As people around the world become increasingly aware of how damaging the current model of fast fashion is to the planet and textile workers, a sustainable industry becomes more possible. However, so many of the conversations about sustainable fashion revolve around a westernised notion of sustainability, one that deals with enhancements, such as how to create new garments with fewer resources or using more organic and biodegradable materials. While it’s an important conversation to have, the existing customs of different cultures regarding clothing usage are equally essential to keep in mind and they can even show us a way into a more seamless transition into sustainable fashion.

Multicultural India is perhaps a commonly used example when examining the close relationships people can have with their clothes. Sustainable designer and activist Niha Elety, originally from Hyderabad, India, spent part of her childhood in the U.S. and got to see how both cultures related to clothes from a very young age. She has commented on the differences she observed growing up between how each country viewed clothes; in India, people were often intimately involved in creating their garments, from finding fabrics they liked to having them tailored a particular way to fit a specific figure. There are even tailors in shopping malls so people can adjust their retail-bought garments as soon as they buy them. This commendable approach to building a relationship with what we wear, does exist in the West but is far less widespread and accessible.  

The way we dress is heavily informed by our surroundings and culture. First-time visitors to Bhutan will certainly find traditional garments are still prevalently worn.  The distinctive and vividly coloured attire of this Eastern Himalayan country includes the Gho, worn by men, a robe that’s often used with a belt and cut at the knee; women use Kiras, which are long-sleeved colourful jackets with a skirt that may remind foreigners of saris. At one time a strictly enforced uniform of national dress, these garments remain mandatory to wear in schools, government buildings and monasteries; and many chose to wear them casually.  Because of the rich and varied range of traditional textile colour and pattern combinations which can be employed in making traditional garments there is limitless opportunity for individuals to express themselves uniquely through their clothes, and have a relationship with each piece. Even the evolution of fashion in Bhutan seeks to proudly uplift tradition rather than erode it, as seen in the work of Geymit Lepcha, the entrepreneur behind Bhutanese clothing label, She Butan.  See for example, her modern bomber jackets made with Yathra a traditional and essential Bhutanese yak and sheep wool weaving method.

Sophie Woodward from the University of Manchester specifically studied people’s relationships with blue jeans in North London, finding that wearers had close relationships with specific styles, irrespective of current trends. While it’s well-known that making even a single pair of jeans requires a massive amount of water, there’s also a hidden contradiction in that the way people use jeans is quite sustainable. Often, they cling to a pair years after they’ve stopped being in fashion. There is also a deeply ingrained vision of denim requiring fewer washes, which in turn makes them last longer and wastes less water. Torn and lived-in jeans are also considered fashionable, contrary to other items of clothing. 

Woodward wrote further about how clothes can sometimes be “accidentally sustainable” in the 2015 Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion. Defining “clothing practices” simply as how people select and wear their clothing daily, she claims that everyday clothing customs can be seen as a way to understand sustainable methods without any enhancements, that sustainability is not additional to, but part of how people routinely wear their clothes.  

Despite the obvious hazards of fast fashion, it doesn’t typically result in the purchase of an entirely new wardrobe each season; people will often focus on matching new pieces with older items in the wardrobe, crafting their style along the way, even if contrary to fashion’s so-called rules. Garments become pieces of an assemblage, mixing new and older clothes to create new outfits and styles. New clothes always reconnect with what wearers already own as part of a circular relationship through which sustainable methods can naturally blossom.

Karen Tranberg-Hansen has studied the second-hand clothing markets in Zambia and followed the route of clothing from donation in the West. The southern African country receives a considerable volume of bundled discarded clothing from the West.  As a multibillion dollar industry, the scale of clothing alone is highly indicative of the way we discard garments on this side of the world – but, at the same time, it’s also a display of agency and entrepreneurial empowerment from buyers who select or reject items according to their needs and with regard to the clothes they already own. The items are often then altered to suit the environment in which they are to be used.

There is no universal solution to sustainable fashion, but examining existing sustainable global practices around clothes and applying that approach on a macro level takes the industry a natural step closer to improvement.