Piles of waste are often burned in Lebanon, sending toxins into the air. Sometimes, litter and plastic can be found lining up the streets. The country is struggling to figure out a waste management program, and it has gotten so bad that Human Rights Watch is paying for billboards around the country warning people about the hazards of open dumps and burning waste. It is estimated that 5% of solid waste in Lebanon comes from textiles like clothes and fabric. One young Lebanese entrepreneur sees a business in all those clothes; one that not only helps the garbage problem, but disadvantaged people, too.
In the summer of 2016, Omar Itani looked in his closet and realized he had a large pile of clothing he did not have a need for anymore. He posted a message on Facebook alerting his friends he was giving clothes away, and asked if anyone else had items for donation. Within two weeks, he collected more than 200 kilograms of clothes.“I didn’t expect to get 1,000 items,” he says. “But I wanted to keep my promise and had to figure out a way to distribute a large amount of clothes. I looked into local NGOs and discovered none of them have a way to clean, sort, and deliver clothes.”
A few months later, he created a company called FabricAID, dedicated to collecting and distributing good quality clothes for impoverished Lebanese people. “We have a huge demand in Lebanon. There are 2.5 million people who can’t afford to buy good clothes. One and a half million of those are Syrian refugees,” Itani remarks.
When people want to get rid of clothes, they often give them to NGOs. FabricAID buys those used clothes, sometimes up to 1,000 kilograms per day. Additionally, they also place collection bins around the country. The clothes are then transported to a centralized warehouse where eight employees sort, clean and categorize the garments based on quality.
“The revealing clothes, usually not demanded by the typically conservative marginalized communities, go to a fashion school in Beirut where students redesign the clothes, which are then sent to a refugee camp to be sewn by seamstresses,” says Itani. “We employ six Syrian refugees. Those garments are then sold at high-end stores and fashion exhibitions.”
The rest of the clothes are distributed to permanent markets and pop-up shops throughout Lebanon, where people can buy used clothes at an average price of $0.9. Most of the clothes are between $.03-$2 per item, making them accessible for anyone. “It’s a proper shopping experience and doesn’t feel like charity,” says Itani. “A person comes in, gets a shopping bag, then goes and pays. It’s dignifying.”
Most pop-up shops have 5,000 items of clothing with some going all the way to 20,000. All of this recycling is a boon to Lebanon, which has a waste crisis. It is especially important to recycle textiles, which are thrown away at an alarming rate. According to the True Cost Project, the world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. Or in the words of Livia Firth, Creative Director of Eco-Age: “A garment from a fast fashion brand usually lasts in a women’s wardrobe for 5 weeks. Each year across the world, 1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people, working in 250,000 factories. These are predominantly made in countries described by the UN as the world’s least developed. All in all, the garment and textile industry is estimated to be worth some $3 trillion. And the bulk of that goes into the pockets of the owners of those fast fashion brands.”
The making of an entrepreneur
At just 22-years-old, Itani is not your typical entrepreneur. Born and raised in Beirut, he remembers always having an entrepreneurial spirit. When he was 16, he participated in a program called Injaz, which teaches Lebanon’s youth how to become entrepreneurs. “We created our own company, and what we did was collect trash in Beirut, brought it to our school, sorted it and sold it,” he says. “We were like a waste management company and had a huge team of up to 40 students. I was the vice president of Public Relations.”
He then studied industrial engineering for four years, and left during his senior year to focus completely on FabricAID, a role he says can be challenging at times.“We were able to grow quickly and now have 15 employees,” he says. “It’s a hassle. Managing their salaries, their day-to-day activities, reducing their idle time, increasing their efficiency. It’s one of the hardest tasks as an entrepreneur. You really spend a lot of time managing people and trying to increase efficiency.”
Funding can be the nemesis of any startup — difficult to find and secure. But it hasn’t been a problem for FabridAID, which has won 17 competitions and collected $130,000.
In February, FabridAID won a competition called “Get in the Ring Beirut”, and went home with $2,500 and a spot in the Global Meetup in Portugal to represent Lebanon.
“What we’re focusing on is how to increase our sales cycle,” says Itani. “We sold 20,000 clothing items in March, so that’s a major source of our funding now. Whenever we find a competition or a grant or someone who’s sponsoring an initiative, we apply for it. We don’t take monetary donations.”
He said charities run on donations often don’t succeed when people experience donor fatigue, and that’s something he wanted to avoid. So far, people are excited to buy from FabricAID, which sells clothes at a price 75% lower than the market. If a pair of jeans typically sells for $5, Fabric Aids sells them for $1.30
Twenty percent of the clothing FabricAID collects are not of high enough quality to be washed and resold at second-hand stores. Itani says they clothes inappropriate to be reused are shredded into small pieces to be used as stuffing in upcycled furniture.
“If you want a pillow or a couch, you need stuffing. We use the old clothes as stuffing for those items. A pillow made out of shredded clothing is just as comfortable and you won’t know the difference,” Itani says. “Our goal is zero fabric waste.”
He hopes to team up with local orphanages to create pillows and couches for children, a pilot project that began in June 2018. Eventually, Itani wants to find other passionate, young social entrepreneurs to help expand FabricAID in other countries, namely Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco.
To learn more, visit their website or Facebook-page.
Photos: Courtesy of FabricAID.
This article was originally published by The Switchers, a platform telling stories from green changemakers in the Mediterranean. It is part of the EU-funded SwitchMed program that aims to scale up eco and social innovations in the region.