Comment: Sustainable fashion is age-old

Sometimes, the old ways really are better. Iman Masmoudi explains how re-exploring traditional techniques is the missing step in sustainable fashion.

Iman Masmoudi is the founder of TŪNIQ Ethical Clothing Coop, a sustainable clothing brand.

The growing realisation that the way we produce clothing and textiles is destroying the planet has led to many new inventions claiming they can help solve the crisis. From cactus leather to fibre recycling and all the upcycling in between, designers and innovators are throwing themselves into the race to invent the most sustainable way to produce clothing. 

But what if it already exists? What if we could tap into a method that has a proven track record of environmental protection and regeneration? 

The truth is that Indigenous communities all over the world have been sustainably and ethically creating clothing from raw fibre to cut and sew for thousands of years. But too often modern pride prevents these traditional technologies being taken seriously – and not just as the cultural treasures they are, but as real solutions to an industry on track to contribute 25% of global carbon emissions by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Instead, we prefer to try to reinvent the wheel, losing out on the wealth of collective wisdom that exists behind traditional craft. 

I have seen first hand since founding TŪNIQ – a collective of independent craftspeople in Tunisia who produce clothing and textiles using local organic materials from sheep to shop – how resourceful traditional technologies are. Indigenous communities around the world know how to properly incense and air out garments to prevent moth holes without the use of hazardous chemical treatments. They’ve discovered herbs, roots and even beetles that can organically produce extravagant dye colours from royal purple to the brightest indigo. They know how to soften and naturally age wool to make it finer with time, as opposed to the pollutive laundering and bleaching chemicals the industry uses today. 

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Centuries of trial and error, human ingenuity and harmony with the natural world have taught us how to use beeswax to make a wooden loom work smoothly, how to create a strong paper glue from potato waste, how to grow cotton from water-efficient soil, and how to mix wool from brown and white sheep to create gradients that don’t fade. 

But this is what capitalism so often does. It creates a crisis and, rather than go back to the way things were, it invents a new product to sell you that solves the problem it created. Continuing down this path can only lead to destruction. We don’t need more product innovation; we need more wisdom. For many of the biggest ethical and environmental challenges in modern clothing production, traditional techniques have an elegant solution, one that respects artisan independence, a healthy culture of consumption and the regenerative balance of our planet. 

This isn’t an indictment of innovation all together or a call to stop advancing our forms of production. It is a call to recognise the innovation that already exists within centuries-old Indigenous craft traditions that offer a great foundation for continued development. If we recognise the wisdom of traditional craft technologies, the next generation of engineers and designers can bring us closer to solving the crisis of today’s clothing production in a way that is not only sustainable, but reparative of the harm the industry has already done. Traditional methods are also more accessible and prime for decentralised methods. All over the world, small-scale producers can work with local materials, including crops and animal fibres, to create beautiful clothing and textiles from raw fibre to final garment.

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This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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