How First Nations Fashion Designers are Tackling Fast Fashion

Despite the impacts of COVID-19 and its disruption on supply chains and production schedules for brands worldwide, there has been a push for more sustainable practices within the mainstream fashion industry (UNEP, 2018). In a world where clothes are pumped out at rapid-fire speed, with little concern for people and the planet, Indigenous Australian designers are tackling the issues of fast fashion. Indigenous fashion design is rooted in sustainable principles, with Indigenous creatives approaching the design and production process with mutual respect for nature and the world they live in, as their ancestors did so before them. Indigenous fashion designers not only bring with them their style, they also bring their cultures, and values towards their Country and ecosystems (Vogue, 2020).

Dunghutti and Anaiwan woman, director of PR and Research agency Cox Inall Ridgeway and Founder of the instagram community @ausindigenousfashion, Yatu-Widders Hunt (2020) provides insight into this sharing of knowledge systems where she says:

“For Aboriginal designers, caring for eachother and caring for country are cultural values. Not separate things. It’s actually embedded and part of everything we do and the way we approach things.” 

Yatu-Widders Hunt wearing Country Road in their partnership for NIFA’s Fashion Design Award, 2020. Courtesy of Country Road, 2021.

In a pre-colonial context, Indigenous fashion design was entirely sustainable, as function, utility and longevity of the textile were the key focus, and locally sourced materials were the only resources to use. Of course, it is difficult to see how Indigenous designers in a contemporary context can rid themselves entirely of the current global fashion system (Vogue, 2020). The current system follows a take-make-waste model in order to make fashion affordable enough to keep up with the ever-changing latest fashion trends. Consumers are aware that many parts of modern life are widely known to cause environmental harm - such as using disposable plastic items, flying overseas or driving to and from work - but not when it comes to the clothes they buy. This is because they are not seeing or experiencing the impacts that this model is having on people and the planet, and especially since it is not shown widely in mainstream media (UNEP, 2018).  

For First Nations fashion designers and artists, it is of great importance to protect Country and people. Take Lillardia Briggs Houston - Wiradjuri, Gangulu and Yorta Yorta woman, and the founder of local fashion label Ngarru Miimi. In all facets of Lillardia’s life, respect for lands is integral in her design work as she says (2020):

“I always view myself inextricably connected with Country, and this connection will always intertwine with and influence my work. Hurting Country is hurting me. It is an extension of my body, and lives and breathes as I do.”

Lillardia Briggs Houston - founder, artist and designer of ethical and sustainable label Ngarru Miimi. Lillardia wearing her handmade necklace and earrings and linen top handprinted on Wiradjuri Country. Courtesy of Ngarrru Miimi, 2021.


So, let’s look at some facts of how fast-fashion is actually impacting people and the planet, and then look at how Indigenous designers and artists’ sustainable practices can be applied to fast-fashion:

According to the United Nations Environment Programme in 2018, fashion production makes up 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions and produces 20% of global industrial water pollution. In regards to water pollution from fabric dyeing, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimated in 2017 that “the world uses 5 trillion litres of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-size swimming pools” (WRI, 2017). When laundering synthetic textiles - whether at the final stage of production or at home - it releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the ocean each year. Even after this long, destructive process “85% of all textiles go to the dump each year...the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second” (UNEP, 2018). 

A truck unloading garbage at a temporary landfill on the edge of Beirut, Lebanon, September 23, 2015. Courtesy of Business Insider, 2021.

The fact that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has stated - in their Provisional Report on the State of the Global Climate in 2020 - that 2011-2020 was the warmest decade on record and that the global temperature is set to rise due to heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, goes to show that we need to radically alter our patterns of clothing consumption to support the survival of the planet. 

In 2018, the World Economic Forum reported that the fashion industry was responsible for at least 4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions (WMO, 2018). However, in 2020 scientific studies and analytical reports from the United Nations and charitable organisations estimated that the fashion industry contributes now up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Climate Feedback, 2020). According to a report in 2017 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the fashion industry continues on this current trajectory, the latter share of the carbon budget could jump from 26% by 2050 (Business Insider, 2019). 

This take-make-waste model comes with a human cost which involves textile workers in often third world countries, whom are paid pittings for wages and forced to work long hours in unhygienic and hazardous conditions (UNEP, 2018). Imagine being a local citizen in Dhaka, Bangladesh and having your local waterways turn red from the pollution of chemical textile dyes and garment waste from nearby tanning factories. Can you see how harmful to the health and quality of life that would be for the community living in this district? 

The water in a nearby stream turned red from chemicals and waste dumped into it by nearby tanning factories in Dhaka Bangladesh, May, 14, 2005. Courtesy of Business Insider, 2021. 

A boy swimming in the polluted waters of the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May, 14, 2009. Courtesy of Business Insider, 2021. 

So, what is clear from these facts is that fast fashion is contributing to: the depletion and pollution of water resources and the air, the rise in global warming, the wasting of raw materials and unethical labor practices in poor countries. Here, fashion retailers need to start transforming their business models, because the assumption of infinite resources in a finite world is simply not sustainable.

There is such a wealth of knowledge that First Nations designers can offer to the mainstream fashion industry. However, the intellectual property, intelligence and inherently sustainable practices of First Nations designers must be acknowledged and respected first (Fashion Journal, 2020). Yatu mentions that in order for the mainstream fashion industry to shift from this take-make-waste model, it means a major reevaluation of the concept of time:

“Some designers I know only make certain garments in certain seasons, because that’s when the flower grows or that’s when the nut is available. It’s completely working in the cycles of the earth rather than the cycles of the industry. And I think that can be quite challenging for the fashion industry. But when done well [it’s] a really beautiful thing. So, it’s the lesson that we don’t actually control the cycle of when materials are available or when it’s appropriate to paint a particular story...we have to give up a little bit of power.” 

Sustainability remains a key principle within Indigenous Australian design, which can be seen through low-waste teachings that have been passed down for generations. Low-waste teachings can be traced back to many forms of traditional art and weaponry. They include the element of resourcefulness, whether it’s to be clever in ideation stages, or in abstaining from processes that negatively affect the environment. In this instance, rural Indigenous art communities take a unified, eco-minded approach to the fashion process whether it’s through: using locally sourced textiles and dyes, upcycling repurposing fabric scraps, repurposing fabric scraps, or creating small made-to-order collections (Vogue, 2020).  

Ngarru Miimi ‘Marley Off the Shoulder Linen Crop’ with matching linen skirt. Courtesy of Ngarru Miimi, 2021.

Lillardia utilises low-waste methods with her label Ngarru Miimi where she ensures her hands touch all elements of her work. Like the generation before Lillardia, her grandmother would repurpose newspapers into pattern paper, and recycle old curtains into garments. Now, Lillardia hand prints her own textiles on country by hand, and upcycles the fabric scraps to ensure that they don’t end up in the landfill, just kilometres from her in Wiradjuri Country (Fashion Journal, 2020). 

For the local swimwear designer Liandra Gaykamangu, practicing eco-sustainability is important as it represents the cultural element of deep-rooted respect for Country. The designer carries these practices out through her label Liandra Swim, where she uses fabrics made from repreve, a fibre that derives from regenerated plastic bottles and hygiene stickers that are compostable. To encourage customers to buy less and re-wear her products for longer she has made the swimwear double-faced. Often brands that are deemed as ‘sustainable’ don’t consider the environmental impacts of plastic packaging and mailer bags that their products come in. Liandra Swim’s mailer bags are home-compostable and the packaging is made from cassava, which is a non-toxic tropical root that can safely biodegrade within only 3-6 months! The cassava packaging even has the ability to melt before your very eyes when you place it in boiling water! (Liandra Swim, 2021).  

Long-sleeve one-piece from Liandra Swim. Courtesy of Liandra Swim, 2021.

Liandra’s message of treading lightly on the planet has been featured in press such as Vogue Australia, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar Australia and Elle Italia (Liandra Swim, 2021). She informs (2021), “I urge all creatives to continue their education around sustainability and how they can positively uplift Indigenous voices and stories through equally beneficial partnerships.” 

Double-sided bikini bottoms from Liandra Swim. Courtesy of Liandra Swim, 2021.

The streetwear label Aarli by designer and Nyikina woman, TJ Cowlishaw, practices eco-consciousness through upcycling, zero waste and made-to-order garments. TJ’s products are made through the upcycling of remnant textiles or garments, limited-edition deadstock apparel and contemporary urban prints (Aarli, 2021). Here, TJ not only offers a unique aesthetic, but minimises waste going to landfill in the production process. By using laser cutting techniques, TJ can arrange the garment pattern pieces digitally in order to minimise waste when cutting the pieces out. Aarli’s compostable packaging also ensures there is zero waste in the post-consumer stage (Fashion Journal, 2020). Additionally, they have recently switched to a made-to-order model to ensure there is no unsold and wasted stock that goes to landfill. TJ notes, on her eco-conscious practices (2021): 

“I think as next generation fashion designers, it’s our duty to be aware of the many factors – from production elements to fabrication – which all can affect the land, sea and consumer.”

Saltwater Woman Gown: off the shoulder dress made from upcycled sea foam printed neoprene (textile remnants from Zimmerman) featuring hand woven hemp string fishing (textile remnants from Bec and Bridge). Courtesy of Aarli, 2021. 

Overall, these Indigenous designers are encouraging their customers to take better care of their garments and to value them more through informing them on the impact their clothes have on people and the planet. Through their practical, sustainable actions taken in the design process and post-consumer stage, they are ultimately encouraging their customers to consume quality over quantity. As Yatu says (2020) in order for this to be successful:  

“There are probably two angles. One is making sure that consumers know that this [garment] has been [produced] in a way that is sustainable. But it’s also encouraging them to act sustainably in the way that they consume, by connecting them more [closely] to the piece.”

Since Indigenous Australian creatives already have this in the bag, it is definitely worth looking into how Indigenous Australian fashion labels’ deep-rooted sustainability principles can apply to your business model, in regards to the production processes and post-consumer stage. 

At Yarn, we are dedicated to continuing to improve on our environmental impact so the future generations can continue to enjoy and care for beautiful Australia. We have been putting a special focus on becoming plastic-free by using biodegradable product bags and shipping bags. Our NAIDOC 2021 polos are made from 100% recycled post-consumed polyester (made from recycled bottles). The invention of turning waste into new products is a big step in the right direction for environmental sustainability, and we will be continuing to focus on using these kinds of sustainable materials. In fashion production, chemical pollution from inks is also a huge problem. One way that we have begun addressing this issue here at Yarn is through our recently upgraded screen-printing machinery that works with environmentally friendly water-based inks that don’t harm our waterways. 

Walu-ma-rra NAIDOC Adults Unisex Polo. Courtesy of Yarn, 2021.

All our screen-printed tees are AS Colour, a company that is also focused on being ethical and environmentally sustainable. Some of the good things they are doing include responsible sourcing, they are plastic free and are a part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). The BCI is a non-for-profit organisation that exists to improve the livelihoods of farmers and reduce the environmental impacts of cotton production. We are currently increasing our usage of natural fibres through expanding our range of cotton tees, hoodies and bags.