Doha, Qatar – A group of high school students in Qatar is setting an eco-conscious trend by transforming worn and damaged garments into new fashion items, such as bags, face masks and scrunchies.
The Project Upcycle has drawn attention to the greater need for sustainability, while highlighting the problem of massive waste in the fashion industry which, according to research presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2018, a global event focusing on sustainability, creates approximately 92 million tonnes of waste material disposed of in landfills.
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The environmental consequences of this waste are devastating: Artificial fibres such as polyester take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to break down.
The students of Birla Public School in Qatar are on a mission to raise awareness of the environmental effects of “fast fashion”.
Under the banner of “Undo, Uplift, Upcycle”, the students wanted to spotlight problems in the “fast fashion” industry where mass-market retailers use low-quality and hazardous materials to satisfy the growing demand for the latest trends and make higher profits.
“We knew ‘fast fashion’ was not something that could easily disappear, especially when so many people rely on it for clothes due to its affordability,” said Nandini Mathur, head of design and product development at Project Upcycle.
“But such clothes are designed and made for short-term use, hence the large amounts of clothes disposed of every year into landfills.
“We wanted to create something that utilises that waste material, such as old and torn clothes, and create items that people can use for years. To use every piece to its maximum and make it practical too,” Mathur added.
In January 2022, the team began collecting old and torn clothes, mainly from friends and family. As their campaign gained momentum, they started receiving donations. They also sought out clothes rejected by charities since they were damaged.
The students create designs for bags and other items and give them to The Sewing Studio, a local tailoring business.
To sell their products, they collaborated with the sustainable online store, Ecosouk Qatar.
They “wanted to bring a culture of upcycling to Qatar”, Mathur said, adding that the fashion industry is “one of the largest sources of global warming and is often ignored in conversations surrounding sustainability and other green issues”.
“Our goal was to create something that would start a conversation and contribute to a solution,” she added.
In February last year, the students won a Global Act Impact Award (GAIA), as part of The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN) Qatar, for their project.
Fast fashion and its effect
The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has said the “fast fashion” industry is the second-most polluting industry in the world.
Data from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2018 show that making one pair of jeans consumes about 7,500 litres of water – what an average human consumes in seven years.
The same data showed that this trillion-dollar industry is also responsible for about 10 percent of the global carbon footprint, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Beyond its environmental effect, the fashion industry is also responsible for poor, often appalling, working conditions, especially for women, as 80 percent of the labour force throughout the supply chain are women, according to a 2018 UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) report.
Spotlight on consumer awareness
While there is growing awareness of the need for sustainable fashion, consumers do not always consider buying upcycled products.
“Most people have a very negative mindset about using upcycled products at the initial stages,” said Ivana Thomas of Project Upcycle. “The main question that crosses their mind is, ‘Why should I use products made of old, used fabric?'”
The students talk about sustainability when they set up independent stalls at various community events while motivating and educating customers about sustainable fashion, said Prashansa Oruganti, the project’s head of social media.
She noted that people are often “taken aback by the fact that the quality of an old recycled material was identical to that of a standard one”.