As the planet continues to suffer the consequences of human actions like resource exploitation, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, young designers have been showing interest in greener material solutions in an attempt to reduce the use of non-renewable resources. However, a number of materials presented as ‘innovations’ have in fact been used for centuries by communities around the world, as an important part of their culture and heritage. To fail to acknowledge those communities and their ancestral knowledge of the material—now presented as ‘innovative’—goes against the whole concept of sustainability, a concept that strongly encompasses social and cultural values.
by Eduarda Bastian
The practice of using natural resources for textiles and design is as old as man’s history. Hemp and flax, for example, have been shaping entire cultures economically and socially for thousands of years. Nettle fibers, which have been displayed several times at innovation fairs and exhibitions the last few years, play an important role in the Xokleng indigenous communities of Brazil. These fibers were—and still are—manually extracted, spun and woven into cloth by the women of these communities. Indeed, most indigenous cultures cultivate a symbiotic and caring relationship with all plants, which are not just seen as a mere resource, and the same goes for the fiber extracted from it. What could it mean for these communities to see a material they have been using for centuries as a sacred part of their culture being credited to someone else as a design innovation?
Most indigenous cultures cultivate a symbiotic and caring relationship with all plants, which are not just seen as a mere resource.
In the same context, a small village in Transylvania has preserved the craft of making amadou leather, a material extracted from polypore mushrooms (not the same as mycelium leather, by the way), for centuries now. As expected, more than one company has won innovation awards for working with the material. A few of them actually did work with families from the village in question (Korond), and this is sometimes noted on their websites. However, to merely mention the village as a material supplier is not enough to truly acknowledge this tradition and to respect their cultural heritage. To be seen and protected, they must have their story told in their own words. And too often, companies say nothing at all about the ancient use of the material and the keepers of the practice.
Currently, while there are projects aiming to protect communities from cultural appropriation in fashion and design, they are mostly focused on traditional prints and embroidery. Shouldn’t the same principle be applied to materials, if they also carry relevant significance and historical connotations?
Another issue worth mentioning is the environmental impact of upscaling such practices (which is typically the goal of most innovators). The communities working with the materials mentioned above follow slow-paced rhythms, respecting natural cycles and using zero harmful inputs. It is understandable that people want to upscale sustainable materials like these in order to fight the use of non-renewable resources, such as plastic. However, when we upscale practices like the ones in question, we are looking at dangerous environmental impacts, especially considering energy use. The extended cultivation of some vegetable fibers can also imply more land use, and can even lead to deforestation. In addition, when upscaling traditional crafts to an industrial level, an important connection is often lost in the process: the one between human and Nature. The communities working with plant-based materials cultivate a unique relationship with the plant that provides the fiber to be used. On several occasions (if not all), the material also carries important spiritual and social value, like hemp fibers in Romanian culture, or lotus fibers for various communities across Asia.
When upscaling traditional crafts to an industrial level, an important connection is often lost in the process: the one between human and Nature.
Nettle yarns being woven by a Laklãnõ Xokleng artisan. Photo by Vladmir Kozák via NEPI, 1966.
Creating a more symbiotic practice
Of course, there are ways of respectfully working together with these communities, instead of taking all the credit for something they’ve been working on for literal ages. Upscaling is not the only solution—it is possible to come up with creative ways of working on a smaller scale, while valuing and empowering communities of artisans around the world. Finding evidence of existing traditional communities who work with the fiber in question should shape the development of the work, especially if it’s something which is embedded in the local culture and heritage. Then, before creating a deeper relationship with the community in question, the researcher or designer should consider the openness and willingness of the artisans to work together. They have no obligation to collaborate, and it would be disrespectful to force something that is not aligned with the community’s habits and beliefs.
Moreover, it’s important to clearly agree on how the collaboration will work and how the participants will be fairly compensated. Giving something back to the community should be determined early on, for they are openly sharing precious knowledge—and when making this decision, a transparent and open conversation should take place, in order to understand everyone’s needs. Giving credit is indispensable, as it is the case with any cultural heritage. Sharing their stories, showing their faces and their names (when permission is given) – this goes hand in hand with transparency, which is an extremely relevant principle within sustainability. Andreaa Tanasescu, founder of Asociația La blouse roumaine IA and creator of the cultural movement Give Credit, says that each community is different—there is no point in trying to follow the same methodology of work in all of them, for they each have unique customs and ways of living.
A stronger connection with materials is essential to a more embodied relationship with our clothes and other objects, and this can only be taught by the ones who deeply and truly live it. To acknowledge and show gratitude for their expertise brings us one step closer towards building a more symbiotic practice and creating something truly sustainable, while maintaining traditions and protecting precious knowledge.
Top image: Processing lotus fibers in Myanmar. Photo by Matyas Rehak.
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