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Culture not commodity. Why must fashion see Cultural Intellectual Property Rights as Human Rights?

I have only relatively recently begun to realise that textiles are intrinsically linked to my heritage.

My mom and dad met in a Batik class in Indonesia. My mom, South African, was travelling to Indonesia after studying for a law degree, to visit a country she had long dreamt of. Little did she know that she’d fall in love with my dad, an Indonesian artist, who specialised in Batik – an indigenous Indonesian technique of wax-resist dyeing (usually) cotton or silk textiles. Covered in intricate motifs, batik textiles play a sacred role in certain rituals at birth and death and also adorn everyday wear.

I have lived in Cape Town, South Africa, my whole life. A city known for being a thriving hub of clothing and textile production until the early 1990s when imported clothing became the cheaper option, flooding the local market, and leading to the rapid decline of local manufacturing. I have listened to countless stories, told by people around me, of how their mothers and grandmothers used to work in the garment industry and could sew just about anything.

Yet the fashion and textile contexts in which I exist now – largely dominated by constant fast fashion marketing, trends, and waste – are vastly different from that of a few generations ago or that which still exists in indigenous artisan communities today.

On both sides of my heritage, I have wondered many times: What happens to these skills if there is no mechanism for them to be passed down from generation to generation? Or if they are erased and forgotten by the omnipresent consumerist culture of our current extractive fashion system that moves in cycles too rapid to care for anything deeper than trend value?

What our current fashion system will have us believing is that we are incapable of being anything more than consumers. But what these generational textile skills and Traditional Cultural Expressions show us is that we are creative beings capable of so much more than just engaging with the world in transactional ways. Most importantly, what stories of grandmothers’ skills and regional hand-dyeing techniques show us is that these expressions are part of culture.

But our current dominant fashion system is fundamentally dependent on unjust exploitation and extraction. It is premised on an economic logic that sees communities, cultures, and natural ecosystems as disposable in the pursuit of never-ending profit-oriented growth. Most often, when we do see an overlap between the current dominant fashion system and these age-old cultural textile practices, it is in the form of countless instances of cultural misappropriation – just another form of fashion’s extraction. So, it goes without saying that to heal our fashion system, we need to move away from the idea of culture as a commodity and towards the idea of co-creation of cultural sustainability as the collective imperative necessary to address our multilayered social and ecological crises.

This speaks to the necessity of Cultural Sustainability. The Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®(CIPRI) defines cultural sustainability as: “Cultural sustainability in fashion goes beyond a marketing concept that lands well in communication. It is a holistic approach that elevates the discussion from skill and labor to a rights-based approach centred around the multifaceted socio-cultural value of craftsmanship and craft innovation.”

If I think about our grandmothers sewing and mending, they can teach us lessons of slowness, care, and thoughtful longevity. If I think about my dad doing Batik artworks with vegetable dyes, it teaches me lessons about fashion as a medium for cultural expression and an ability to create without harming natural environments. These are the lessons in fashioning we must re-learn if we are to remedy fashion’s ills – the ills that cause countless human rights harms from waste colonialism, to the perpetuation of non-liveable wages, and the destruction of natural ecosystems. These human rights abuses come from the erasure of textile practices as something sacred, and the new-found obsession with growth and profits at all costs.

Traditional Cultural expressions can teach us these lessons. But, we must also be careful to ensure that in the process of unlearning and relearning, we do not fall into the cycle of extraction and exploitation that the fashion industry has become synonymous with. I can see the value in working these practices of the past into our conceptions of fashion futures. But my next wondering always morphs into: How do we do this with care? In a way that acknowledges the historic erasure of so many generational skills and the obsession with modernity that has ruled them “backward”?

This is where the importance of Cultural Intellectual Property Rights® comes in as a mechanism for guarding Traditional Cultural Expressions in textiles from becoming a disposable commodity and eroding communities and natural systems.

Cultural intellectual property is a term I have been using in my work to emphasize the need to design a system tailor-made to traditional cultural expressions and traditional knowledge,” shared Monica Boța-Moisin on an episode of the Conscious Style Podcast that I interviewed her on a while ago, “Cultural intellectual property catalyzes systemic change in the way we give value to different knowledge systems.” Giving value to different knowledge systems is a form of redistribution of power in the fashion industry. This is key because of the patterns of colonization present in our fashion system that actively extracts labour, natural resources, and knowledge from communities in the Global South.

For example, let’s consider the waste colonialism of the global secondhand trade that has exported masses of textile waste to several countries in the Global South. This influx of discarded clothing has stifled local textile production and economies, in addition to causing a host of different ecological and social ills. Or take garment production hubs as an example, where garment workers are paid so little that they’re trapped in cycles of poverty and cannot create sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families. Or when we see jackets being marketed as Kimonos so much so that it strips these items of their cultural significance and situates them as trends fashion’s marketing machine.

Sandra Niessen terms these systemic instances “fashion sacrifice zones” because there are certain communities, natural systems, cultures that are deemed disposable for the sake of growth. This is why redistributing power begins with the acknowledgement of different knowledge systems. If we are not protecting and promoting these different knowledge systems, using Cultural Intellectual Property Rights®, then we are not dismantling the extractive and exploitative economic logic that has caused widespread social harms in the fashion industry.

So, if shifting the economic growth imperative of the fashion industry is what it will take to remedy fashion and bring it back into alignment with nature as well as shifting power back into the hands of the people – so they can advocate for their own lives – then we need to see Cultural Intellectual Property Rights® as Human Rights. Because, this allows the acknowledgement that fashion needs new stories and new knowledge systems – and the holders of those care-filled knowledge systems should have room for self-determination and be understood as the rightful owners of those practices.

To go back to my constant pondering: What happens when there is no mechanism for textile skills and expressions to be passed down from generation to generation? Well, we lose knowledge systems that are fundamental to creating a society centred on wellbeing.

Of course, fashion thrives on collaborations. And we should not shy away from working with people from different areas of the world who have deep knowledge of their own textile heritages. The key is in ensuring that culture is not commodified, the emphasis is on unpacking the motivations, intentions, and approach of equitable knowledge partnerships.

Cultural sustainability in fashion goes way beyond aesthetics, symbols, and patterns printed on garments,” says Boța-Moisin during the podcast episode. It emphasizes the need to sustain these practices and create mediums for them to be transmitted from generation to generation. Fashion practitioners cannot be content with incorporating traditional cultural expressions in pursuit of growth and be expected to see this as a noble deed. They must aspire to work with knowledge holders to incorporate traditional cultural expressions with the intention that this will cultivate a societal culture centred on wellbeing as its fundamental organizing principle.

Fashion can, and should, be used as a medium for co-creating living archives that transcend consumerist culture and remind us of the joy there is in feeling deeply connected with our clothing and the world and people around us.

Young people, like myself, play a critical role in this too. We are a pivotal generation in a make-or-break moment in time when it comes to safeguarding culture and our natural environments. Our role in advocating for Cultural Intellectual Property Rights® as Human Rights begins with re-connecting with ourselves and our own cultural lineages and textile heritages. This could be as simple as creating oral histories by speaking to your parents and grandparents, getting to know them and their generational practices, and finding simple ways to archive your family history.

Beyond the familial, it is about continuing to find ways to connect to and learn about the obscured system and histories just below the surface of our textile world. This can be through various mediums such as books, conversations, and engaging with the work of path-forging organisations such as the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative®. In order to remake the world we live in, and be advocates of justice, we must first reimagine the systems we wish to change.

If looking backward, inward, and forward is the task ahead of us in fashion, we have to find ways to do so that do not pretend that fashion, culture, and human rights exist in mutually exclusive silos. To draw on the past in our mission to create more just futures, we have to rewrite unjust legacies. This begins with the acknowledgement that Cultural Intellectual Property Rights® are Human Rights. It’s a first step, but without it, we run the risk of repeating the mistakes of history – and that’s a risk that fashion cannot afford.

About the author:

Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems-change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.

Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, podcaster, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.

IG: @stella_hertantyo

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