Fashion sustainability is now synonymous with thrifting, charity shops and buying from slow fashion brands. While these are all crucial parts of ethical consumption in the West, we often forget that this particular understanding is not universal. When it comes to the Global South, definitions and practices of fashion sustainability differ across communities and geographies. In many of these nations, consuming fashion consciously is an intrinsic and unspoken part of culture and tradition.
Growing up in India, the concept of throwing away clothes just didn’t exist to me. From a very young age, its ingrained in our minds that clothes are meant to be used for years to come and then to be passed onto the next generation. Hence the focus is always on quality, and fabric. As a child, I found it amusing when my grandma would feel each fabric when we were out shopping, making decisions based on feel. My mum also used to ask shop owners whether a fabric was pure or semi-pure. These assessments confused me at the time but now I find myself judging garments the same way because I know the difference quality makes to durability.
I’m sure I’m not the only one whose parents bought bigger clothes purposefully so I could wear them for longer. If I grew out of the clothes, they would be passed onto younger family members or offered to the people working around us, like building security guards or cleaning staff, for their families. Clothes that are torn or damaged are salvaged and reused, sometimes stitched into patchwork table clothes, sofa covers, duvet covers or cloth bags. This practice is known as ‘kantha’, or ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, and is indigenous to West Bengal. Anything that’s beyond saving becomes a pocha (Hindi for mop). My mother would often threaten this pocha fate when she saw me in old, threadbare t-shirts that she didn’t like but I found too comfortable to let go.
The level of attachment to traditional clothes is even higher more because we spend so much time and care into getting those garments made. Each traditional outfit has its own story of scouring the local markets looking for the perfect fabric and lace and borders that would eventually complete the look. I cherish memories of getting fabrics dyed the desired colour and handing them over to our master ji ( the tailor) hoping that he would create something that looked exactly like the image we held in our minds. I can’t see these pieces of clothing as easily dispensable because I know first-hand the amount of time, attention and craft that went into creating each one. I know that those beautiful banarasi silks, georgette and organza will be just as valuable if not more 20 years later. Just how my mother and her mother have been preserving their saris and dupattas for all these years and passing them on, I too want to be able to keep mine for years to come.
Though these inherited habits of recycling, upcycling, mending and repairing clothes are being framed as pillars of a new wave of sustainable fashion, our ancestors have been practising ethical fashion for centuries as part of an implicit philosophy that rejects wastefulness and takes pride in the art of clothing design. The practises began before modern discourse around environmental conservation and climate change, which sometimes lacks nuance. These ways of honouring and caring for clothes are passed on as sartorial heritage rather than a deliberate display of collective concerns about our rapidly-deteriorating environment .
Even the composition of traditional Indian costume is inherently sustainable in nature. Silhouettes like the sari, lungi and pagdi use fabric directly off the loom in different styles of draping. Historically, garments like kurta, lehenga, choli, salwar and churidar are constructed in zero-waste techniques that utilize the entire rectangular piece of fabric.
The recent conversations around fashion sustainability makes it seem like something that’s beyond the reach of the Global South, even though it has existed in India’s collective consciousness since long before colonisation. The future of conscious fashion lies in finding inspiration in tradition and reintroducing past practises. For that we must look to ancient, indigenous sources of knowledge rather than the West. Why take advice from the originators of over-consumption when we can lean back on a long history of tradition to provide culturally compatible solutions for creating sustainable fashion?