When twenty-four-year-old Omar Itani decided to clear out his wardrobe, the idea of throwing his old clothes away didn’t occur to him. Instead, he looked for second-hand clothing stores to recycle them. But he didn’t find any.
“In the end, I decided to give them to the caretaker. When I asked him how he would benefit, he said he wouldn’t really. That was a life-changing moment for me. Then I discovered there were no recycling clothing stores in Beirut.”
He started researching and found that textiles make up 5–10 per cent of solid waste disposed of in Lebanon. He also learned that organizations and individuals often have a clothing surplus they don’t know what to do with.
On top of that, he was acutely aware of the environmental impact of clothing which goes to landfill. Chemicals from dyes pollute soil and water.
The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water in the world, using enough water to meet the needs of five million people every year, and producing the equivalent of 3 million oil barrels in microfibre, often dumped in the sea.
“I was never good at school, and at the time I was wondering: what can I do really well? Communicating with people. I realized my skill and passion is to help make things better—for other people, for the community, for the environment.”
Slowly building a team of 16, the majority from refugee communities, he founded FabricAID—a business which works with vulnerable communities and refugees, mostly from Syria and Palestine to collect, wash and sort clothing. Once ready, these are sent to FabricAid pop-up markets, second-hand stores and shops and priced at no more than US$2.
If the clothes cannot be upcycled or are not in good condition, they are shredded and turned into fashionable and beautiful cushions, mattresses and other household items.
“People think refugees threaten their job, country and community. But this is a perception, and these communities are struggling. My work with refugees made me realize that they are suffering. When things are so miserable, even a small endeavour like receiving clean clothes makes such a difference.”
To date, FabricAID has upcycled 75,000 kilograms of clothing and sold more than 50,000 items to more than 10,000 people, mostly refugees or disadvantaged communities with little income.
Itani’s initative aims to redesign how people think. To create a new trend where second-hand clothing, upcycling and recycling become woven into the social fabric of society.
“There is not one solution. But people need to be more aware of the environmental cost of our clothes, and buy fewer of them,” he said. At the same time, we need more realistic taxes on clothes which reflect the natural resources they use up.”
“My vision is that everyone, even those who can’t afford new clothes, can access decent clothing. And, that our fashion and textile industry globally will move to embrace a fashion trend which is zero-waste, zero-carbon.”
Itani is on to something big happening in global fashion.
“Over the last three years, the second-hand apparel market has been growing 21 times faster than retail apparel. Soon, it will overtake fast fashion as the largest supplier of clothing worldwide,” said Michael Stanley-Jones, co-Secretary of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.
“The trend towards ethical, sustainable fashion has been embraced by consumers who now demand environmental and ethical fashion. Yet fashion still has a long way to go to become carbon-neutral and cease being a contributor to the global climate crisis.”
According to ThreadUp, the world’s largest online second-hand shopping destination, the second-hand market, currently valued at US$24 billion, is predicted to grow to US$64 billion by 2028. That figure is 1.5 times larger than the predicted value of the fast fashion market, at US$44 billion for the same period.
The report also found that millennials aged 25–37, and generation Z, aged 18–24, are driving that market.
But while sustainability considerations in textiles production have gained traction, particularly for labour issues, the global textile value chain is still far from zero-carbon and zero-waste.
New business models are critical, making Itani’s initiative part of a growing, global trend in need of individual support.
Garrette Clark, Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer at the UN Environment Programme said: “As individuals, we have the power to make a difference—to think about what we need, and make long-term, bold decisions.
“We can celebrate being unique and give clothes a second chance: share, reuse, redesign and repair, recycle, sell, and donate. We can buy vintage, buy better quality clothes that last longer.
“As one of the world’s largest industries, the environmental and social impacts associated with the textile value chain are significant—and of increasing concern to the global community.”
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is the UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Omar Itani is one of seven winners announced this year! Stay tuned to apply in January.