Monday, June 07, 2021

Decolonial Fashion Lament and the Call to Action

 As a Canadian, as a citizen of the world, as a person who went to school beside a Residential School, as an anthropologist, as a sentient person with a heart and social responsibility, I am feeling the pain of the indescribable discovery of so many unmarked indigenous children’s graves in Kamloops British Columbia. 

The remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves outside one of Canada’s largest Residential Schools. The First Nations children were essentially abducted from their homes and subjected to abuse, hunger and neglect at the residential schools. An estimated 150,000 children attended these schools across the country and thousands died there. The precise number will never be known. The residential school system, a collaboration between Government and Churches, was set up to educate, convert, and assimilate the indigenous population.


I feel the pain of this discovery increasingly intensely. It was institutional murder: planned, condoned and  silenced. The schools were a form of genocide. If you think about this long enough, it is unbearable. And the indigenous peoples of Canada have had to bear this knowledge for so long. It has been denied, misunderstood and ignored. Many reactions to the news of the unmarked graves also constitute denial. Such violence is excruciating to think; denial is an escape route. But we are learning, with dread and regret, that these will not be the only covered-up graves that will come to light. It is only the beginning of the discoveries. People are talking about the tip of the iceberg. The symptom of a much larger, red pool.

 

The discovery of the graves in Kamloops is a confrontation with “coloniality.”

 

The confrontation is hard. It is also necessary. This is what ‘decolonizing’ is about: confronting ourselves with the pain of coloniality. Exposing what has been erased. Airing the facts. Acknowledging the facts. Letting the silence turn into voices. Listening with compassion and empathy. Only this can open the door to repair, restitution, solidarity. This is the only true escape route, the only way to put the past behind us. Because otherwise it will live on, and the wrongs will continue to compound. Facilitating the silence is on-going complicity. 

 

What, you may ask, does this have to do with decolonizing fashion? 

 

I notice that many of the images used to depict the Kamloops discovery utilize the imagery of  dress: photos of those children before and after their attendance at the schools. The ‘befores’ are indigenous dress, the ‘afters’ are Western dress. 

 

Beaded gloves
It is no surprise, no secret, that Western dress was used as a primary image of ‘civilization’. This was done throughout the world; it is one of the hallmarks of colonialism. Dress is perhaps the most obvious symbol of cultural difference. Suppression of indigenous dress is not unlike the suppression of indigenous languages. At the Canadian residential schools both were forbidden. The children were alienated from their cultural roots by having these two things, both so intimate to a person’s identity, stigmatized and forbidden. ‘Fashion’ was deployed as a tool of suppression, a facet of denial, a way to silence; it was denigration of authenticity. It was a way to ‘civilize’ the ‘savages’ – and there was even the hubris that clothing them in Western garb was a favour to them.

 

Many of the current memorials and vigils to the children involve items of indigenous dress: moccasins for their little feet, and people wearing ceremonial garb. Indigenous dress is being used to extoll the cultural identity of those children, to restore them to their culture. Finally they are able to return home after having been torn away, often at gunpoint, so long ago. 

 

There are other responses on social media. One that hits home hardest for me, who has had a heartfelt need to abjectly apologize, is the reminder that these atrocities do not live in the past, but continue today in numerous forms. The struggle of Canada’s indigenous peoples is not over, not by a long shot. It continues in the form of trying to block oil pipelines from crossing their lands, of motivating the government to clean up their water poisoned by industry, of trying to obtain social and physical space to practice their culture, and airspace to speak their truths, break silences and recover their past. The list is long.  And it is also related to fashion. 


In a recent publication I pointed out that fashion not only feeds off intersecting sacrifice zones, but constructs its own specific sacrifice zone. 'Sacrifice Zones' are areas of the earth's surface deemed expendable for the sake of profits for the few. Fashion is implicated in oil pipelines, poisoned water, land confiscation and soil degradation, all of which are linked in one way or another to industrial fashion production. Fashion practices are implicated in the the silencing of indigenous culture and the erosion of indigenous pride. The social hierarchy that fashion displays also carries messages about racial discrimination. Indigenous dress is another sacrifice zone of fashion -- witness its almost complete erasure from 'fashion studies'.

 

There is a variant of ‘residential schools’ that has grown up in association with fashion production. They are called ‘Factory Schools’ (a petition against them is embedded in the link) where children are abused and their cultures obliterated. The misery that we all regret relative to Kamloops is on-going in the world. We, from the now dominant culture, are being told time and again by indigenous peoples that they don't need pity or apologies for what occurred in Kamloops (and by implication other sacrifice zones as well). They need solidarity to remove the policies and barriers that prevent them from flourishing. We need to stand with them to demand social justice.

 

Decolonial fashion praxis has extensive scope. It is not restricted to the work of designers and the recognition of their creations. It also pertains to the erasures and sacrifice zones implicated in fashion production and practice. Including the expendable little bodies dumped into the Kamloops graves. 

 


Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Batak Textile Heritage Saujana Conservation and Sustainable Development OR When Batak Textiles were Honey and How They can Change the World

I delivered the webinar 'The Batak Textile Heritage Saujana Conservation and Sustainable Development' on 21 May 2021 as part of the 4th International e-Public Forum on Intangible Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development. This, in turn, was part of the 2021 INTERNATIONAL ONLINE SUMMER COURSE ON JOGJA WORLD BATIK CITY: Balancing Creative Economy and Heritage Saujana Conservation to Foster Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)



Why, you might wonder, is a seminar on Batak included in a webinar on batik?
Batak and batik differ by only one letter, but there is a world of difference between the two.
o Batik is a textile decoration technique practised mainly on Java, and
o Batak is an ethnic group in the province of North Sumatra that weaves and does not make batik.

There is certainly difference between Batak textiles and batik textiles, but there is also similarity.
All of the hundreds of textile traditions in the island archipelago of Indonesia have similarities and differences; they relate to each other like variations on a theme.
To my mind, the entire Nusantara textile heritage deserves UNESCO recognition, because all these textile traditions are related to one another and reference each other like a single ‘set’ of material culture. They form a whole.
I applaud the wisdom of the organizers of this forum for including a comparative perspective on batik.


UN Sustainable Development Goals

This seminar focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals represent a remarkable step in the history of global relations. In 2015 the United Nations agreed to a global partnership to improve human lives and at the same time to protect the environment, through sustainable development. The date for achieving the goals was set at 2030. I understand that today’s seminar is one initiative of a member country to explore how to achieve these goals. I applaud this intention.


Detail of a Batak pinunsaan textile

The textile crafts of Indonesia represent an extremely valuable resource in the global attempt to live within planetary ecological boundaries. 
My position is that craft traditions present alternatives to the dominant global systems of production and capitalism, which have brought our planet into a precarious ecological position, with global warming, and over-exploitation of planetary resources and people.











Map of Indonesia




2017 Paris Climate Accord – a UN agreement

After the 2015 SDG agreement came the legally binding 2017 Paris Agreement to stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming, by peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by 2050. This agreement implies and demands rapid and revolutionary economic and social transformation in the Global North, where most of the emission are caused.

Failure to meet the terms of this agreement are predicted to have dire climate consequences that will cost governments, including Indonesia, a great deal of money and will hurt most those who are least responsible for the CO2 emissions. Think of the cyclone earlier this year in Eastern Indonesia which threatened the lives of many weavers and the viability of their textile crafts. Think, too, of the corona pandemic which is believed to be a result of compromised ecosystems.



Degrowth Movement

The Degrowth movement has been building since the 1970s when scientists recognized the ecological limits to growth and it is becoming increasingly recognized and established.

It centres on a complex problem:
1. Capitalism requires growth to function
2. The Exponential growth of capitalism means that the terms of the Paris Agreement will not and cannot be met
3. Sustainable development, when it is based on capitalist growth, might be growth but it is not sustainable. 

Simply put, there is a problem when the SDGs encourage capitalist growth because this, precisely, is what leads to environmental degradation and social inequality.

Hence specialists are proposing degrowth as a way for the world to become more equitable whereby production and consumption remain within the ecological carrying capacity of the earth.

In other words, it is time to see the world turned on its head.

The word ‘development’, once a central, almost universal goal, has become problematic due to social consequences and the limited capacities of the planet.

Since the colonial era, craft has been seen as a vehicle to enable the poor to climb out of poverty. Revising craft for income generation is currently a predominant economic model for so-called ‘craft development’. Also in Indonesia.

However, recent research shows that capitalist growth creates poverty; it does not relieve poverty. Poverty in the world has never been as great as it is today. Growth of GDP does not imply improved well-being. (see Jason Hickel)
This means that the global economic system requires rehabilitation; the dominance of its economic and productions systems is currently a most pressing global problem.


Batak backstrap loom being manipulated by Ompu Elza, br. Sinaga. (2019)

Because capitalist growth creates poverty, environmental destruction and is exploitative there is a serious problem when craft is transformed into a vehicle for economic growth: I am speaking of faster looms, greater production, hierarchical workshop settings with a boss, and independent craft makers being transformed into labourers.

ATBM (semi-mechanized) loom being manipulated by a Batak weaver in Pematang Siantar. (ca. 2010)
Indigenous craft production systems are alternative models for business and industry. Indigenous production systems may offer strategies of sustainable production and social equality. Rather than conceptualizing craft as lagging in terms of global economic development, craft may be treasured for the kinds of models that it provides for alternative and sustainable economic and production systems. Then the challenge for craft activists becomes how to ensure that indigenous craft systems survive and thrive and are honoured rather than transformed into yet another capitalist activity. 
To explain this, I would like to speak briefly (given the short time available), about the position of Batak textiles, in the physical and social environments of the Batak people.

The social role of hand-woven Batak textiles is an example of what industrial, post-colonial society is looking for -- and longing for -- when it aspires to become sustainable.

Indonesian people I think would all agree that the textiles of their ethnic communities are flags of identity. Each community has unique and characteristic textile designs.


detail of Batak Bintang Maratur textile
In the Batak area the weaving arts are in severe decline and much textile knowledge has been lost. As a consequence, many Batak people are not aware that the identity-function of the cloth relates to much more than just how it looks. It also relates to how the cloth was made and used. Because time is short, I will restrict myself to brief aspects of how it used to be made.
Ompu ni Sihol, surrounded by her grandchildren, is making indigo dye. (1980)
Batak textiles are like honey. A bee collects pollen from the flowers in the near vicinity and makes honey. A weaver, in this case Ompu ni Sihol, is like a bee. She assembles materials from the near environment and her honey is an ancient clothing tradition.
Batak textiles originally represented the near environment including:
1. Various woods to make the weaving equipment
2. Grasses used in weaving, dyeing and starching
3. Plants for dyes
4. Local fibres for the yarn, including banana and a kind of nettle as well as cotton
5. Water next to the village serving in all of the processes
The indigenous textiles were made using local materials and local knowledge, and stayed within local ecological capacities.

Here Op ni Sihol is using local, wild indigo, dye pots made from local clay, and the water flowing beside her village. She has transported the indigo in handwoven mats made from local grasses.

Her grandchildren are helping and learning. Call it capacity building, cultural survival, community building, valuing of the elderly, transmission of cultural heritage, or the indigenous education system.

Currently, Batak textiles are no longer like honey.
1. Fibres and yarns are imported from elsewhere; dyes are imported from elsewhere; equipment is imported from elsewhere. All of these Imports imply CO2 emissions for transportation and they put the Batak people out of work. They therefore also imply loss of skills.
2. The imported synthetic dyes and yarns are made of hydrocarbons, and these hydrocarbons are obtained from sacrifice zones, areas that are destroyed for the sake of economic growth.
Once ecologically sound, Batak weavings today represent the opposite of what they once were.
They no longer represent the homelands/local environment.
They represent pollution because they do not biodegrade.
They no longer support the community, and no longer use local equipment and heritage know-how.

Furthermore, the semi-mechanical loom is utilized in a different system of production. Weaving on a backstrap loom in the village helped to create an integrated social life. Local know-how is activated and shared when weaving was done. Precisely this kind of community integration is being lost due to industrial style production. There is loss of skill, knowledge of local environment falls into decline, local wisdom is lost, and the position of the elderly in society declines and there is the attendant gap between generations.
3. a production hierarchy occurs whereby the weavers become labourers in an owner’s or a designer’s set-up, instead of continuing as the independent artisans they once were. The new loom constructs inequality instead of community. When weaving produced integrated community life, cultural and historical identity were also produced.

The kind of cultural integration that I am describing runs very, very deep. If we look at what the Batak weaver makes, she is also demonstrating, through her cloth, her view of the universe.
I have depicted here the basic structure of Batak textiles. Western education teaches us to emphasize the patterning of a textile when searching for its meaning, but this emphasis on motifs and the visual is a colonial legacy. For the Batak people, basic composition was important for the whole cloth and all of its component parts. Not just motifs, but their  arrangement in the cloth. That basic structure had everything to do with how Bataks understood their universe was structured.

Traditional Batak textiles were always divided into three parts if they had a role to play in adat, or ritual. A cloth had two similar sides and a centre. That same 2:1 relationship was found in all the parts of a cloth. Note how the supplementary warp and weft patterns have two similar sides and a centre that is different. The structure is expressed in colour, technique and patterning.


The Batak loved textiles that elaborated a single theme in a complex way, so that the smallest design feature was homologous with the largest design feature. That was the Batak aesthetic.







Supplementary warp pattern













Supplementary weft and ikat patterns










The understanding of the structure of the universe spilled over into daily life: 
  • In the kinship system, there are three groups: Wife-Giver, Wife-taker, Ego Clan
  • The universe consisted of three layers: Upper World, Under World, the Middle World
  • The three Gods in the upper world were represented by the three Batak colours: red, white, black/blue.
  • Ritual, music, seating arrangements, village layout, house layout, house carving and colouring, all have that 3-part unity that is repeated and repeated. 
Not only the recapitulation of basic structures was satisfying for the Batak, but also increasingly complex elaborations of that arrangement.
The origins of this 3-part design unity can be found the culture history of the Batak, and appear to be rooted in early Austronesian influence, early connections with other parts of the archipelago (Timorese textiles are particularly striking for their similarity in general layout with Batak textiles), and early Hindu-Buddhist influence (still evident in sari layout). Their textile design, in other words, also reveals or reflects Batak culture history.

Design is community in yet another sense. The textiles were designed for the community, by the community. The Batak did not have ‘specialized designers’. That is a colonial invention. They did have talented weavers, some more talented than others. Designs emerged, developed and changed through the collective activities of weavers within their community. Designs grew incrementally, which explains why each ethnic group has strongly characteristic designs. The whole community approved or rejected the innovations informally, so that when new designs were accepted, this was a community decision. Furthermore, the adat community decided when and how a design could be deployed ritually. And on top of that, the full range of textiles design types represented the full range of social categories within the community. So social organization was reflected in the full range of designs. Clearly, textile design represented the whole society and was the work of the whole society.

So, what is this weaver weaving? She is weaving life. She is weaving together her physical environment, reproducing her intellectual universe, constructing community, enacting and depicting her kinship system, displaying her culture history, learning and expanding and passing on ancient skills.... Her identity has many, many layers, variously and deeply significant. The complexity of her work is spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts.

It was therefore unthinkable that her work would become obsolete or ‘disposable’ like the commodities of industrial production. That would be throwing away her entire life, all that was precious and meaningful to her. There was no waste in her clothing system.

These multiple layers of meaning disappear when a piece of craft becomes a commodity representing only a single value: money. Then, the only value it has for the maker is at the moment of exchange, or when she gets paid as a labourer. This represents a considerable loss of social integration, cohesion, pride, know-how, uniqueness and on and on.

I would like to lay the goal of sustainable development beside the traditional Batak textile craft, when it was still like honey.  I have intimated that traditional Batak textile production already meets the goal of sustainability. The definition of 'development' is problematic, however.  Upon being used for capitalist development, that same tradition becomes unsustainable. And this is what we are currently facing. The word ‘development’ is problematic when it involves industrialization, and commoditization and all the consequences thereof for people, culture, communities and planet.

Attempts to use the Batak weaving arts as a source of income generation have led to an expansion of CO2 emissions and waste, as well as poverty for weavers, loss of know-how and community, de-skilling – all the things that I have mentioned above.

I propose that it would be prudent to safeguard the possibility of indigenous expressions of local genius. I propose that indigenous craft (clothing production) systems be recognized -- and also treasured – as models of sustainable production. The whole world, and certainly the Global North, needs these models. Craft can lead the world.

Indigenous Batak textiles show: 
o how goods can be valued socially (when they are not commoditized)
o how they can produce social harmony and justice (without the egregious exploitation that has resulted in the world from the capitalist system)
o how cultural pluriversality functions 
o How local textile traditions embody alternative values whereby community well being rather than money occupies the central position.

Some Resources


Degrowth Movement

https://www.degrowth.info/en/a-history-of-degrowth/

 

Hickel, Jason. 2021. ‘Extreme poverty isn’t natural, it’s created’ (Blog March 21)

https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2021/3/28/extreme-poverty-isnt-natural-it-is-created

 

Hickel, Jason. Growth is Killing Us.

https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/economic-growth-is-killing-us

 

Hickel, Jason. 2018. The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and it Solution. Windmill Books.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1113531/the-divide/9781786090034.html

 

Hickell, Jason. 2020. The Great Unravelling: Inequality. Webinar: The Postcarbon Institute

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rGvz0ibPMI

 

If continued growth is not sustainable, would its opposite – degrowth – be the right alternative? EOI (Escuela de organizaciĆ³n industsrial) blog.

https://www.eoi.es/blogs/guidopreti/2014/01/10/if-continued-growth-is-not-sustainable-would-its-opposite-degrowth-be-the-right-alternative/

 

Robra, Ben and Heikkurinen, Pasi. 2019. ‘Degrowth and the Sustainable Development Goals’ In Decent Work and Economic Growth. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham

 

SDG Index Finds No European Country on Track, Green Deal Brings Potential

http://sdg.iisd.org/news/sdg-index-finds-no-european-country-on-track-green-deal-brings-potential/

 

Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication and Reducing Inequalities 

https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_Chapter5_Low_Res.pdf

 

United Nations Climate Change website

https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

 

UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. – do the SDGs fit??

https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda


Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=ETop of Form

 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

More Webinars

 Here are additional webinars that I have given on the topic of sacrifice zones, related  to my article, "Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone and Sustainability"

 

Decolonizing Fast-Fashion: A Living Wage and Good Working Conditions for Women of the Global South

NGO CSW

Sponsoring Organization: Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the UN

24 March

https://ngocsw65forum.us2.pathable.com/meetings/virtual/DGpWB6vxfvie2b8K2

You’ll find my contribution here:  0:52:53 – 1:08:00

 



Extinction Rebellion: Fashion Act Now 

Fashion and Degrowth – Exploring the link between decolonisation and sustainability, May 11

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pkyf3IBgT0U


You can find more about Fashion Act Now on their informative web page

https://www.fashionactnow.org/about




Sunday, April 18, 2021

More on the Sacrifice Zones of Fashion

 On 3 April 2021 I had honour of being invited to answer a question about sacrifice zones of fashion in a ‘Conversations’ webinar series hosted in 2021 by the Research Collective for Decolonising Fashion. The event was built around my publication, 'Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone, and Sustainabilitypublished in Fashion Theory Vol 24, no. 6. 

The below is a recording of the event and a transcript of my answer. 

 Recording:

https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/share/kTAvITl_vDrT2YxenhBMoXRHgwbphRWqwGKoEDmVSs7oN9Hk19cFvngkKhp-mYuj.h-oNSQ8EhjCHnvSh 

Passcode: @s&e4ud@ 


Transcript

Hello, good day, and thank you, Erica and Angela, for this amazing opportunity to speak with colleagues all around the world. I feel very honoured to have my work included in this important series for re-visioning fashion through a decolonial lens. 

Thank you for your insightful question, Erica. 

·      A year and a half ago, we were all still thinking within the customary framework of fashion sustainability: materials used, energy used, and labour used and we hadn’t yet expanded that framework to include social justice. Your question asks me to dig down deep into myself to understand how this article emerged. For me it is not just a question of saying ‘this, this and this have been sacrificed’ -- although I could do that. But I think that it is important to also talk about the process. It wasn’t just writing up simple empirical observation. Empirical observation occurs within a conceptual framework and that is why I think it is necessary to talk, today, about the process of discovery of what is being sacrificed. 

·      I invite everybody to think with me. I know that my process is unique but it is also common. We are learning together; we are exploring how decolonial theory works for us; we are all practitioners trying to build a better world together. We need a diversity of voices and not a dogma. For me right now, contributing to the construction of a more sustainable world is front and centre in my thinking.

  • Why writing this article, and articulating the sacrifice zones, was so challenging for me, had to do with what decolonial theorists call ‘erasure’. In a nutshell, I was attempting to go into conceptual territory that is usually erased from our thinking. Erasure is a conceptual trick that we play on ourselves to allow a status quo to persist. Conceptual blinkers, entrenched habits of thought, vested interest in a standard conceptual framework: it is hard to break free of all of that.
  •   Professor Rolando Vazquez has pointed to ‘remembering’ as an antidote to ‘erasure’. When we have pushed something out of our minds, ‘remembering’ is a radical act, a facilitator of change. It dredges up other ways of thinking and being, other processes and systems, other epistemologies. 

Indigeneity. My article was, in a sense, a proclamation of the value of the indigenous. In our previous meetings, we have talked about modernity incorporating a kind of temporality that demands forgetting. It places the past into a category of irrelevance. The past lies behind us, unable to be recovered.  Modernity asks us to think of the indigenous as bound to disappear because it is a holdover from the past. The engine of unilinear time is assumed to be inevitable and unstoppable. By recognizing the importance of the indigenous, my article is challenging the amnesia that is built into modernity. It is especially radical in the context of fashion, because fashion is all about depicting modernity. Can our concept of fashion survive the recognition of the indigenous? I personally do not see how. In my article, I even go a step further and say that sustainability will depend, in part, on learning fromindigenous systems of sustainable clothing. Of course, this is heresy in the customary framework of fashion, and it felt daring and risky to write it, especially for the leading Journal, Fashion Theory.


 Two Normals - I sensed, while I was writing the piece, that I was connecting dots that are usually not connected. I felt a familiar sort of schizophrenia when I was writing: there is the usual way of perceiving the world, that is familiar in my day-to-day life here in the Global North, familiar, too, through accepted Fashion theory, and then there was my perception that resulted from my experience in Indonesia, that I didn’t really have a language framework to describe, nor even much hope that people here in the Global North will understand. The ‘normalcy’ of here in The Netherlands is so different from the ‘normalcy’ there. For a long time I have felt that the two are like two halves of a whole, and for me to understand the world, I have to go back and forth, and try to come to terms with these two different normals. They are contrasting but complementary realities. I am sure that what I am sensing is the upshot of that economic fact that our wealth in the Global North has much to do with exploitation of the Global South, something that we in the Global North are seldom aware of, except maybe theoretically. When I am in Indonesia, I experience how it plays out in day-to-day life for the people, in their thoughts and feelings, challenges and life choices and perceptions of the world that are prevalent there. I live there in an exceedingly poor village.

·      Economic Apartheid – In the google drive, I provided a link to a podcast interview with Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, who talked about what he called ‘economic apartheid’ in the world. The amnesia of modernity is related to keeping the fact of this apartheid hidden. That is the boundary that decolonial theorists know as the colonial difference.  In previous writings I have referred to dualism in fashion: that fashion carves out an us and them, those with and those without fashion. In my article I was trying to pull this boundary into view.  

·      Showing what is being sacrificed, is showing what is being conceptually erased.  At the time of writing, it felt like an appeal to my readership to please recognize this boundary because it causes so much pain and waste at a thousand levels. I proposed that fashion cannot be sustainable unless there is fairness. Sustainability cannot co-exist with destruction.  

·      And let’s face it: the two halves are both engaged in the same struggle for sustainability on this planet! In this, we are ONE! Not two sides of a complementary whole! That binary pertains only to the current global economic system.


So that was a lengthy backdrop. Now on to the question: What is being Sacrificed?

Sacrifice Zone –I want to begin by looking at the expression ‘sacrifice zone’. 

Wikipedia tells us that the term Sacrifice Zone was coined to refer to ‘regions’ of the world that may be dispensed with – initially it was a reference to regions that would undergo permanent destruction due to atomic fallout or chemical poisoning. Permissible destruction in the interests of industry, economy and power. 

o   The concept and phenomenon of ‘Sacrifice Zone’ should give everybody pause. The term makes thinkable and even normalizes what is utterly scandalous. That somebody, or some group, has the ego and assumes the power to eradicate and destroy a part of life on earth for the sake of short-term financial gain in their own interest? Think about it. This is preposterous. Totally unconscionable. Absolutely ridiculous when you think about it. Incredible in the literal sense of the word. I would argue that this concept of ‘sacrifice zone’ is an expression of the kind of conceptual erasures that decolonial theorists discuss.  

o   What are the erasures in Sacrifice Zones? By focusing exclusively on waste ‘regions’, the term ‘sacrifice zone’ leaves out 1) the biological diversity in that region, 2) the people living there, and 3) their culture(s). All are conceptually erased and fully negated to the extent that they are totally expendable. Off the screen.  I think of the Cree people who once lived on the Alberta tar sands, the most famous sacrifice zone on earth. When they resisted the total annihilation of their land, air, water, their source of food, their history, their culture, the Canadian government deemed their resistance illegal. And still does. Even in this time of climate emergency. 

  • This is the conceptual erasure of people and culture in a sacrifice zone. It is ‘collateral damage’, to use another war term, ignored and deemed irrelevant compared to the ‘greater good’ of profits and power. 

 How does Fashion intersect with Sacrifice Zones? Almost all of our food, houses, cars, energy, mobile phones and computers, you name it, are currently produced by benefiting from sacrifice zones. Rolando Vazquez refers to the challenge of living an ethical life. Purchasing a simple chocolate bar for our own pleasure, brings harm to somebody someplace else. 

 A. Fast Fashion benefits from Sacrifice Zones:

1.     Materials: They are produced in sacrifice zones. 

·      Industrial agriculture, e.g. production of cotton through agri-business – think of how the cotton plantations in the USA made use of slave labour and expelled indigenous populations from the land; how cotton production in India expanded during the colonial era, destroying the local economy. Note that in the ‘customary framework’ of fashion sustainability, there is mention of the amount of water, the pesticides and herbicides  used to produce cotton, etc. but nothing about the implication for peoples and cultures who once inhabited the land, or are brought in to do the work. Conceptual erasure.

·      production of synthetic fibres made of fossil fuels – 7 billion barrels now needed to produce synthetic fibres – with enormous expansion planned for the future. 

2. Labour: The Fast Fashion industry makes use of ‘displaced peoples’ for cheap labour.

  •  In 2014, there were 60 million people working in the garment industry, most of them women in the Global South. I don’t know what percentage constitutes ‘displaced persons’, but it can only be extremely high. We need to ask, what has gone on in their lives that they are they willing to submit themselves to the slavery of garment manufacturing? 
  • The ranks of displaced peoples is swelling rapidly: climate change, war, sacrifice zones, land degradation in general. All of these are pushing people off their lands and the ranks of jobless in cities are swelling. See the global report on internal displacement. https://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017/
  • The customary framework for examining ‘fashion labour’ focuses on wages and working conditions.  But there is a much larger systemic whole that needs to come into view. I  argue that restricting the focus to pay and working conditions, is also a form of conceptual erasure.  
  • And the fast fashion industry is no benefactor, generously giving workers an income, which is how we often like to see it. In fact, it is taking advantage of the destruction of the local and of indigenous lives to produce cheap clothes.

B. Fast fashion is thus complicit in the use, expansion and condoning of sacrifice zones, and this is part and parcel of systemic capitalist exploitation. It benefits hugely from sacrifice zones, and their conceptual erasure.

  • The campaign by Fashion Revolution, “Who Made My Clothes tries, in good faith, to give a face to garment workers, but it falls vastly short of really telling anything about garment workers because the campaign is operating within the system of conceptual erasures characteristic of consumers in the Global North and our current thinking about fast fashion. ‘Garment workers’ are narrowed down to  elements in an economic system, stripped of their other human features. 

Last, but not least, 

C.  Fast Fashion Industry creates sacrifice zones. This has been fully overlooked, until now, by fashion sustainability activists and theorists.

I am hereby making the argument that the concept of ‘sacrifice zones’ is perceived far too narrowly. Furthermore, the sustainability framework has to broaden to include not just biodiversity but also humans and cultural diversity. The conceptual erasures within the sustainability framework, are related to the erasures built into customary fashion theory.

 I don’t have time to get into all of the mechanics of how fast fashion results in the destruction of culture.  But very briefly, throughout my anthropological fieldwork in Indonesia, I have witnessed the decline of indigenous cultures and their clothing systems. When young women leave their villages to go to work in factories, they leave behind their family, language, way of life, culture, rituals, customs, and clothing traditions. When you perceive the complexity of the making of clothing in their own culture, e.g.  weaving work, it quickly becomes clear that age-old, extremely sophisticated, culturally embedded skills are being lost to do mind-numbing, unfulfilling work. As individuals, as ‘garment workers’, they become de-skilledTheir cultural talents and skills are wasted. They are preyed upon in factory settings by male bosses and management in general; poor pay and working conditions are symptomatic of that. Their humanity is being dispensed with; they are being wasted and destroyed. I would argue that these labourers are also a sacrifice zone.

 Their cultures are also being drained.  The loss of ethnic diversity is a global crisis as well, but it is not receiving the attention that the environmental crisis receives. This is  another facet of conceptual erasure. Cultural loss includes the disappearance of:

  • epistemologies, ways of thinking and understanding the world 
  • including indigenous and local clothing systems including designs, techniques, styles – intangible cultural heritage. 
  • Including local knowledge about the physical environment
  • It involves the destruction of identity and simultaneously erodes social and political stability. The loss of culture creates social time bombs.
  • Think of the calls by cultural activists, that languages and cultures are disappearing. 

Wikipedia tells us that of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, it is predicted that 90% will be extinct in the next 30 years. 

The process of that kind of death is what I have been witnessing in my own little corner in Indonesia. And Fast fashion is complicit in this. Until now fashion theorists have failed to connect those dots. That, I argue, is conceptual erasure. 

Fashion is like the forest industry. We chop down forests to make toothpicks and toilet paper, destroying them to make money. So we end up with lots of money and increasingly little of value.

With fast fashion we make articles of clothing with no value, and in the process we destroy traditions and cultures in the world, including clothing traditions. 

We have erased this awareness, conceptually, in the Global North. And the Fashion system functions in such a way that the owners of the cultures being destroyed eventually believe that their culture has no value. Because it is not valued by ‘modern’ society. And so they flee or disregard their own culture as if it was inferior. But this is another huge discussion, so I will stop here.