Your first trip to Khan al Khalili, once one of the Middle East’s most illustrious baazars, is an overwhelming experience. As you fight your way through the dusty, narrow lanes and labyrinth of shops, the assault on your senses is enough to put off the most experienced adventurer. From lunging shopkeepers intent on selling you something at any cost to donkey drawn carts charging by, The Khan (as local expats call it) is not for the feint of heart. It’s total pandamonium. And that’s not to even mention the oppressive summer heat, which can reach up to 110 degrees.
The magic that made The Khan one of the hubs of regional commerce centuries ago has long since faded. While hidden gems of true, and exceptionally beautiful, Egyptian culture and craftsmanship still remain deep within the walls of the open air bazaar, the majority of the marketplace has been overrun by a culture of unrelenting consumerism, an avalanche of cheap imported shit and of course, tourists to sell it to. Everywhere you turn vendors are hawking knock-off crap from China and leftover clothing from the States. Plastic seems to be a common denominator. Plastic hookahs, plastic rings, plastic ‘leather’ sandals. So too is 10 years-out-of-style clothing. Shirts with large lettering commemorating the garish decade that was the 90s hang from every stall.
It is outings to the Khan that provide such a clear picture of what is wrong with the fashion industry today. We live in a world of fast-fashion, where fast-fashion retailers such as the UK’s Top Shop release as many as 300 trends a week. These fads come and go and the latest styles fly off the shelves at a breakneck pace. Yet who in New York City, London, Paris (or anywhere for that matter) has a closet big enough to hold 10 outfits let alone 100? So where the fuck does it all end up?
For starters, landfills and island-sized mounds of trash that float in our ocean. But what about those of us who are eco-conscious and charitable. Where do the shirts and jeans and dresses that we drop off at our local clothing drives go?
Cairo. Nairobi. Manila and every other developing nation metropolis and impoverished rural village.
Our old clothing floods third world markets. In theory, donating clothing to people in need makes sense. In practice, it has ruined local industries, closed factories and put thousands of textile workers and artisans out of business. If you notice frustration in the faces of the vendors at the Khan, it’s probably because they hate selling lead-tainted junk from China just as much as we hate having it forced upon us. In a better world, they’d be working on their own craft. If that’s not it, it could be because they are drenched in sweat in their dirt-cheap, non-breathable, itchy, synthetic nylon gallabiyas which they are forced to wear because Egyptian cotton is too valuable and for export only.
When it comes to knock-offs and ‘donations’ fashion is the worst offender. And not just because And 1 t-shirts are all the rage right now throughout East Africa…That’s what happens when we are buying four times as much as we did in 1980. Closets aren’t getting any bigger so we Americans on average now throw away 68 lbs of textiles per person each year (that’s the equivalent to over 200 shirts or 70 shoes)!!
For major corporations, it is easier and cheaper to produce tens of millions of pounds of product, regardless whether they sell it or not. That’s how they get to cost. That’s how they can make a $6 tube top. Quality no longer matters. Price and quantity does. That’s why we throw so many pieces away. Because after 4 or 5 wears, the garments literally fall apart, hence you shop more. That’s why the CEO of Zara is the third wealthiest man in the world.
But at what cost?
1,100 lives were lost in Bangladesh trying to fulfill the incessant and ludacris demands of these big-box retailers. Textile workers and artisans across the globe, have put out of business not able to keep up with basement low prices. And in case you forgot: this garbage island is still on its way to a shore near you.
So what can we as consumers do? Sure it’d be great if we all shopped less. That’d be ideal. But that’s not likely to happen. Instead, buy Made in USA. Support awesome brands that are keeping jobs in America and paying fair wages to their employees. If you are a humanitarian at heart then shop Fair Trade or when traveling to places like the Khan, seek out the authentic artisans making genuinely incredible pieces. Most importantly recycle. 90% of textiles can be recycled and used again.
We have the ability to make a difference. People around the world and our environment are counting on it.