State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Ammar Belal Knows There’s No Sustainable Fashion Without Social Justice

It wasn’t difficult to spot designer Ammar Belal in the bustling corner of Chelsea Market where he runs a pop-up store for his clothing label, ONE432. He is sporting a half-shaved, half curly hairdo and is wearing a Coca Cola Red sweater with brilliant yellow lightning bolts on it. He looks like Ziggy Stardust.

ammar belal and brother
Ammar Belal (right) wearing ONE432 apparel

“Have you seen our new patchwork jackets?” he asks, almost before saying hello. “We had to save these material scraps for almost two years to make them.” He then points to a rail at the back, “And this over here is my ‘David Bowie’ collection — I’m obsessed with him.”

“I’m so glad you made it down here,” he says in between refolding t-shirts, re-aligning a row of traditional South Asian jutti slippers, and wiping non-existent dust off a shelf. “You caught me just in time, I’m out of town tomorrow.”

The shop assistant lets out a knowing smile and I get the sense that this pre-departure fussing is routine.

Life is manic for the Pakistani-born fashion designer. In addition to running ONE432, the sustainable clothing brand-cum-social enterprise he created with his brother, Belal is a professor teaching (or, in his words, troublemaking) at both Parsons School of Design and Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program.

His passion for spreading awareness about the social and environmental problems in the fashion industry, and many of their solutions, is obvious. In the ten minutes I have spent in the shop, Belal has already shared the story of his brand with three customers.

‘ONE432’ means ‘I love you, too.’ For those who are too young to remember the cellular devices that existed before smartphones, when you texted someone, the numerical abbreviation of saying ‘I love you, too’ on the keypad was ‘1432.’ For Belal and his brother, this represents the equality and reciprocity in the way they do business; if “I” do well, “you” do well, too.

In reality, this means that 50% of the net profit from every unit sold is returned to the artisans who made it and used to sponsor the education of a child in Pakistan. In the four years that the business has been operating, this has resulted in $92,987.92 of revenue for garment workers, and in 5,281 children sent to school.

Beyond its focus on social issues, the brand sources materials from Pakistan to the greatest extent that it can, as part of its constant initiative to develop the country’s infrastructure.

The success of ONE432’s radically ethical business model is changing the hearts and minds of even its most hardened skeptics. “I have seen folks that I thought would never even want to share a meal with me, come out and support us. It has changed my view of how much we can do,” Belal says.

clothing and shoes in shop
Photo courtesy of Ammar Belal

“They thought I was absolutely insane. I’m telling you. And now I can say it proudly because we’ve survived the pandemic. But I was called every kind of patronizing term about how I don’t know business, everything. I’ve taken so much crap, even from people that I love. They said it just can’t be done. And I was like, yes it can.”

Some of the flack he’s taken for starting a brand that is also a social enterprise may be due to the fact that Belal had spent the earlier part of his career chasing fame and fortune as a luxury menswear designer in Pakistan.

Belal feels though, that this was always meant to be his path. “In the 80s, my father started one of the largest sportswear textile manufacturers in Pakistan,” he explains. “My first memories as a child? If you ask me what’s the first thing I remember smelling,… I remember the smell of fresh cotton. I remember being three or four years old, running around the factory — around mountains and mountains of clothing and yarn and this fresh cotton.”

But Belal isn’t just following in his family’s footsteps. If he ever was, there was clearly a mindset shift along the way. ONE432 appears to be a cultural reset; his opportunity to re-empower Pakistan’s garment industry after decades of exploitation and race-to-the-bottom trade.

“Nike, Target, Levi’s, JCPenney… All the big brands in the 80s and the 90s were manufacturing out of Pakistan, before 9/11. And then a lot of things moved to Bangladesh and China. [I saw] the impact of what it did to pricing, what it did to relationships between brands and factories. Brands and factories used to have long-term relationships and they became so transient because [fashion companies were] looking for the fastest, cheapest thing. It all happened right in front of me.”

Having both grown up in “the system” of mass production and fed into the glamorous delusion of the high fashion world, Belal now sees it as his responsibility to do better.

I ask Professor Belal if he believes his business model is applicable to fashion companies of all sizes. He does.

“Look, I’m not saying everybody has to give 50% of their profits away. That’s pretty aggressive. ONE432 is all about showing people what is possible. It says ‘expect more.’ If we, completely bootstrapped, can give this money away, and have this level of transparency, so can other brands.”

“Pricing something well so that it’s attractive to consumers, I understand that. Everybody loves a good deal. But there has to be a floor. There has to be a minimum that you do not go beyond. Where your efficiency does not turn into exploitation, or where you’re leveraging your power over a community that can’t negotiate with you.”

Belal thus advocates for a universal living wage, so that when big companies go out looking for a place to manufacture their clothing, they get similar price quotes everywhere. “We say, ‘Listen, you can’t go around the world looking for the best deal for yourself, exploiting economies. That way garment-producing countries have a shot.’”

I express my skepticism of the idea that fashion CEOs that have grown up in privilege in the Global North could ever think in such terms. Belal laughs.

“Yes, but I need some sense of positivity when I wake up in the morning,” he jokes.

Having himself taken part in the excess of mainstream fashion however, he believes that if he could change the way he does business, so can anyone else.

“I got my belly full of all the fashion faux pas you could think of,” Belal continues. “I came from a family that was part of [fast fashion], producing a lot of big box brands. In my twenties I did all kinds of cultural appropriation because I didn’t know better. I exotified fashion. I started to create a luxury label. I did all of it.”

He goes on, “The reason I think I’m somewhat effective as a teacher is because I tell folks about all the stuff that I did to participate in ‘the system.’ I drank the Kool-Aid fully.”

In an industry that is notoriously devoid of accountability, Belal’s confession is refreshing.

“The reason I admit that is because it doesn’t do any good to the movement to shame people with self-righteousness. So I’m saying ‘Hey, I did it all and it left me feeling empty.’ Everybody is on their journey but my job as an educator is to say, ‘Hey man, if this is where you’re headed, let me save you some time.’”

Rebecca Coughlan is a graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

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Claudia Dreifus`
2 years ago

Congrats on your publication, Becca.