearly, and ethically! For my part, I shop predominantly from two sources: Shukr , an online Muslima fashion shop that delivers worldwide, and my local thrift shops.

I know it isn’t easy to find companies that do take all of this into consideration, but the movement is growing. Given the fact that we are being directly targeted as customers for these consumer products, we should take this attention with a grain of salt.

Along with appreciating the recognition, consider the power of influence that our potential market can have on very pressing and serious issues, such as human rights, fair trade, and environmental concerns with sustainability and safe disposal (or outright rejection) of chemical agents.

As an emerging market we are at the cusp of a very lucrative business. Now, it’s up to us whether we’re satisfied with the appearance of respect, and our images being plastered everywhere to represent an industry in desperate need of reminders, or if we want to go a step further and demand that our innermost values of respect for our people, animals, and planet be taken into account as well.

Much has improved since the Rana tragedy in Bangladesh, but recently there has been a push to set back many of the regulations, including preventing workers from unionizing, in order to attract emerging fashion companies looking to make a dent in the industry through cheap labor and low safety standards. Despite the fact that the minimum wage has been doubled since 2013, it’s still about half of what a regular family of six requires for minimum living standards , and manufacturing companies are pushing their workers to the brink to make up for the added cost of labor. This is where the fashion industry should step in, and they won’t unless we expect them to from our end.

With the ball in our court, will we push for true representation of our values, or will we be satisfied with just another pretty hijab?