How Indigenous Knowledge underpins today’s sustainable fashion initiatives
There is a spirituality to fashion that is largely unseen yet underpins today’s sustainable fashion solutions. Over the last few years, sustainable solutions have become the new direction for fashion, but the concept of sustainability itself is age-old. Many innovative models of fashion, such as circularity, farm-to-closet, localism, and the sharing economy (PSS), are rooted in the practices of Indigenous communities with a reciprocal relationship with the environment.
Long before brands incorporated the model of “slow fashion,” indigenous communities were cultivating a community of artisans spiritually connected to their environment, creating meaningful designs passed down through generations. As the effects of the climate crisis continue to present themselves in fashion, Indigenous designers continue to practice sustainability through beautiful designs deeply connected to nature.
From an Indigenous worldview, all parts of the universe are connected. While Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is not uniform to all diverse Indigenous communities, a deep respect for and spiritual relationship with the environment has cultivated traditional knowledge and sustainable practices that informs design practices.
Many brands look to TEK for inspiration and incorporate the concept of circularity in their products. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, Circular fashion focuses on closing the loop of fashion production by eliminating waste, circulating products and materials, and regenerating nature. Many of these ideas align with the reciprocal way Indigenous communities have lived about their environment.
THE SHARING ECONOMY
Economic growth often comes at a devastating cost to nature. Indigenous communities feel the direct effects on their ecosystem when the exploitation of resources affects the livelihood to live on the land. In many ways, Western cultures have abandoned the spiritual aspects of nature that underpin TEK. As a society, we have lost touch with the value of biodiversity, which fuels an economic disregard for ecosystems in search of growth.
In the book Braiding Sweetgrass, Potawatomi professor Robin Wall Kimmerer distinguishes between gift and market economies. In a western market economy, the land is understood to be a bundle of rights; in the gift economy, the land is thought to have a bundle of responsibilities attached. Reciprocity is the currency of the gift economy. The gift is that it creates a set of relationships, a natural cycle found within nature, similar to the way strawberries regrow after they’re picked.
A gift economy is similar to the sharing economy model, which deploys product service systems (PSS) through borrowing, lending, and mending. Through a spiritual understanding of nature, the gift economy keeps products in circulation, which reduces waste and changes the nature of clothing as a commodity. Finding ways to reconnect value to our clothing will help repair our relationship with nature and slow down growth.
REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE IN FASHION OR FARM-TO-CLOSET
Regenerative agriculture is a set of tools and techniques such as crop rotation, natural compost, and intercropping that enhance biodiversity and soil health to lower carbon emissions. This nature-based solution to climate change works harmoniously with nature while drawing on Indigenous knowledge, which must be properly integrated to be regenerative.
More fashion brands are looking to Indigenous knowledge to address their environmental impact and provide a farm-to-closet concept. A FibreShed approach helps facilitate this farm-to-closet model through a regional fibre system that benefits local soils. Localizing production also helps brands increase the transparency of their products so customers can trace garments back to the farm that grew the materials!
Ontario-based brand Peggy Sue Collection works closely with the Ontario Fibre Shed to use only North American fibres, manufacturing, and milling for all their garments. Focusing on local production provides control, making it easier to see the impacts and understand farming processes on a deeper level. Making material culture meaningful to the place it was grown is not new, as it is deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures.
The fashion industry is waking up to the artistic talent and valuable, sustainable approach of Indigenous designers that link spirituality and sustainability. Traditional ecological knowledge embedded into Indigenous design practices plays a critical role in building today’s climate solutions, so designers should be highlighted and uplifted.
Several designers are incorporating ecological knowledge into their design processes, such as Justine Woods, a Métis garment artist and creative scholar, who explores Indigenous fashion technologies through her designs and writing. The piece below is her master’s thesis which explores decolonial love through garment construction and beadwork.
“My research centres on decolonial love as a methodology with the expressed purpose of physically and conceptually re-stitch alternative worlds that are grounded in ethical practices and based on respect, empathy, reciprocity, consent and love.”
We carry our homeland(s) close to our heart (front view), 2021.
A reciprocal and respectful relationship with nature is common to Indigenous designers who deeply connect to their homeland. Indigenous (Kaska Dene and Cree) designer Sho Sho Esquiro creates contemporary art using traditional techniques and spoke with Vogue about her design process rooted in her upbringing in the Yukon.
“We honoured each animal and used everything. Tanning the hide, using the fur. Garments would be passed down through generations, removed, and made new again.” Rather than mass production, Esquiro creates one-of-a-kind pieces that bring life to her culture through respect.
Esquiro’s use of traditional tactical techniques to create textiles carries forth and preserves her cultural heritage with respect and reciprocity for the surrounding community and environment. Indigenous designers like Woods and Esquiro illustrate how sustainability is spiritual through deep respect for materials, community, and the environment.
HOW CAN WE RECONNECT WITH THE SPIRITUAL?
Many sustainable models of fashion are rooted in the practices of Indigenous communities, yet society’s connection to nature remains fragmented. To continue the progress sustainably, we must understand the spiritual nature of fashion that indigenous communities and designers who, stewards of their land, have understood for generations. We must establish an ethical framework of respect to build connections, reflect on learnings, and direct action toward sustainable solutions to re-connect the spiritual with sustainability.
We wish you a happy holiday season and we will be back with monthly articles in the new year!
Stay diligent friends and always be curious.