What is ‘sustainability’ without cultural integrity?

‘Sustainability’. The word often conjures up images of  solar panels, clothes made of recycled water bottles, or ‘plastic’ made of sweet potatoes. Lots of talk about scientific innovations, but what about speculation into social, cultural innovations? Particularly in the realm of fashion & sustainability, giving cultural integrity a focus is paramount for conversations within this sector to develop into realistic and earnest action.

What is culture, and what is integrity?

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines culture as, ‘The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.’ In a more nuanced way, as culture is manifest within the spoken or unspoken experience of every human being, culture has been defined in my earlier work on cultural policy as: ‘The collective thoughts that form a fabric through which we view and interact with our world. Culture exists at different levels, that of the individual’s experience, or differing group sizes that share a culture. Culture cannot be consumed nor produced, but only influenced or experienced at different levels. Culture can therefore not be commoditised.’

Integrity, a word with arguably less ambiguous boundaries, is defined by the OED as ‘The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.’

When compounded, cultural integrity means respecting the different social histories and contexts represented by different peoples and their cultural artefacts.

What I find most interesting in today’s conversations regarding sustainability, is that many ‘innovations’ actually have roots in ancient, pre-capitalistic, cultures. Cultures that were ultimately eroded by capitalism, but are now finding their way back to today’s main stage conversations.

Take mycelium (mushroom) leather for example: Today there are a number of start-ups such as Bolt Threads creating a semantic field around the material, as very new and innovative, when in fact, according to the work of friend and colleague Irene-Marie Seelig, mushroom leather was found to have been first used and discovered by Eastern-European peoples before the 14th century.

Cultures that have existed as distinguishable groups for far longer than today’s ‘modern’ capitalistic culture (an era that spans less than two centuries) are indeed much more likely to hold answers to sustainability. It is indeed a pity that the modern capitalistic cultural regime took over and did not have the integrity to respect the Earthly-limit respecting cultures that it brutally eroded! On the bright side, all is not lost, and a strong number of capable peoples from around the globe are bringing back ancient and traditional knowledge for sustainability that largely capitalistic cultures have diminished.

Point in case, acknowledging cultural integrity as well as environmental integrity is vital for sustainability in the fashion industry to become an omnipresent reality in this era. Sustainable Fashion cannot only be about wearing recycled water bottles (that will end up emitting micro-plastics anyways), or commoditising small villages of people making folk products as a mere marketing ploy. There has to be integrity, and a clear respect for culture, not ignorant appropriation of culture. To question and to know something’s history, who made it, and why it exists; to question behaviour, and one’s own behaviour, is vital for this era’s paradigm shift into sustainability.



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