[Sustainability & the circular economy]: An emerging pre-owned clothes market in Egypt?

A quick browse through Cairo’s middle to high end clothes shops across its high streets and shopping malls may leave many with teary eyes looking at the price tags.

Good quality clothing from local and international brands are notoriously known for their hefty prices but Egyptian shoppers looking to wear quality brands are left with few cheaper alternatives.

However, there is more than just a financial cost to consumers when it comes to the fashion industry. According to the World Bank, the global fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of all carbon emissions, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Additionally, the textiles industry consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water every year and contributes 20 percent of the world’s wastewater, while dumping half a million tons of plastic microfibers into the ocean every year.

A concept which has not quite caught on among Egyptian consumers with more disposable income to buy new clothes; is the purchase of used clothes, sometimes called pre-owned, second-hand, pre-loved or circular fashion, a market that is increasingly being seen as a more sustainable alternative.

This becomes more apparent when looking at the amount of clothes and garments that are discarded yearly. Less than 1 percent of used clothes are recycled and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that $500 billion are lost annually to used clothes barely being worn, not donated, not recycled, or ending up in landfill.

Abroad, what can be commonly found are charity shops which sell almost everything that people donate to them to raise money. One of the most abundant items are clothes, providing consumers with a cheaper and more sustainable way of refreshing their wardrobes, even with big brands.

Such kinds of shops are either few or non-existent in Cairo, while simultaneously the idea of buying second-hand clothes can at best be perceived as strange or at worst, frowned upon.

However, there are signs that trends might be changing. Wekalet El Balah, one of central Cairo’s most famous clothes markets, is known for its huge selection of used clothes from many of the big brands amongst its street vendors and brick-and-mortar shops. In recent years, the market has been attracting a growing clientele of foreigners, tourists and younger more environmentally conscious Egyptians.

And in 2020 alone, a few business ventures have been launched to further expand circular fashion in the local market and bring more people on board to buying and wearing second-hand clothes.

As Good As New (AGAN) is a smartphone application just launched in March of this year which provides users with a platform to buy, sell and donate pre-owned clothes from quality brands, with a website currently in development.

“It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. A lot of people here have clothes they don’t know how to get rid of, especially expensive, high quality products,” says Heba Eldessouky, AGAN’s founder and chief executive officer (CEO).

Thanks to the rising prices of luxury brands, “it’s becoming more difficult for people to buy high end products. I thought why not create an app here in Egypt. It’s a model that is available worldwide but we don’t have one here.”

Users selling their clothes on AGAN also have the option of choosing to have their sales donated to charity organizations the app has partnered with.

Still in the process of launching is Jilatee, another online marketplace for buying, selling and trading used clothes, with the addition of a social platform.

“We’re trying to create the first consumer-to-consumer (C2C) circular fashion marketplace for where people can basically do three things: Buy, sell and exchange second-hand fashion items,” says Ingy Youssef, Jilatee’s founder and CEO.

“This startup has a mixture of my values. I think it’s very important to address the environment, [a problem] we’re all facing. In terms of the market, I found that there’s a big market for this project in terms of investors and clients, who are both becoming very sensitive to the topic. From a project perspective, I think it solves a problem that is very clear in the market,” she adds.

Who are the current targets?

Eldessouky is trying to capture a variety of consumers. “I’m targeting people who want to declutter their closet, [sell] their unused items and fund their next shopping spree, look for unique vintage items and people who are looking to support sustainability and give back to the local community.”

One of Youssef’s main target segments are students with less disposable income to spend.

“If for example, you have EGP 500 and you want to buy a dress for an event, you go to Zara for example, and the dress is worth EGP 1300. Even if it goes on sale down to EGP 800, you still can’t buy it. I’m trying to create a platform that’s very accessible, easy to use and you can find what you want within your budget.”

She is also going for Generation Z (people born between the mid-‘90s to early 2010s, sometimes called Zers or Zoomers) and millennial consumers who are more environmentally conscious.

“Mainly Zoomers in phase one and we’re addressing the millennials in phase two. But you have a very clear increase in the number of people that are environmentally savvy in both of those segments.”

Why buy pre-owned?

Mariam Saleh, 31, co-founder of Bellies En-Route (Egypt’s first specialized food tour company), says she goes shopping for pre-owned clothes in Wekalet El Balah three times a year at the beginning of every season.

“You get to find a lot of cool one-of-a-kind finds, it’s cheaper and it’s a sustainable and eco-friendly way of shopping. Sometimes you also find the odd branded shoe or bag. That’s always a fun thing to find.”

Eldessouky also emphasizes the financial incentive: “If you want to buy more items that are high quality or high end, instead of buying five items, you can buy 10 that are pre-owned.”

Youssef adds that by normalizing the buying and wearing of used clothes, Egypt would be following a positive world trend. “For example, in France, they passed a law called ‘Zero waste.’ They banned the destruction of unsold fashion items because in France they destroy EUR 1 billion worth of new goods every year.”

Cultural attitudes and changing perceptions

“There are some myths and misconceptions. A lot of people think that buying pre-owned clothes means that you’re buying something that is dirty or torn up. Sometimes people assume that they’re smuggled or not good quality. That’s actually not true. A lot of pre-owned clothes that you find at Wekalet El Balah are in very good condition. You can even find stuff with tags. The best thing you can do is just check the clothes before you buy them, sift through them, check for cuts or tears before you purchase. And when you go home, just wash it,” Mariam says.

Youssef says one of the biggest challenges of her project is trying to change mindsets to become more accepting of wearing second-hand clothes, since it is still largely a new concept among wealthier Egyptians. She notices the attitudes changing with younger age groups, though.

Research in 2019 says that in one in three Gen Zers will buy second-hand items. The numbers are looking good and I feel this in the Egyptian market talking to this young generation. At the supermarket I see lot of people using cloth bags to avoid using plastic bags. That’s also an indicator. You go to the Red Sea and in many supermarkets, there are no plastic bags. Awareness is rising and I think it’s the right time to introduce this project and concept.”

“We have influencers and celebrities listing their pieces on our app so I think this also helps reduce the stigma,” Eldessouky says. “People selling their clothes has this bad name. ‘I’m selling my clothes because I don’t have any money.’ No, you can sell your clothes to empty your closet or donate to charity. It’s not something shameful or embarrassing to do”.

Youssef insists that the idea of wearing used clothes is already quite prevalent in Egypt, so the leap to having a burgeoning resale market should not be a big one.

“The idea is like ‘Oh, god, I’m wearing something somebody wore before!’ That’s the reaction you used to get. Some people just can’t imagine wearing [second-hand clothes]. We’re trying to say you can have something somebody wore before because it happens if you look at the Egyptian family. My kids now are older, so I gave all their clothes to my sister who just had a baby. If I have something and I gain a couple of kilos and I can’t wear it anymore, I pass them on to one of my friends. If I have a wedding and I don’t want to buy something new, I can just go to my neighbour and ask her if I can borrow her dress for the evening. So, the concept does exist.”

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