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Cultural Sustainability and Fashion

Updated: Apr 23

Big Idea: 

Cultural Sustainability in fashion requires a rights-based approach for a legally grounded pathway to equity and social justice through creativity.

Intentional and visionary clothing has existed for thousands of years. However, the commercial fashion industry emerged during the industrial revolution as a self-proclaimed elitist medium, and evolved into a system where the role of a designer is to conceptualise visions for mass produced fashion collections. Such visions decontextualise inspiration sources, extract natural resources and employ anonymous labour which is made opaque by disconnected and fantastical marketing narratives (Breward 2003). Obscuring the exploitative structures that support the fashion system from users established the power, celebrity status and mystery design practitioners embody in the commercial fashion industry, which spans from luxury to fast fashion and is defined by mass production and hierarchical supply chains. The fashion system has escaped mainstream criticism until the past decade or so due to the pursuit of attempting to uncover the mysterious and glamorous lifestyle narratives fashion designers create through what is essentially an industrial product (Breward 2003). The principles of industrialism, colonialism, exploitation and extraction therefore form the foundations of the commercial fashion industry which operates in silos to serve and perpetuate these legacies, often unbeknown to contemporary designers who are fulfilling their specific duties at a micro level and can be unaware of macro scale systemic issues as they are not the ones who built the commercial fashion system they are operating within. 

Current commercial fashion industry practices generally rely on this industry knowledge to inform operational frameworks and fashion collection directions. Referring to industry knowledge, including trends, aesthetic values, user desires and production quotas, means continuously repeating current practices which limits ideas from other sources that inform how to challenge systems, interdisciplinary approaches to issues and innovation. Due to a lack of transparency in the commercial fashion system that conceal the exploitative structures that support it, users can be familiar and comfortable with cheap mass produced clothing or the status of luxury brands which limits their ability to influence change in fashion design practices. Consequently, designers and users are in a vicious cycle of dictating unsustainable and unethical rhythms to each other. Designing fashion collections informed by industry knowledge can result in devastating consequences not often immediately understood or felt by the designer or user, such as the destruction of the world's natural ecosystems, the exploitation of people and the loss and displacement of Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups and Local Communities.

Shifting mindsets from focusing on industry knowledge to instead being curious about and seeking alternative knowledge systems is therefore required for transformation and systemic change in the commercial fashion industry. Rich alternative knowledge systems are encapsulated in the Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) of Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups and Local Communities internationally who have been practising sustainably as a way of life for thousands of years and are the voices of nature (International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity 2022).. Accessing these knowledge systems from outside the community and from the commercial fashion industry is a privilege and transcends simply integrating craft practices into hierarchical supply chains as a labour source or adopting a saviour attitude towards knowledge custodians, it requires a rights-based approach (Boța-Moisin 2023). A rights-based approach involves dismantling fashion industry power structures for the purpose of equity, social justice and cultural intellectual property protection by acknowledging the self governed customary law and collective custodianship communities have for nurturing, sustaining and protecting their valuable knowledge systems that do not require external commercial industry intervention to be validated (Boța-Moisin 2023; Pham 2014).

A rights-based approach is not initiated by a capitalistic agenda such as creating a commercial fashion collection, but intends to leverage the visibility, power and skills of the commercial fashion industry for a higher purpose to foster a culture of care, self-determination and reciprocity (Boța-Moisin, 2024). In Australia, a context specific rights-based approach to knowledge partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may require the development of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) whereby a fashion collection may or may not be an outcome, depending on the self-determined needs of the community (Ruben et al 2021). This creates space for Indigenous sustainability methodologies such as Country Centred thinking to come to the fore to amplify Indigenous perspectives as leaders of sustainability strategies (Birrill 2024). Engaging with a rights-based approach and establishing knowledge partnerships with Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups and Local Communities internationally requires turning colonial gaze back on itself by dedicating to long term education, challenging industry led knowledge, developing legal literacy of the systems that govern us, transforming worldviews and mediation at the intersection of law, fashion, cultural heritage and biocultural diversity (Max 2005). A rights-based approach is a legally grounded pathway for the commercial fashion industry to work towards equity, Cultural Sustainability and the rights of nature through fashion design and creativity. 


A rights-based approach to fashion design. Cultural Sustainability in fashion requires shifting mindsets from industry knowledge to a rights-based approach that dismantles power structures and acknowledges the collective custodianship of Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups and Local Communities to nurture, sustain and protect their Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs). 


Call for Action: 

Think critically about your position in the world. Educate yourself about Cultural Intellectual Property Rights®, Cultural Sustainability and the 3C RULE CONSENT CREDIT COMPENSATION™ to develop an understanding of a rights-based approach to design and the intersection between law, fashion, cultural heritage and biocultural diversity. Connect with your local communities to develop authentic relationships without a business agenda and research the story of the land and people on which you live, work and source from. Feel your worldviews, your priorities and purpose shift. Look at your design practice and consumption choices through this transformed lens. Initiate conversations with like minded people to discuss your journey, ideas and challenges for implementing a rights-based approach in your personal and professional life. 

Beyond Words:

Curiosity, clarity, care. Australia, 2024. ©Nicole Crouch

Written by Nicole Crouch for Cultural Intellectual Property Month 2024, Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®. Referencing: Crouch, N., 2024. Cultural Sustainability and Fashion, in Cultural Intellectual Property Month 2024, Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®

This is a conversation starter. Join us in weaving dialogues and crafting actions on the Cultural Sustainability and Fashion Thread!

Share your reflections in the comments below or send us your contribution for publication on the CIPRI Website  (written text, audio-video material or photographic work) by swisstransfer to - Weaving systemic-change thread by thread!


Birrell, A., 2024, “Old Future”, Vogue Australia, 4 February 2024,

Boța Moisin, M., 2024, “Cultural Sustainability and Law”, Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®, 7 April 2024,

Boța Moisin, M., 2023, “All Eyes on India’s soft power as Maison Dior stages fashion show in Mumbai: best practice, or not, for Cultural Sustainability in Fashion”, LinkedIn, 30 March, 2023,

Breward, C 2003, Fashion, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity 2022. ‘Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities celebrate COP15 deal on nature, and welcome the opportunity of working together with states to implement the framework’, International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, December 19, 2022

Max, K 2005, ‘Anti-colonial Research: Working as an Ally with Aboriginal Peoples’, Counterpoints, vol. 252, pp. 79-94, Peter Lang, New York.

Pham, M. T 2014, ‘Fashion’s Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless.’  The Atlantic, May 15, 2014 

Ruben, B, McDonald, M & Naylor, S 2021, “Australian Aboriginal Textiles: Value Beyond Fashion”, Textile Cloth and Culture, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 2-22, DOI:10.1080/14759756.2021.1920172

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