feature photo courtesy of @carlafernandezmx

The conversation about sustainability must begin with indigenous communities


Capital and consumption have always been powerful assertions of political and social currency. As the younger generation unlocks our own spending power, we have made it clear that what we buy, and where it’s from, matters. 

According to Inc., 66% of global consumers and 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products. This demand for more environmental protection is especially prominent in fashion,  one of the world’s most wasteful industries. Yet as sustainable fashion brands gain popularity and designers are hailed for their promises to environmental sustainability, we have subsequently forgotten about and failed to protect an essential, longstanding proponent of sustainable fashion: indigienous communities.  

Indigenous people have a storied and meaningful relationship with the environment. For centuries, indigenous communities from around the world have been working tediously to safeguard their lands. They have protected its natural resources, whether they be bodies of water or rainforests, and have developed a symbiotic relationship in which they have learned to grow and sustain life without destroying the nature from which these came. 

While settler colonization, which has manifested in the forcible removal of indigenous people from their own land in order to redistribute or occupy them, is typically associated with government authority, fashion, too, is a perpetrator of colonization. For example, in Indonesia, the rainforest home of the indigenous Tano Batak families is being threatened. Over 60% of these families gain their income from the collection of resin from trees in this rainforest. The rainforest has also given the community a sustainable water supply that is used for rice farming, and its plants are used to make medicine and food. Yet, pulp companies have been actively clearing the forests to create dissolving pulp — which is what is used to make threads such as rayon, viscose, and modal. The Tono Batak families are just one of the many indigenous groups whose homes and livelihoods are being targeted and destroyed by major corporations who use indigenous resources to fuel fashion lines. 

The United Color of Benetton, which is owned by the Benetton Group, is not considered a fast fashion company; something off their racks could cost three digits.  Yet, the Benetton company is no exception to the unethical production of clothing. In 1991, the Benetton group took land away from the Mapuche indigenous community in Argentina, using it for wool farming. This decision, although seemingly a harmless business transaction, exposes the lack of understanding between corporations and indigenous communities. Requiring the communities to relocate and claiming their resources reveals a complete lack of understanding and regard towards the relationship indigenous people have with their lands.

Meanwhile, fashion has a long history of misappropriating indigenous cultures into their designs— therefore not only depriving them of their homes, but also profiting off their cultures. What companies and brands have done is take symbols of culture, such as patterns and motifs, and extracted them from their original contexts- stereotyping them and not acknowledging the deeper meanings they convey. In 2017, designer brand Chanel released a boomerang with its logo emblazoned on it. This boomerang, which originated with Aboriginal communities in Australia as a weapon for survival, becomes completely commodified and devoid of its original context when it was presented  as a piece of designer decor. The appropriation of indigenous cultures thus goes hand-in-hand with the exploitation and colonisation of indigenous people, because the bottom line is: the fashion industry has stripped these communities of their voice and autonomy.

Rather than excluding and erasing indigenous communities, the solution to a more progressive and sustainable fashion industry is simple: corporations, designers, and brands need to collaborate with and respect the role of indigenous people in fashion. Instead of taking indigenous lands, it is necessary to learn from indigenous people to understand how they have used their natural surroundings. The knowledge indigenous people have on how to use water, plants, and animals in an environmentally safe way will greatly help improve current fashion production practices.  By partnering with local artisans and communities, they will finally have a role in the creation of products inspired by their cultures. Instead of misappropriating cultural elements, a cordial relationship between indigneous people and designers can allow the creation of fashion that is not disrespectful, but instead honors and highlights culture in whatever ways its preservers deem appropriate.

Many designers have found that their collaboration with indigenous communities has allowed for not only the making of sustainable products, but also the livening of a culture that has been silenced for too long. Carla Fernández of Mexico launched an eponymous brand in which she brings in textile crafts and creates alongside indigenous people to honor their role in creating Mexican heritage. She describes the goal of her designs not from an artistic or physical perspective but from  an emotional and cultural one, in which the consumer is “a guardian of tradition and culture in Mexico” (Medium). In Brazil, famous luxury brand, Osklen, created a collection titled Asháninka, which is inspired by the local Asháninka culture. The profits of this collection went towards building a new school in the Asháninka village and to support a trip for Asháninka leaders to attend the climate change conference held at the UN. Meanwhile in Australia, fashion designer Grace Lillian Lee, who is part Torres Straight Islander, has adopted her people’s practice of weaving. She has also gone beyond her personal line to curate two indigenous designer showcases and develop a program that matches indigenous designers with fashion brands and universities.

View this post on Instagram

05.09 - Dia da Amazônia #actnow

A post shared by OSKLEN Brasil (@osklen) on

These global designers are leading the necessary recognition of indigenous people in the fashion industry. For too long, indigenous practices have been overlooked and even erased. The only way we can progress forward to create more sustainable fashion is if we give back to these indigenous communities— who have taken care of our earth and stimulated it with creativity- in ways we have not yet respected and showcased.