Rebranding “Made in India” through Cultural Sustainability:
Exploring and Expanding Indian Perspectives
Despite possibly being one of the global leaders in handcrafted textile production, known worldwide for its traditional textile heritage, India's international reputation for value associated with its handcrafted textile production is lagging far behind that of Japan, France or Italy. Referred to as an emerging market or emerging economy, in India, a country of the Global South, the price of handcrafting textiles is unquestionably lower than in any European country despite the fact that the level of skill and the culturally embedded craft culture place Indian craftspeople amongst the most talented textile makers worldwide. This combination of knowledge, skill and low production cost makes India an attractive sourcing destination for European luxury fashion brands including Chanel, the Kering Group or the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Group. However, in the fashion and textiles industries, the dynamic between the Global North and the Global South is still reminiscent of colonial relationships and chronic racism.
In 2019 and 2020 conversations on decolonising the fashion system have moved from the focus of anthropologists, activists and fashion and textile researchers to the fashion media outlets and global press platforms. In 2019 The Business of Fashion condemns the white supremacy associated with textile production from the Global North. Punjya (2019) writes that "'Made in Europe' and 'Made in USA' labels have asserted themselves as the gold (or should I say white) standard of luxury" while 'Made in India' is associated by fashion industry leaders outside the country with products of "low-quality, assembled in sweatshops and pertaining to a “hippie dippie” or bohemian aesthetic". And in 2020, Phillida Jay, writing for the same publication, talks about the 'Respect Deficit’ of luxury fashion brands in relation to Indian artisans. The same year, together with Paton and Schultz, Jay publishes in The New York Times an ample investigation into the "Hidden Indian Supply Chain'' of European Luxury fashion stakeholders, revealing the chronic discrimination faced by Indian artisans working for European luxury fashion brands who underpay and undervalue them. In a play of double standards, the same luxury fashion stakeholders talk about social and environmental sustainability standards and request their craft suppliers to achieve these Western-created standards but refuse to pay the costs of compliance to them.
But in addressing the respect deficit of luxury fashion brands to Indian artisans Jay (2020) does not point only towards the colonial mindset of the West, and underlines that "undervaluing artisans [...] is endemic in the country because of its hereditary caste system, reinforced by the pernicious marginalisation of its large Muslim minority – many of whom work in the apparel and textiles industry" thus brining to light a topic little analysed in fashion and textile industry research: the relevance of cultural context for the global fashion discourse.
In fact, cultural context seems to heavily influence a variety of elements relevant to the textile and fashion system: from the very definition of fashion (Simmel, 1957), to the understanding of the concept of "sustainability in fashion", or the dynamic and power relationships exerted in textile supply chains.
Researchers in both anthropology and fashion anthropology talk about the racism embedded in the operational definition of fashion (Niessen, 2020) and the systemic nullification of non-western systems of dress and Indigenous fashion histories, "which have all too often been erased or reduced to a static snapshot in time, and qualified as ‘traditional dress'" (Jansen, 2019). Is then this 'Respect Deficit’ of luxury fashion brands in relation to Indian artisans that Jay (2020) talks about, a result and a consequence of the eurocentrism that defines fashion as a system? The answer is not a simple one, especially when craftspeople in India are pointing out exploitation and unfair treatment from Indian stakeholders (Kuldova, 2017; Jay, 2020).
The phenomena we are investigating are (i) the recognition, within India, of the values associated with Indian textile craftsmanship (focusing in particular on the extent to which this is influenced by/or influences the external recognition by the Global North) and (ii) understanding the meaning of "sustainability" in the Indian cultural context, in relation to textile craftsmanship, and how does this understanding relate to the Western concept of "sustainability".
To do that, this study places focus on Indian textile craftsmanship seen in relation to the following conceptual triumvirate: (I) Value (of/associated with craft), (II) Heritage, and (III) Sustainability.
The starting point was immersion in the Indian cultural context and discovery of the role of textile craftsmanship from three different perspectives: (I) the multiple values of textile craftsmanship in the Indian cultural context (value attribution) (II) textile craftsmanship as an intangible asset and (III) textile craftsmanship as a source of culturally embedded sustainability practices.
What is unique about this work is the India-centric approach combined with the ethnicity of the subjects interviewed - who are, without exception, Indian nationals, whose work, voice and reputation are shaping India's contemporary textile craft-sustainability narrative. For the purpose of this study we refer to them as representatives of the "Indian textiles and fashion elite".
This research presents a collective overview of their views, which are at times conflicting, at times overlapping, and at times complementary, being a unique exercise of positioning Indian textile craftsmanship within a framework of cultural heritage as a valuable source of knowledge for sustainable practices in the fashion and textile industry.
Finally, this research is an exercise of translation of the Indian cultural context for textile professionals and consumers in the European Union. In today's socio-economic context it is essential to practice and enable cultural empathy, a condition sine-qua-non for long-term sustainable development. According to Klamer (2019) “Consumers” participate in the shared practice that is a craft as well and it is therefore essential that they understand the cultural meaning of craft.