Can you picture a world where all humans looked the same? Where every community practiced the same cultural norms, so that there was never any inspiration for new ideas? Imagine the richness of human experience we would all lose out on!
At RCGD Global, we firmly believe that cultural diversity is as important to humankind as biodiversity is to a thriving ecosystem. It naturally follows that cultural sustainability deserves as much support as environmental sustainability. In fact, the two go together hand-in-hand, and nowhere is this more evident than the fashion industry.
You may ask why unique cultures are so important in the modern world, and no one would blame you for that. After all, with air travel, satellites, and especially our connectivity, the world is becoming smaller and more accessible. What’s the harm in cultural assimilation if we strive to understand one another and share common goals and visions?
To answer that last question, one need look no further than a United Nations declaration made some twenty years ago. In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted its Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. [link] The Declaration recognised the importance of cultural diversity as not only a desirable element among humankind, but a right that must be preserved. Defining culture as a “set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group,” UNESCO argued that the “defence of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity.”
These are strong words, but there is much more. UNESCO made clear that the protection of intellectual property, as part of a culture’s identity, is as important as protection for individual artists and artisans. We agree. The fashion industry and world cultures have a symbiotic relationship, one affecting the other in measurable ways for the benefit of both. Unfortunately, in many cases the opposite is true as well.
Cultural identities, as expressed through clothing design created in developing countries, are often exploited, thereby coopting and diluting those cultures. The UNESCO declaration warned about this when it stated that “due recognition of the rights of authors and artists, and to the specificity of cultural goods and services which, as vectors of identity, values and meaning, must not be treated as mere commodities or consumer goods.” In other words, the exploitation and outright theft of ideas and designs threaten the very culture whose zeitgeist spawned such beauty.
At RCGD Global we see cultural sustainability as an obligation to represent and advocate for the experiences of diverse cultural groups and the individuals in those communities. This effort goes beyond the admonitions of UNESCO, as sustainability necessarily includes the health and safety of all agents within the fashion value cycle, from farmers to garment workers and ultimately citizens. Yet this is no easy task in the modern business world of “quarterly profits first, everything else second.” Such an attitude leads to exploitation of people across the globe, particularly in the Global South , destruction of their environment and the theft of their intellectual property.
Arguably the worst thing about it is that these people have little means of redress, because they lack a voice in the debate and decision-making when it comes to sustainability. That’s why it is so important to make space for the voice of diverse cultural groups that otherwise would have no platform of which to speak, instead of speaking for them. But it’s not enough.
Cultural sustainability requires that every unique community in every part of the world be included in the conversation and be able to advocate for themselves. In the fashion industry, this applies across the value cycle, from the perspective of our raw material farmers, across to citizens in underrepresented groups. This means a lot more than just providing an extra chair at a table that has previously been seen as inaccessible. It requires a willingness to listen and understand what those communities are doing now – and still need to do – to protect their specific creative, social and work environments. It requires empowerment of those communities to continue their practices without hindrance or exploitation. And it requires an effort to form stronger bonds across cultures to strengthen and preserve knowledge, respect and rights.
These steps can only be accomplished through communication and action. It is part of the reason why we must respect languages and accents other than those dominating the dialogue today, thereby creating spaces and platforms where language is never a barrier to representation or inclusivity. This is the way to cultural sustainability: support and promote diversity rather than give in to our instinct to promote our own culture at the expense of others. It’s almost certainly part of what Maya Angeloushad in mind when she said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty, and there is strength.”