This episode with Niha Elety is highlighting an incredibly important topic in conscious fashion that doesn’t get enough attention: cultural sustainability (or cultural preservation).
In this interview, Niha is shedding light on:
- How the fashion ecosystem in India — from the fiber cultivation to the production of garments — is inherently sustainable, and what we can learn from that
- The connections between cultural preservation with social and ecological sustainability
- How brands and individuals can avoid cultural appropriation
- And then what true cooperation or co-creation with artisans looks like, and more.
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app.
The transcript of this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast is below.
Hey there, and welcome or welcome back to the show. Today we are talking about a really important topic in conscious fashion, that I don’t think gets enough attention. And that is cultural sustainability, or cultural preservation.
To discuss this topic, I am chatting with the incredible Niha Elety, an artist and activist using her Instagram platform to amplify and incorporate Indian heritage to bring inclusivity to sustainable fashion and environmental movements.
Niha is also the founder and co-creator of the sustainable fashion brand Tega Collective, which she will talk more about in this interview.
Niha will also be shedding light on how the fashion ecosystem in India — from the fiber cultivation to the production of garments — is inherently sustainable, and what we can learn from that; the connections between cultural preservation with social and ecological sustainability; how brands and individuals can avoid cultural appropriation, and what true cooperation or co-creation with artisans really looks like; and more.
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Okay, now let’s head into this interview with Niha sharing her background and what led her to where she is today.
NIHA ELETY: I am a creative artist and sustainability advocate on Instagram. So my platform primarily focuses on exploring sustainability through the lenses of fashion, art and heritage.
And through this, I’m really passionate about environmental justice… including the knowledge of BIPOC communities, or Black, Indigenous People of Color communities, and really amplifying that.
But what really led me to where I am today is sort of how I grew up.
So I was born in the US, in Dallas, Texas, and the way I saw sustainability was very different.
A lot of the focus was on recycling. But in terms of accessibility, it was always pretty difficult to access things like farmers markets, or even being able to understand how clothes were made — I could not fully comprehend that at the young age that I was at.
But that’s primarily when I started learning about art and design work was at the age of five.
And then when I moved from the US to India, I developed a lot of knowledge from a South Asian lens of what sustainability could look like, and I saw a contrast.
So when I was in India, for about 11 years now, I noticed a big difference in terms of accessibility. The way that we are connected to the clothes that we make, you’re able to have incredible relationships with your local farmers, your local tailors, weavers, and artisans.
And it’s all a lot more accessible than it is in the US.
In India, sustainability was just a part of the culture. Whereas in the West, it just felt like something that we had to go out of our ways to embrace.
So that’s sort of what inspired me to create on Instagram.
It started off really small. I was just posting things that I liked.
But I’ve always had an interest in art and fashion and studied it in high school and on the side in college.
So today I am really happy to have the platform that I do and I am launching a brand with Indigenous communities in India focused on amplifying their culture and knowledge. So that’s where I’m at today.
ELIZABETH: Wow. Yeah, I always find it really interesting to learn about a person’s background and how that sort of informs their perspectives today.
And it’s very clear from hearing your story and reading your work, that you have such a deep understanding of sustainable fashion, going beyond say eco-fabrics, but really diving into the systems and the power dynamics at play.
So can you explain what sustainable fashion means to you?
NIHA: Yeah, to me, I think sustainable fashion is a very broad term, but it’s really about restorative justice for people and the planet.
And so having intimate connections with the clothing process, and the clothes themselves is incredibly important for everyone moving forward.
And by restorative justice, I mean reparations to countries in the Global South for outsourcing things like waste, and outsourcing manufacturing, which really reinforces neocolonialism.
So my primary understanding of sustainable fashion is moving towards localized systems, restoring native fiber-forming practices, as well as expanding the aesthetics that we idealize, such as Western aesthetics that have become very globalized.
And [instead] really embracing the culture and visual elements of the different countries that we are in.
So really understanding how we can value that. And also working with repairing our ties to the land and labor since those have been cut over generations, I think re-cultivating those relationships is incredibly important.
Yeah, absolutely. And there has been a long-overdue rise in awareness in the environmentalism and sustainable fashion movements, that many sustainable practices are actually practices that originated from BIPOC communities.
And specifically, you talk about when you lived in India, sustainable fashion was really just fashion because the practices in India are inherently sustainable, so there didn’t need to be this niche of sustainable fashion.
So could you explain to us what fashion and textile production looks like in India?
Of course, and what you mentioned is honestly what I talk about a lot, because when I was living in India, sustainable fashion, to me, was just fashion because the production of the textiles was inherently sustainable.
Most consumers are aware of and participate in the process of creating their garments.
So India has an insane variety of regional textiles that use native fibers like jute, cotton, and linen that are natural to the region as a product of regenerative agriculture.
And these fibers are then woven by weavers on machines or handlooms. Handlooms are primarily something that we’re trying to revive in India because a lot of handcrafted things have been not as popular due to industrialization.
But from there, consumers also dye their clothing, work with getting different types of embroidery or block printing done by artisans. And they go to their local tailors to actually measure the garment stitches come up with the silhouette that they want to wear.
So this entire process is just very intimate. You understand every single point of contact from the clothing; you’re participating in the whole process.
In that way, the piece of clothing becomes extremely personal and it’s almost a treasure for yourself.
So this is really that definition of slow and transparent fashion that doesn’t exploit labor, but that uses local resources and supports local economies.
With the rise of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, that’s what really cut our ties with the labor and planet.
So for me, growing up surrounded by the South Asian textiles, fashion is not just a vehicle for self-expression, but also a relationship to my culture, as well.
And that’s why I feel like it’s extremely important to understand these processes.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that process that you described is so beautiful.
I mean, that’s what we need to be shifting to is that return to the relationship and the intimacy with clothing and not treating it as a disposable object.
And similar to textile production, traditional fiber growing practices in India are inherently sustainable as well, as you’ve touched upon.
So could you tell us also what traditional farming looks like in India and then perhaps some of the forces that have and/or also perhaps continue to attempt to alter these traditional practices?
So when you mention what forces have sort of attempted to alter these practices, I would like to reference the Green Revolution in India.
And this is a period when agriculture was converted into an industrial system, adopting modern methods, but primarily Western methods to increase crop yields.
We started using pesticides and fertilizers, and this happened around the 1960s. And we were focused on creating high-yielding varieties like rice and wheat to increase food production and alleviate hunger and poverty.
But post the Green Revolution, production of wheat and rice doubled and the production of indigenous foods declined.
And this really led to a loss of indigenous crops and cultivation, especially indigenous fibers.
So this is something that, is continuing today, in a lot of states, in the north of India, specifically.
The South, I would say, has a mixture of using traditional practices, and also has adopted the methods from the Green Revolution, with high yield crops and things like that.
But what I’m really seeing today is a lot of farmers wanting to go back to traditional methods.
For some of them, it’s really hard, especially since all they’ve known is stuff that they’ve learned with ever since the Green Revolution.
So a lot of people have been trying to learn from the South and pick up different traditional agricultural practices from there.
These practices have been an integral part of the food production in India forever.
And they are primarily focused on mitigating adverse effects of climate change, and really promoting biodiversity, because these are native crops.
So a few examples are using biological methods of pest management that are locally available, so pouring cow urine on certain crops to move pests away from those crops.
Rice terracing is another example — it’s an incredible way to grow rice.
Another example is double-cropping or doing agroforestry, which is really increasing the biodiversity of crops.
So you’re not creating monocultures where it’s a bunch of the same type of crop, which can also be a place where there’s a lot of weeds and pests that are attracted to that.
A lot of these traditional practices really focus on regenerating the soil as well. And that’s one of the biggest things for us in terms of combating climate change.
So moving towards that traditional agriculture is really important.
ELIZABETH: Mhm. Yeah.
Really going back to these traditional or regenerative practices is so crucial for building a more sustainable fashion ecosystem.
So you touched on this a bit before, but because fashion is produced in a sustainable slow way in India — from fiber to final garment — consumers, shoppers, people probably then also engage with fashion differently in India.
So could you tell us a bit about your experience, and what you noticed about the ways that people engage with fashion in India versus the United States, and then maybe how the ways that people are engaging with fashion in India has changed, if it has?
NIHA: Yeah of course.
In India, how we interact with our clothing, and I would say specifically, our Indian clothing is there is a lot of intricacies and just time taken in creating it, and so we just appreciate it a lot more.
Whether it be hand dyeing, producing rich and vibrant textiles. We only wear these for special occasions or even daily where they’re all hand washed typically.
But with Western clothing, a lot of it was forced on us for years and years from colonization to fit Western aesthetics.
And over the years, this has evolved into something disposable within India, the way we value our own clothing versus Western clothing.
So as a culture of people, we have always taken extremely great care of our clothing and we’ve passed down our family heirlooms and really never threw them out.
But I think Western clothing has sort of developed into something that’s viewed as disposable.
But in terms of the Global North, on the other hand, they are focused on e-commerce. The general market is pretty fast-paced with trends coming out every week, and people consuming clothing quickly and then donating them quickly.
And then these donations ending up in Global South countries within second-hand markets, which now you know, these countries bear the burden of the waste of the Global North.
A few examples of that are in Ghana and in Panipats in India, there’s a lot of secondhand donations that end up there and have created a valley of waste, especially a lot of winter clothes that are not really necessary in that part of India.
So sustainability is really in the Global North sort of viewed as a trend or an add-on to business practice. But in our country — and a lot of BIPOC countries — it’s really viewed as a way of life.
And we’ve always had pretty sentimental relationships with our clothing because like I mentioned, a lot of us have gone to select our fabrics and colors from the weavers.
This intimate process really affects the way that you interact with clothes. Because I can go into my own closet or my mom’s closet, and she knows every sari intimately — where she went to purchase it, which part of India she traveled to what type of handmade work is on it, every occasion she’s worn it for and where she’s gotten the blouse stitch.
So it’s a very deep and intimate relationship.
And it’s something that I would really love to see more widespread; I’d love to see a lot more of an intimate relationship of clothing across the world.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, for sure.
And it’s so important to learn how different cultures are approaching or have historically approached fashion.
But unfortunately, there have been and continue to be a number of forces creating more homogeneity in fashion, with colonization, the Industrial Revolution, and then that associated mass production of fashion. And then, of course, more recently, the rise of fast fashion.
So what sort of connections do you see between cultural sustainability and ecological or social sustainability?
NIHA: Yeah, of course.
Starting with cultural [sustainability], I think this has been happening since the times of colonization, right?
India and many other countries were sort of banned from doing things that they were used to doing.
Whether it be British colonization, French, Spanish, or Mughal colonization in India, we were told, you know that this is not the right way to dress, you need to dress a certain type of way to be accepted by the colonial power.
And that over time, that really made us devalue what we owned as our own clothing and our traditional dressing.
And at the time, people who could not afford what the colonial people were wearing, had to wear hand-me-downs.
What we’ve seen with a lot of this, homogeneity in terms of how people were embracing Western clothing. And still today, we’ve seen that a lot of the youth have lost appreciation for their culture, and don’t really understand the value or process of creating clothing, because they’re just not aware of it.
So even now, all that is shown as fashionable is a minimal silhouette, or French and European aesthetics is what’s considered a luxury.
…And that’s all that we own or want to be seen as fashionable and that’s what’s considered fashion-forward.
And our own luxury, our own rich textiles are not valued in a global market the way that those are. So I mean there’s a lot of nuance here, and truly being able to understand sustainability in this sense.
But another thing that’s important to note is a lot of designers in India, or in Ghana, or different parts of Africa, just around the world have tried to dilute their ideas to conform to Global North standards, and make their items more wearable and more basic I would say.
That’s where the term Indo-Western clothing started becoming a thing.
So a lot of these pieces of clothing are validated by Western platforms and sold in Western retailers.
So it really reinforces the idea that we need to depend on the Global North for validation. And it sort of continues this cycle of exploitation.
In terms of ecology, like you mentioned, I think going back to traditional methods of farming, and moving towards native plant fibers, dyes, things our ancestors used to do.
Culture is incredibly important because culture isn’t just what you see, but it’s also ingrained in the way that we practice fashion and we actually continue these regenerative practices.
So related to this danger of uniformness and Eurocentrism in design, we can also see how the conversations around sustainability, sustainable living, or sustainable fashion sometimes promote this idea that sustainable looks this one certain way, and maybe even has this one certain aesthetic.
What is the impact in your view of narrowly defining sustainability and how it looks and how it should be made or practiced?
NIHA: Yeah, I think this is an incredibly important question.
Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s just not something that is a thing.
And I feel like, for generations, we’ve been told — or we’ve always tried to crave — what is the answer to all of our problems?
But there are multiple answers to multiple problems within sustainability that have to be addressed in different ways.
So looking at sustainability, from the cultures that lived it for generations, is the first step that’s incredibly important.
Because there is a lot that we don’t know that we don’t even know that we don’t know, right?
And currently, the conversations and sustainability all look one way, and they don’t address the root issues that we need to repair.
They’re very much addressing the symptoms, especially when a lot of the focus has been on technology.
I think technology is important in aiding us, but it cannot be the one and all solution.
I also believe in localizing and decentralizing the way we look at sustainability.
Like I mentioned, it’s not a one-size-fits-all with these isolated practices. You can’t really extrapolate it across the whole world and assume it’s going to work the same way.
We really need to localize efforts and tap into practices that are indigenous to the soils that we are on and go from there. So I think, narrowly defining sustainability is not going to help us.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, totally.
So it’s clear that it’s very essential that we ensure fashion is inclusive and representative of a diverse set of cultures, as well as approaches to sustainability so that we can get closer to this holistic understanding, or this nuanced understanding, this contextual understanding, of sustainability.
This, though — when we think particularly about design — this brings up the concern of cultural appropriation.
And so how can brands and designers avoid misappropriating cultures?
And then how can we as individuals also work to avoid cultural appropriation and take action on that as we work to make fashion more representative and inclusive?
NIHA: Yeah, I think this is a question that a lot of people are trying to figure out the answer to, and I definitely cannot speak for everyone.
But something that I think is really important is understanding how vital amplifying and centering Indigenous voices are and People of Color, all of their voices is incredibly important.
Because if brands do want to explore another culture, they need to engage people who are a part of that culture and collaborate with them.
Give them the stage and the voice and the design freedom, because only they know what their culture is, right?
You can’t sort of look at something from an outsider’s perspective and create it, because it’s also just not fair to them. So really giving them the voice and design freedom.
Something else that is really important is distributing the wealth and profits to the culture that they are profiting off of.
And continuing to do this work beyond just the collection, if they’re releasing a collection — or even beyond the brand.
I think it’s incredibly important to do that work beyond just that.
And as individuals, I think it’s incredibly important to stay vigilant of what brands are marketing… and try to understand, are there people of that culture behind the designs?
Are they being given the voice? Are they the ones doing the work and being highlighted for it? I think that’s incredibly important.
But a few other things that are I feel like the stuff that people probably know or not using things that are sacred to other cultures is number one, and not using things that people have been historically oppressed for as well.
So on the flip side of that, what does genuine collaboration — that doesn’t result in cultural appropriation — with artisans and makers look like in practice?
Maybe you can give an example of building your brand and how you’re approaching it?
NIHA: Yeah, of course.
So Tega Collective is this incredible platform that we’re trying to build that focuses on championing the different Indigenous communities in India.
And these communities are known as Adivasi communities, which is the term for Indigenous. And what we’re looking to do is really work with them and amplifying their culture through craft.
They have different communities that use different native fibers that you probably haven’t even heard of.
Some communities use Lotus fibers and create incredible pieces of cloth from them. Some of them use banana leaves.
So working with their indigenous fibers, as well as their indigenous designs.
So our first collection is with Lumbini artisans in Karnataka in India, and they do this incredible embroidery and mirror work.
And so really giving them the reins on what they want to do in terms of design, and co-creating with them, not sort of taking it over.
That is something that we’re really focusing on.
As well as letting them decide how much they want to get paid, and how much of the profits they want to be distributed to them.
I think distributing profits in the supply chain is incredibly important so that people at the top don’t have the majority of the profit.
It needs to be distributed as equitably as possible within the company.
So that’s what we’re mainly looking to do.
Really co-create and learn from their wealth of knowledge instead of imposing our modern ideals on them, and truly amplifying their knowledge behind craft in terms of sustainability.
Because there are incredible resources — one that we’re hoping to partner with is called the Center for Indigenous Knowledge in Nagaland. It’s in northeast India.
They have incredible Indigenous storytellers that want to create content and share and so we are working to also funnel some of the proceeds there and share this knowledge.
And every time the knowledge is shared through social media posts or articles, the communities that the knowledge belongs to are paid reparations.
So this is what we are looking at in terms of Tega Collective and doing things like this. These are just a few examples.
But I think this can really help create that genuine, mutually beneficial relationship.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, love that.
And I think that is really a model for what the future of sustainable fashion brands should be.
I mean, that would be incredible if that was just the blueprint with reparations, and co-creation (and distributing profits equitably).
If sustainable fashion brands approached it in that way, we would just be on our way to such a better fashion ecosystem.
Which brings me to my final question for you, which is, what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
First of all, thank you so much. I really appreciate that you feel that way about what I said previously [about the model for Tega Collective].
But yeah, in terms of what a better future looks like, to me, I would say that blueprint is one of the things that really helps.
I think focusing on, like we mentioned previously, just the surface-level buzzwords is not enough.
And allowing for a lot of things like waste management, which is one of the biggest things, a lot of waste has been outsourced to the Global South.
These companies have just been continuing to scale and grow and moving a lot of their waste to the Global South.
And so I think this is one of the most important things to tackle because justice will not come with just technological advances and recycling.
I really think that we aren’t talking about a lot of these solutions critically enough, and they are very isolated — and they don’t think of the rest of the world.
There is a colonial history that gives us a much bigger picture.
So I’m seeing these concepts — whether it be circularity or recycling — I’ve just been seeing them used as marketing to greenwash and sort of tick a box without real change or impacts being evaluated.
I think what a better future looks like to me is focusing on these reparations for the Global South.
I think a lot of brands need to clean up their waste in places like Ghana and India where a lot of donated clothing is shipped off to just be in landfills in these places.
Another thing is forming that intimate connection with our clothing like I mentioned.
I think that is incredibly important to move to that better future in terms of really treasuring and valuing what we have and understanding everything that goes into it. That always really helps.
And making systems like we have in the Global South with weavers and tailors a lot more accessible.
Whenever we go out to malls here, having a tailor on-site. That’s something that’s very common in India, whenever I go to a mall, there’s a tailor there ready to take your measurements and alter it to your size.
Having all of that within the places that we shop can help a lot.
And understanding that we also need to have regulation for living wages as well as the quality of the workplace and products and really hold companies accountable for this production.
Finally, I think we need full transparency for the entire supply chain.
It doesn’t just start at growing the plants and creating fibers and creating clothing and going to the consumer.
But we also need to know what the brands are doing after with the waste. I think a lot of transparency needs to be in that area as well.
So acknowledging these ideas and concepts and taking inspiration from the Global South, but giving credit I think is the way to go
And that’s a wrap for this episode. Be sure to take a look at the episode description in your podcast app for the links referenced in this episode, as well as the various links to learn more about today’s guest.
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ABOUT NIHA ELETY
Niha Elety is a Creative Artist and Sustainability Activist on Instagram. She uses fashion, art, and heritage as a vehicle to bring awareness about sustainability and its importance. Her platform looks to amplify and incorporate Indian heritage to bring inclusivity to the sustainable fashion and environmental movement. She is passionate about using media to amplify social and environmental justice initiatives and BIPOC knowledge. Niha is also the Founder and Co-creator at Tega Collective a sustainable fashion brand that champions Adivasi communities from India and their textile traditions.
CONNECT WITH NIHA