The sustainable fashion industry is constantly in search of innovations, future-proof materials, and manufacturing methods that can gradually make our world a better place. But do we always need to reinvent the wheel to make fashion more sustainable? At SANVT, we wanted to take a look into the traditional and eco-friendly garment production of ethnic communities, which we believe could offer new perspectives to the sustainable fashion world. Discover more about the impact of indigenous cultures on slow fashion.
In an era where awareness of cultural appropriation has risen, fashion brands and designers must act with caution when drawing inspiration from indigenous cultures. Countless fast fashion corporations shamelessly steal ideas from traditionally and intricately crafted garments of ethnic groups, marketing them as cheaply produced and short-lived trends that rake in piles of cash. Instead of copying cultural heritage and intellectual property for their own profit without supporting indigenous peoples, the fashion world could learn from the sustainable manufacturing methods and values of ethnic communities. At scale, they may prove far more sustainable and fair than what the fashion industry is known for today. But can it really scale?
Sustainability in Indigenous Fashion
From the tribes of the Amazon rainforest and South Asian mountain regions to communities in Latin America and Africa, indigenous peoples have always created their clothing based on natural resources and with consideration for the environment – all while generating minimal waste and textile remnants. Naturally dyed, hand-woven fabrics have always been transformed into custom-tailored, biodegradable garments, passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, sustainable fashion solutions may be rooted in the future but they are an ode to the past traditions of indigenous peoples. So, how can we leverage the impact of indigenous cultures on slow fashion without appropriating their culture, and how can we support the corresponding ethnic groups?
Collaboration, Not Cultural Appropriation
For far too long, the fashion industry has overlooked the wisdom of indigenous peoples or appropriated their designs, patterns, and techniques – from prints and weavings to leatherwork and beadwork. Consequently, numerous designers and brands, such as Anthropologie and Isabel Marant, have faced criticism for appropriating intellectual property without properly acknowledging its origin. Partnerships and collaborations between established brands and indigenous communities and artists are therefore essential to break this vicious cycle of opportunistic capitalism.
Initiatives like the Australian group "First Nations Fashion + Design", which advocates for indigenous people on the global fashion scene, or the annual fashion festival "Swaia" in Santa Fe, which has been promoting indigenous fashion for over 100 years, serve as examples of how ethnic groups can be further integrated into the fashion industry.
The Values of Indigenous Cultures
More than just web techniques and patterns, we can draw inspiration from the values of ethnic groups and their garment production methods. Dusty LeGrande, the founder of streetwear brand Mobilize and a member of the Woodland Cree indigenous community, explains: “As Indigenous communities, we have always lived in balance with Mother Earth. We have had to sustain our techniques, and culture through stories and designs; this continues today. The industry is beginning to move in the right direction: The corporate nature of fashion must be flushed out to honour the communities we exist in, and to promote local sustainability.”
Tania Larsson, a jewellery designer from the Gwich'in indigenous community, expresses a similar sentiment: “In my culture, we are taught to never take more than you need, as it can affect the natural balance and have dire consequences for your whole community. My Indigenous values are the pillars of my business model.”
In our Western, fast-paced, and technology-fuelled world, where we no longer live in harmony with nature, the seasons, the environment, and where we often remain oblivious to the consequences of the fashion industry, it could be vital for us to learn from ethnic groups. The impact of indigenous cultures on slow fashion goes beyond aesthetics and techniques; it inspires us to rethink our value system and our coexistence with nature. But can it work for fashion brands on such a competitive market? We believe so.
The Value System of SANVT
At SANVT, we strive for a sustainable revolution that makes our fashion industry greener and fairer. We exclusively work with sustainable and biodegradable materials, some of which are recycled, and produce timeless and trans-seasonal unisex fashion in fair family-owned factories in Portugal. Our collection doesn't follow short-lived trends; instead, we offer long-lasting, high-quality, and environmentally friendly essentials with minimal transportation distances and reduced CO2 emissions. We dye our materials without toxic chemicals or heavy metals and employ a closed water system that recycles 99.9% of the wastewater.
Furthermore, we support local reforestation projects to compensate our entire climate impact. Just like indigenous fashion, which is always locally sourced, recycled, upcycled, environmentally conscious, naturally dyed, sustainable, and biodegradable, we prioritize the nature and quality of our sustainable products. In doing so, we align ourselves with many traditional values of ethnic groups and their garment production, without appropriating their cultural heritage.
The Impact of Indigenous Cultures on Slow Fashion: Conclusion
As you can see, the impact of indigenous cultures on slow fashion is significant yet simple. When we examine many seemingly new sustainability initiatives such as farm-to-closet, regenerative fashion, or fashion-on-demand and strip away the buzzwords, we find that they reflect the traditional clothing practices of indigenous peoples and centuries-old civilizations in the simplest sense. Now, it is up to us as consumers to reconsider our values, live in harmony with nature, buy from sustainable brands, and support ethnic groups.