Your first trip to Khan al Khalili, once one of the Middle East's most illustrious bazaars, is an overwhelming experience. As you fight your way through the packed dusty narrow lanes and labyrinth of shops, the assault on your senses is enough to put off the most experienced adventurers. From lunging shopkeepers intent on selling you something at any cost and pungent smells, to donkey-pulled carts charging by (not to mention the oppressive summer heat), The Khan (as local expats call it) is not for the feint of heart. It's total pandemonium.
The magic that made the Khan one of the hubs of regional commerce centuries ago has long since faded. While hidden gems of true (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 crap and of course, tourists to sell it to. Everywhere you turn vendors are hawking knock-offs 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 Topshop 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 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 And1 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 pounds 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 crappy $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 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 ludicrous demands of these big-box retailers. Textile workers and artisans across the globe, have been 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. Ninety percent of textiles can be recycled and used again.
We can't roll back the clock and stop globalization. But as recently as 1990, 50 percent of our clothing was made here in The United States. With a concerted effort we can get back to that. Our communities and our environment will be better for it.