An Introduction to Cultural Sustainability and Slow Fashion

We’ve spoken about the fact that sustainability cannot exist without ethics and the importance of environmental and social justice as two sides of the same coin. Today, we want to speak about another important aspect of sustainability – cultural sustainability. Cultural sustainability is a vast and deeply nuanced topic, but for this article we will specifically be talking about how fashion can act as a medium for cultural sustainability. 

Sustainability is a way of being that comes directly from Indigenous peoples. So, there should be no sustainability without cultural preservation too. Fashion Revolution and the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI) define ‘cultural sustainability as: “Acknowledging the sustainability that is culturally embedded within traditional craftsmanship by supporting knowledge transfer to future generations.”

Cultural sustainability is threatened by cultural appropriation. In a previous article, we shared an introduction to the concept of cultural appropriation and used a definition by Ijeoma Oluo:

“So that brings us to what it is that makes cultural appropriation, appropriation. It really is systems of power. We live in a society where dominant cultures have been able to come and take what they want from oppressed cultures and use it however they want, change it, and then discard the rest, even degrade the rest that they don’t like, that doesn’t suit them in the way that they want to use… And they will take what they want for their own purpose. They will then say, “That’s what this is. It’s what it has always been.” And they will further remove it from the culture that developed it and depends on it. They may even profit off of it while the people who developed this piece of culture themselves are still being degraded and oppressed and sometimes mocked for those very same things.”

This definition is important, because it highlights that at the root of cultural appropriation is an imbalance of power, and involves a lack of consent, credit, and compensation to the marginalised communities. It also points to an extreme lack of empathy for the fact that cultural appropriation diminishes the cultural value of these cultural expressions. We’ve seen and heard about countless examples of cultural appropriation. Profiting off marginalised aesthetics has become all too common, especially in the fashion industry. 

But, what happens if fashion could be a force for good and instead of exploiting traditional knowledge and expressions, we can create systems that value and celebrate, based on deep cultural appreciation, and allow for the continuation of age-old cultural expressions? This is what is meant by cultural sustainability. Monica Boţa-Moisin, a cultural intellectual property and fashion lawyer, wrote that “Cultural sustainability means transmitting/supporting the knowledge transfer of traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions to future generations and fashion is an extraordinary medium for achieving this noble goal.”

CIPRI is on a mission to answer this question, and it aims to promote and implement benefit-sharing business models for fostering socially and culturally sustainable collaborations between craftspeople and contemporary designers in the fashion business, based on a fair distribution of intellectual property rights and cultural intellectual property rights. But first, let’s briefly unpack what traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, Indigenous clothing, and intellectual property are.

According to CIPRI, traditional knowledge is a thriving and living body of knowledge that is developed, sustained, and passed on for generations, helping form the cultural and spiritual identity of the community. Examples of traditional knowledge include practices, skills, know-how, that are passed on from one generation to the other.

Building on this, traditional cultural expressions are the tangible and intangible expressions of traditional knowledge. Examples of traditional cultural expressions include art, music, designs, jewellery, and architectural forms.

Since this article is focussed on fashion, we think it is important to unpack the idea of ‘Indigenous clothing’ too. Indigenous clothing is the clothing worn by Indigenous or First Nations people that has cultural significance, which have arisen from a set of practices that repeated over time. As described in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion by Eicher and Ross, traditions change and new dress can be adopted into cultures and become part of tradition (2010: 4). What this means is that Indigenous clothing is not defined as traditional and rather clothing of cultural significance.

Lastly, cultural intellectual property is a right that Indigenous people have to protect their traditional art and culture. This underpins the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is based on the recognition that artisans and craftspeople are guardians of traditional cultural expressions. And, CIPRI explains that the benefit-sharing business model implies investment in the community in exchange for the skill and traditional knowledge.

CIPRI believes that fashion can be a pioneering industry for cultural sustainability and proposes the triple C mechanism for governing relationships between the fashion industry and traditional creative communities. The 3Cs stand for:

  1. Consent: Free, Prior, and Informed consent of the craftsperson, Indigenous or local community.
  2. Credit: Acknowledgement of the source community and inspiration.
  3. Compensation: This can be monetary or non-monetary.

This framework of consent, credit, and compensation helps to avoid cultural appropriation in fashion businesses. These 3 Cs also govern the benefit-sharing business model that allows for cultural appreciation and ensures cultural sustainability.

Benefit-sharing business models – as the name suggests – have benefits for both fashion businesses, as well as Indigenous communities. It benefits Indigenous communities, because certain cultural techniques are in danger of disappearing if we don’t create avenues of cultural sustainability. For example, this article shares how fashion is helping to preserve the ancient dyeing technique – called Batik – that can be found in communities in places such as Indonesia, India, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, China, and Nigeria.

The advantages, for fashion businesses (especially those focussed on slow fashion), of collaborating with Indigenous communities is that it is more socially sustainable, it’s more environmentally sustainable, and traditional knowledge is celebrated, preserved, and made into beautifully considered clothing. In adhering to cultural practice, you have to adhere to slow fashion practices, because that is how clothing is produced with care and meaning. Traditional practices are inherently sustainable and according to National Geographic, Indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population, yet they protect 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. So, these benefit-sharing models are really a process of co-creation for cultural continuity and ecological preservation.

This is so important, because fashion can contribute to erasure and appropriation, or it can contribute to cultural sustainability as a conduit for ancient knowledge and age-old traditions. As Modupe Oloruntoba said in her cnscs_ people interview, earlier this year: “Fashion for fashion’s sake is actually very empty. Fashion as anthropology, fashion as science and textile technology, fashion as art – those things have substance to me, and are always inspiring and there is always something new to learn and to connect to and be awed by.” This is what fashion as a medium cultural sustainability is all about.

We hope this article helped you learn a thing or two about cultural sustainability and how, with the right frameworks and empathetic appreciation, fashion can be a force for good and a way to preserve ancient artforms and creative techniques, as well as telling the stories of Indigenous communities for decades to come.

A lot of our learning for this article comes from CIPRI and Monica Boţa-Moisin, and as usual, we are just using cnscs_ as an introductory space as we learn and grow together. Here are a few avenues for further learning:

With love,

Masego & Stella


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