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Five Minute Talks: Niha Elety wants restorative justice for people and the planet


Sustainable fashion advocate and designer Niha Elety might be a source of styling inspiration to the thousands who follow her on Instagram, but her mission goes beyond sharing vibrant, straight-out-of-an-editorial looks: she's here to bring awareness to sustainability in a space where BIPOC creators and activists are still the exception.

In this interview, Niha and I discuss what a sustainable future actually looks like, what the world can learn from South Asia's inherently planet-friendly clothing production culture, and how we, as consumers, can work together towards a brighter (and greener) tomorrow.

How did your passion for sustainable fashion (and fashion in general) begin?

I lived half my life in India and half in the US studying, and being surrounded by art and design made me crave a life of creative pursuits. While living in India, “sustainable fashion” to me was just fashion because the production of textiles was inherently sustainable. Most consumers are aware of and participate in the process of creating their garments. India has a massive variety of regional textiles that use fibers like jute, cotton, linen etc that are native to the region as the product of regenerative agriculture. These fibers are then woven by weavers on a machine or handloom and dyed and printed/embroidered by artisans. Many consumers buy their fabrics and get them stitched by a local tailor, which supports local economies and doesn’t exploit labor. The definition of slow and transparent fashion. With the rise of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, our relationships with labor and the planet were cut and we became dissociated.

Growing up surrounded by rich South Asian textiles, fashion was a vehicle for not only self expression but a relationship with my culture as well. I grew up reusing pieces until they fell apart and making sure I knew my local tailors, weavers and artisans. In few words I would say my style is nostalgic, colorful and earthy. I heavily draw from my heritage and the work of weavers and artisans in India. I love experimenting with vintage saris, kurtis and colorful patterns and juxtaposing them with western styles on my page. I accessorize with flowers and hair jewelry a lot, like my grandmother once did.

One of your main goals as an activist and creative is to bring more inclusivity and a plethora of perspectives into the environmental sustainability space, which is predominantly white. Why are culture and ancestral knowledge so integral to sustainability discussions?

These conversations are integral to creating a sustainable future for everyone because BIPOC ancestry and culture is rooted in sustainability. A lot of narratives pushed in the traditional environmental sphere are still focused on point solutions or colonial mindsets which is how we got into this mess in the first place. BIPOC peoples are also the most affected in the fashion space with unlivable pay and working conditions so they need to be at the forefront of these solutions. Many BIPOC creatives like myself are dismissed and our solutions are thought of as “impractical” in places like COP26 even though they are tried and true in our own countries. We need our voices amplified and acknowledged in this industry and until we do that we won’t reach healing.

Today and forward I actively work to bring these conversations to the forefront as a topic leader for Intersectional Environmentalist and speaker on intersectional environmentalism. I amplify different organizations, people and thoughts that need to be at the forefront through art and fashion.

What does the future of sustainable fashion look like to you, and how can we, as consumers, work towards it?

To me sustainable fashion means so many things but at its soul it is about restorative justice for people and the planet. By restorative justice I mean reparations to countries in the global south for waste and outsourcing which reinforces neocolonialism. It means moving towards localized systems, restoring native fiber farming practices and use of garments, expanding the aesthetics we idolize, and reckoning with the way we value clothing. We must reimagine wealth distribution in fashion labels and brands to be more equitable.

On a personal level our relationships with land and labor have been cut by corporations and we need to cultivate them again. I focus on creating intimate connections with the clothing process to start understanding all that goes into creating one garment, from the fibers to the appliqués.

 

Tell us a little bit about Tega Collective. How did it begin and what is your mission?

In the next two months I am launching Tega Collective, a sustainable fashion enterprise that champions Adivasi communities from India and their textile traditions. It began with my goal to champion Indigenous communities in India that are still getting their lands, crafts and knowledge stolen. With each clothing collection Tega co-creates with communities by highlighting their traditional colors, patterns and natural symbols.

Tega collaborates with unique artisan partners on capsule collections where 15% of our proceeds are funnelled back to the communities we work with, to remove traditional hierarchy of power and profit. We want Tega to not just be a brand but to be a knowledge hub for indigenous communities to share oral histories, folklore and traditions. Communities are paid for sharing indigenous knowledge on our platform as a part of reparations. Tega strives to build healing and enriching relationships with the communities and ecosystems that it supports.

For the readers who might want to become sustainable fashion activists themselves, how can one begin to do the work in their community, after changing personal shopping habits?

The most important step is to repair your relationship with the land and labor. Once you strengthen that relationship you will be able to understand that sustainability is not a one size fits all thing and that our earth and people need care and healing. A few ways you can give back more than you take is:

  • Use what you already have to end of life.
  • Mend, repair, swap and repurpose items to give them a new life.
  • Food sovereignty is so important so make a connection with agriculture and learn how to grow your own food, it teaches you how much goes into it and makes you more resilient in situations like our current pandemic.
  • Get involved in your community by exploring local fashion labels and supply chains.
  • Decentralized, place-based solutions are the most resilient for our planet and people whether it is farming, electricity, fashion etc.
  • Look into your heritage and what your parents/ancestors have done for years. Make an effort to learn and practice their sustainable lifestyles.

And finally, the tough question I ask everyone: what's your favorite item from your closet at the moment?

Right now it is this beautiful embroidered periwinkle half sleeve button down from Tega Collective's first collection. I am so excited for people to see it and be able to support!


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