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News Archive » Interview with Amira Sonbol, Switcher and fashion designer recycling fabrics and empowering women

Interview with Amira Sonbol, Switcher and fashion designer recycling fabrics and empowering women

8th March 2021

Amira Sonbol was volunteering in a charity shelter when she saw the dangerous side of Egyptian textiles: piles of destroyed, useless clothes. The shelter had planned to donate the garments to needy Egyptians, but many had become simply unwearable. These clothes had been sucked into the wasteful Egyptian textile sector. On top of discarded clothes, Sonbol estimates that local factories can generate up to 118,000 tonnes of fabric cast-offs annually. 

It dawned on Sonbol that even ruined clothes and leftover fabric could live on productively, if they were sown together into new, attractive products. That basic idea inspired Green Fashion, a Cairo design house for patchwork-based clothing and accessories. 

On the occasion of the International Women Day, we decided to give her the floor and to tell us more about her initiative.  

Briefly, can you please tell me why you decided to employ disadvantaged women? When did you have this idea? 

It all started years ago when we went volunteering in a neighbourhood of the Zabaleen, a low-income community of trash collectors here in Cairo. In the area, we got to know many talented women who had been traumatised by horrible circumstances. Some had been divorced, while others were single mums or suffering from domestic violence and having no income.  

The moment I saw these women, I felt obligated to help give them the life they deserve. These women are brave enough to battle for their own and their kids’ life, as the breadwinner for their families. Yet, in most companies, they struggle to find decent jobs in a safe environment where they can grow and work safely. 

What are some of the challenges facing women in the sustainable fashion industry in Egypt? 

In Egypt, the percentage of female unemployment was already at around 19.6% -- and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which drove up jobless rates even further, to 24.7%. This means that there are approximately 11 million Egyptian women who are entirely capable of working, yet they are not. These figures reflect the huge barriers that Egyptian women face in accessing job opportunities with proper salaries. 

These obstacles loom even larger in the Zabaleen community that we work with. It is always hard to provide a safe and decent work environment where these women can learn and create. At Green Fashion, we offer a safe space for our female workers to master new skills and achieve their potential. We also offer some psychological rehabilitation sessions for the women and their children. 

What advice would you give to women who want to start their own sustainable business? 

First and foremost, it is never late to start doing what you believe in!  

Second, focus on your organisation’s core values. We have launched Green Fashion to promote sustainability, so we encourage our female workers to address challenges that they find in their community and work on green solutions. In some cases, women propose ideas that tackle a community problem, but are not necessarily eco-friendly. In those cases, we search for alternative organisations who can support that idea with greater levels of experience. 

Third, be methodical in setting up your business. We developed Green Fashion’s central business model first, refining a structure that is economically sustainable, can generate constant profits, and offers a green solution (in this case, to wastage of leftover fabric). Next, we identified and recruited a qualified team, while also producing our prototype product. Finally, we were ready to connect with incubators and accelerators that were interested in eco-friendly projects and had strong connections in the sector. These steps were enough for us to establish Green Fashion as a sustainable business. 

Do you have any ideas about how to celebrate International Women's Day? 

I would love to spoil my ladies in our workshop: maybe take them to the hairdresser and a trip on the Nile with some delicious food and amazing music. It would be a relaxing day away from whatever troubles the women in their own life -- a day for them, and only them, as queens who have survived great hardship. 

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