News headlines about the fashion industry with the word “Indigenous” in them don’t often presage good news. 

The fashion industry’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples has historically been fraught — but a new initiative aims to reset it.

As the fashion world gathers this week in Copenhagen at the Global Fashion Summit, a newly launched set of principles — informed by Indigenous people and local communities and led by Conservation International, in partnership with industry group Textile Exchange — is showing the industry how to meaningfully work with Indigenous Peoples and local communities while reducing the industry’s impact on them. 

A seat at the table

Let’s start here: Some 370 million Indigenous people are spread across 70 countries worldwide, their lands encompassing an estimated 80 percent of the world’s intact biodiversity. On balance, they have shown to be effective stewards of ecosystems — home to no small amount of the raw materials sought by Western designers, from wool to leather to cotton.

Yet Indigenous Peoples and local communities have long lacked a seat at the table when it comes to corporate sustainability, fashion and business. 

The result: Indigenous and local knowledge not included in corporate sustainability strategies. Indigenous intellectual property not respected. And the fashion industry’s impact on Indigenous Peoples and nature generally overlooked.

The data are unequivocal: A survey of 252 fashion companies by Textile Exchange found that less than 5 percent of them had included Indigenous Peoples in their biodiversity plans. 

Anecdotally, the gap can be visibly apparent: At a 2023 global fashion gathering, according to observers at the event, there was little discussion or representation of Indigenous Peoples and their contributions to the industry. 

This was not necessarily purposeful, according to one expert — a lack of knowledge and experience had a lot to do with it.

“A lot of companies don’t actually know where to even begin to engage with Indigenous Peoples,” said Quinn Manson Buchwald, a citizen of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana and the Manitoba Métis Federation, and director of the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples program at Conservation International. “There has been this really, I’d say, difficult relationship between the two, and so I believe the industry has been nervous to reach out about establishing those relationships and how to do it right.” 

This gap presented an opportunity for Buchwald and colleagues at Conservation International, who began consulting with Indigenous Peoples and organizations to understand and distill their preferences for how the fashion industry could work with them. 

In the process, the impacts of the fashion industry came into focus, Buchwald says, not least regarding the appropriation of Indigenous art and themes.

“We found that the intellectual property issues had impacts on the communities just as much as on the sourcing side and the environmental side,” Buchwald said. “In fact, a lot of Indigenous people and local communities don’t see them as separate issues.”

One of the biggest issues to contend with, Buchwald says, was accountability. 

“They don’t often track their sourcing in their value chains the way that other industries do,” Buchwald said of the fashion industry. “So, in many cases we don’t even know the full scope of the impacts that the industry has on lands and communities.”  

This has started to change, though — in part due to a growing general awareness of the role of nature in value chains. 

“The fashion industry is starting to understand its impact on nature and biodiversity,” said Virginia Borcherdt, senior director for sustainable fashion at Conservation International, who with Buchwald helped drive the creation of the principles. “So it makes sense that as they start implementing these sustainability strategies that they recognize that Indigenous Peoples are these stewards of biodiversity.” 

About the practices

The principles aim to lay out some fundamentals: How should you engage with Indigenous communities? Given the diversity among and within Indigenous groups, what are best practices across the board?

At a glance, many of the principles in the guidelines seem intuitive: Adopt a partnership mindset. Obtain consent. Understand your impact. 

But many of the principles illustrate just how unique — and large — some of the gaps are.

Several guidelines highlight Indigenous conceptions of nature and natural places. One example is a staple of the fashion industry: the on-location photo shoot. The guidelines urge fashion companies to be mindful of the impact of location selections, given that a spot selected for its beauty may hold cultural significance or be ecologically vulnerable, and could be put in further risk of harm if more people seek to visit the location because they saw it in a campaign. 

Naturally, some of the guidelines address Indigenous design, calling for consent and transparency over the use of Indigenous-made designs, as well as pricing structures that enable Indigenous people and local communities to afford to purchase items with their own designs on them. The guidelines also call for avoiding the use of Indigenous designs in cheaply produced fashion, which devalues small Indigenous-led businesses that cannot compete with low-cost manufacturing.

The guidelines also lay the groundwork for investment in Indigenous communities, including providing trainings, resources, and support to equip communities to participate fully in the design, production and marketing of fashion products.

The final draft of the principles was determined and approved by Indigenous people and local community partners. 

The principles are new, Borcherdt says, but the problems they aim to resolve are not. 

“Indigenous fashion isn’t new. Indigenous Peoples in the fashion space isn’t new. Indigenous perspectives and leadership are new within these consistently Eurocentric non-Indigenous spaces where global supply chains are impacting their lives and their community’s lives.”

Bruno Vander Velde is the managing director of content at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.

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