What Does it Mean to Have Ethical Clothing?: Q&A with Iman Masmoudi

Traversing Tradition had the great pleasure of interviewing Iman Masmoudi, the President of TŪNIQ, an ethical clothing brand applying wholistic Islamic ethics to its “sheep to shop” manufacturing cooperative. After graduating from Harvard with an honors BA in Social & Political theory and Islamic History, she received her MPhil in Classical Islamic History & Culture from the University of Cambridge. She writes and works on Ottoman North Africa, Islamic Law, & Sacred Anti-Capitalism.

  1. Do you think Muslims have a place in the fashion industry as it stands, or rather, do you believe that Muslims could carve out an alternative “scene” altogether? 

Leaving aside the question of production for a bit, I would like us to think about what beautiful clothing means and how we should approach it as Muslims. God mentions clothing in the Qur’an as a blessing upon humanity and a sign of His creation (7:26 in ḥafs). The Prophet ﷺ was very intentional about clothing. He knew his garments by name and would make dua in gratitude for them as he dressed every morning. His garments were beautiful. Intricate green robes and elegant, red-striped cloaks clothed the Prophet ﷺ as he went about the business of the Ummah of Muslims. People throughout Muslim societies historically wore clothing of immense intricacy, quality, and beauty. But what we see too often now from the fashion industry is an approach to beauty that is hyper-individualistic. Rather than a quiet dignity, much of fashion today is focused on making you stand out, expressing yourself, wearing the most bold or strange outfits, pushing the boundaries. The key to an Islamic approach to beauty in clothing is quiet, refined dignity where everyone is dressed beautifully using recognizable standards and codes of normal dress according to local custom. In the rural town where my family is from, for example, all the women dress almost exactly the same with slight variations in the patterns of their clothes. There are three outfits to choose from: winter, summer, and special occasions. Rich or poor, everyone has access to these few quality garments. This is the space of beauty in fashion that Muslims can carve out for themselves: beauty with dignity and humility, and beauty that reflects on craftsmanship and artistry. Rather than flaunting personal wealth, taste, or status, this kind of beauty is quietly grandiose and accessible to all.

  1. With major retailers shutting down in the rise of fast fashion can ethically-sourced clothing compete?

Ethically-sourced clothing can “compete” to a certain degree, in that, I think clothing can be made much more affordably than people have come to expect from ethical fashion *if* we use traditional and indigenous craft methods, property is distributed fairly, and designers don’t overcharge for their “label.” But, it also cannot and should not compete in the sense that it is not offering the same product that fast fashion is. In fact, it should not even consider itself in the same market. Over the past few decades, fast fashion has somehow convinced us that clothing is a disposable good. Every season, every week even, we are told we need to update our wardrobe. Rapid turnover is further built into this business model because the clothes are of such poor quality, they might not even last you past a season. This is an extremely distorted and ahistorical view of clothes. Would you replace your couch every season? Your car, if you have one? Of course not, because those are items that we understand are meant to last. They are investments. It should be exactly the same with clothing. If we truly understood what went into making a garment from the raw fiber to the final piece, we would be appalled at the prices we have been convinced are reasonable for such pieces. They are not. It simply is not possible to ethically and Islamically make a new t-shirt for $5. So in that sense, ethical clothing cannot and should not compete and must instead be part of the movement to restore the proper place of clothes in our lives.

  1. In light of the pandemic, how has TŪNIQ coped with logistical restrictions this past year?

Alhamdulillah, we’ve been very fortunate that our supply chain relies on artisans’ working from their homes and on their own schedules. Because of that, our coop members have been resilient, continuing to be able to work using their own means of production, and our only occasional and thankfully minor delays have been in shipping. The past 4 months have been the best we’ve had in terms of sales, and we’ve been able to hire new artisans and repair old looms. We are grateful to all of our supporters and to God for these many blessings and openings. 

  1. Within the current economic model how responsible or appropriate would an organized boycott of fast fashion be?

This is a contentious question. There is a widespread perspective that organized boycotts, as opposed to vocal pressure without commercial pressure for example, threaten the livelihoods of garment workers. And I know many garment worker unions I have spoken with do not advocate organized boycotts. I fully respect that position. At the same time, we need more long-term thinking that asks are these precarious factory jobs for garment workers the ideal form of work for these women? And how can these models account for the overproduction and vast amounts of waste and pollution caused by the industrial model? In other words, even if all of garment workers’ demands for better pay and working conditions were met, we would still need to radically transform what would remain a violent and destructive industry that centralizes power and the means of production in the hands of a few bosses. I advocate for more worker power by way of traditional techniques and decentralized production methods so that workers can own their labor along with the means of production. Not only does mass-production often lead to environmental destruction and worker exploitation, but it also creates work that is not accessible to many who may not be able to work in factories. When traditional crafts and decentralized production are supported, however, people, usually women, who are caretakers, disabled people, and widows, for example, are able to earn an income by working just a few hours a day from home and by hand on their crafts. This distributes material benefit to many who might otherwise be left out. And it builds networks of support and community, as artisans visit one another and collaborate. Such decentralized wealth also means more people own land, can grow their own food, and this of course affects so many of the key issues of justice today including the organic farming movement, housing and homelessness, minimum wage, wealth inequality, racism, fair trade and post-colonial export relationships, and much more. I think any potential boycott movement must, therefore, be paired with active work towards creating that distributed production alternative which is key to solving so many of our modern crises. 

  1. To be considered ethical fashion what criteria must a brand meet?

To be clear, there are absolutely no universally-recognized standards or regulations when it comes to using the term “ethical” by fashion brands. That said, I will share what I think those standards should be with the caveat that many would disagree with me and claim this bar is too high, unattainable, or even undesirable. But this is where my beliefs as a Muslim have guided me. 

To be considered ethical, a clothing brand must have a fully wholistic approach to its ethical intervention. Every single choice made by a business has a scalable moral impact. We cannot simply make our supply chain ethical and then exploit hyper-consumerist culture when it is time to market our clothes. We cannot simply support women artisans and then objectify women’s bodies to sell clothes. In actual production, though, it is actually quite simple. Ethical clothing should be produced with 100% natural materials through small-scale organic farming, without the use of any synthetic chemical processing or dyes, and should be processed from raw fiber to sewn garment by workers in safe conditions with fair pay and preferably a decentralized and horizontal production model (ideally workers own the means of production). Designs should not objectify the human body or steal from uncompensated cultures. All of this should be done on a small scale and with a high-quality that will last a long time. 

  1. How do you balance affordability with profits and paying artisans fairly?

The short answer is we 1) pare back on unnecessary expenses like bloated marketing budgets, constantly overturning collections and designs, and huge inventories with lots of unsold stock and 2) we make less money. Our profit margins per piece range from 20-50%. This is a respectable margin in any other industry, but in the fashion industry, it is far below standard. Many companies, as cheaply as they sell their clothing to you, are making 10x or more of their production cost for each piece they sell. This is why they can afford to have billions in unsold stock every year, which often is destroyed or burned rather than donated. The longer answer also involves our simplified supply chain, how we work directly with artisans who own the means of production and set their own prices (we pay them what they ask and sometimes more), and how we use locally available and indigenous production techniques, which means no large upfront investments in huge machinery or factory space. 

Affordability is extremely important to us. Many have advised us that products with the quality that we create at TŪNIQ could easily target the luxury market and profit off of huge markups. This has never been something we’ve wanted to do. Luxury, beauty, and most importantly baraka-filled clothes should be as accessible as possible while respecting the materials and labor that created them. Unethical fashion is often framed as preying on lower-income communities by offering them cheap goods at inflated prices which do not last and harm their health. This is true, of course, and yet our tradition also allows us to conceptualize these structures as perpetuating a further injustice against these communities: the spiritual harm that comes from the exclusive consumption of unblessed goods. Poor communities in the West almost exclusively interact with industrially-produced products made in violence and devoid of any baraka, while the use of truly beautiful objects in daily life remains a privilege of the bourgeoisie. Finally, it is important to remember that the fashion industry is not alone in exploiting its workers. It is a wider reality of our modern economic system that the majority of people can barely survive on low wages and own little to no property. I think a recognition of that fact is necessary when discussing questions of affordability in ethical clothing. The more that we transform our economic system so that small-scale individual producers are supported, the more we will all be able to “afford” to support beautiful and ethical goods.

  1. For a Muslim what should anti-capitalism look like and what are the core aims of the movement?

Many Muslims confuse Capitalism with free markets and the basics of business. Free markets existed around the world long before the past four or five centuries which historians point to as the rise of capitalist markets, and as Muslims, we should reclaim that history and let it inspire us and expand our thinking. Capitalism is a distinctly modern economic system in which production and exchange are determined by a small minority of the population who control a large portion of the wealth, access to land, and means of production. Everyone else is forced to sell their labor to survive while generating ever greater and more obscene profits for the bosses. Open markets without centralized planning, by contrast, are certainly approved by many prophetic hadiths, and business and trade are mentioned as permissible in the Qur’an. But alongside this, we have a rich tradition as Muslims of regulation and strict ethics in business that must be accounted for in any anti-Capitalist Islamic vision. Markets in Muslim cities were state-regulated alongside a moral tradition that condemned dishonesty, cheating, adulterating goods, air and water pollution, poor hygiene and unsafe food, harsh treatment of animals, and as well as certain financial transactions, such as interest, debt-trading, and price-fixing. This, of course, was always paired with the imperative to give in charity and redistribute wealth locally to those who needed it. 

Between the abhorrence of profit-seeking on one hand and the violence and extraction of modern capitalism on the other, the Islamic ethic of trade posits that commerce can be a force for building community relationships, distributing needs and benefits widely, and generating joy and fulfillment. Our anti-Capitalist position is to choose to reclaim these human traditions; these ways of building relationships and sharing benefits and beauty with one another. God says in the Qur’an, “Oh you who have believed, do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly but only [in lawful] business by mutual consent” (4:29 in ḥafs). That consent implies with it a certain degree of autonomy and equity in commercial transactions. It is essential for a Muslim anti-Capitalist movement to build towards decentralization and degrowth. This means that more people should own their own means of production privately. Small-scale businesses and tradespeople can create vibrant local communities, produce goods at a sustainable scale, generate beauty in the world through the uniqueness of handmade goods, and pursue excellence and ihsan through the blessing of labor. Additionally, this form of organizing economic and social life, which has many resonances with movements like agrarianism and distributism, would reconnect humanity with land and with natural materials, which are signs from our Lord and in which our hearts find rest. 

  1. In the West, do you think that general consumers are aware of the levels of exploitation of workers in the fashion industry, and is there a general desire to see that change?

There is, alhamdulillah, a growing awareness of this issue, particularly among young people. In general terms, many people are aware that sweatshops are exploitative and fast fashion is not good for the environment. Beyond this, however, many continue to underestimate the scope and impact of this issue in two ways. First, people are being tricked about the size of this industry. Average consumers might know fast fashion is bad, but they might not think there is any reason to pay particular attention to this industry as compared to the ethical conundrums of any other consumer good. The truth is that the garment and textile industry worldwide employs over 1 in every 25 people on this planet. It is a global mammoth, generating over 100 billion new garments annually, that has expanded dramatically in size in the past few decades. Walk into any shopping mall and pay attention to just how many stores deal in apparel, accessories, or other textiles including home goods, and I think you will realize that this is certainly not just another industry among many. In addition to the scale, I think people are in the dark about the complexities of the harm caused by this industry. We have a tendency to ask about garment workers in cut & sew factories while forgetting to ask about mill workers, dye workers, and farmers. The supply chain of clothing and textiles is so long and complex – and intentionally hidden by many fashion brands – that those earlier steps of the supply chain are often overlooked as points of tremendous harm and exploitation.

  1. As “modest fashion” businesses and brands are becoming more common, how can we as consumers ensure that what we are buying is ethically sourced?

The basic things customers can do are to check the label and look for 100% natural fiber composition in their clothes (silk, wool, cotton, linen, leather, etc.), to ask the brand where their clothes are sewn, how workers are compensated, where the materials came from, and to educate themselves about words and techniques that brands use to hide what they’re really doing so that we can see through attempts at greenwashing fundamentally unsustainable practices (ex: terms like “innovative fibers” are a red flag to me). 

However, though I do not want to always be the pessimistic voice, I think I can almost guarantee that the clothes we are buying, particularly from “modest” or “Islamic” clothing businesses, are not up to what the ethical standard should be. Granted, it is a high standard that many would describe as unattainable, but it remains the case that by and large Islamic clothing and textile companies are sadly among the worst offenders in the industry. The proliferation of polyester, toxic dyes, and poor working conditions in Muslim textile businesses is particularly shameful not only because this pollution and worker-exploitation largely affect Muslim lands and Muslim garment workers, but also because of how much more highly our religion calls us to act in comparison with what we are creating in its name. We only need to check the manufacturing labels on our prayer rugs to see the ultimate example of this dissonance between what we say and do outwardly and what’s been swept under the rug.

If you would like to support TŪNIQ, they have an ongoing LaunchGood campaign which ends February 27, 2021.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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