by Alexandra Nicole Nuralam

Niha Elety Talks Style & Cultural Sustainability in Fashion

For sustainable fashion blogger Niha Elety, what started as an art and design blog quickly became a way for her to incorporate heritage and sustainability together, bringing an essential and unique perspective to the climate movement.

Born in the United States and then moving to India when she was 11, Niha saw how different the meaning of sustainability was to the two cultures: “I realised how ingrained sustainability was in [South Asian] cultures. From the accessibility of locally made textiles and fresh food to the flourishing cultural heritage, these systems were much healthier than in the Global North,” she says. “But, unfortunately, many countries like India are still reeling from the effects of colonisation and capitalistic systems. That is what inspired me to advocate through art and design.”

Now, she actively champions sustainable fashion brands and shares ways to incorporate conscious fashion into the everyday to her 24,000 followers on her Instagram. It’s just part of the messaging she delivers daily on her social platforms, which is rooted in one key concept: understanding cultural sustainability at a deeper level.

Ahead, we caught up with Niha to discuss what her sustainable journey has been like, plus her tips for consuming fewer, better beauty products.

What does sustainable fashion mean to you? How did this journey begin for you?

I lived half my life in India and half in the US. 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 fibres like jute, cotton and linen that are native to the region as the product of regenerative agriculture. These fibres are then woven by weavers on a machine or handloom, dyed and printed or embroidered by artisans. Many consumers buy their fabrics and get them stitched by a local tailor, which supports local economies and doesn’t exploit labour. It’s the definition of slow and transparent fashion.

With the rise of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, our relationships with labour 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. 

To me, sustainable fashion means so many things but at its soul, it is about restorative justice for people and the planet—having intimate connections with the process. By restorative justice, I mean reparations to countries in the Global South for waste and outsourcing, which reinforces neocolonialism. It means moving towards localised systems, restoring native fibre farming practices and use of garments, expanding the aesthetics we idolise, and reckoning with the way we value clothing. It means understanding that our ties with land and labour are cut and that we need to cultivate those relationships again.

As an advocate for sustainable fashion and environmental movements, how are you using your platform to amplify the messages you’d like to be heard?

When joining the sustainability space full of advocates and leaders, I noticed that there weren’t many discussions about culture and ancestral knowledge. Since then my goal has been to bring inclusivity and a variety of perspectives from BIPOC creators (the original sustainability leaders) to the environmental movement.

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

How did your love for fashion begin? Were there women in your life who had a deep impact on you discovering your love for fashion?

My grandmother was my biggest fashion guru. She would always be creating something beautiful on her sewing machine with scraps from her old saris.

My mother would also take me to see different exhibitions of local artists and weavers in Hyderabad which taught me about different textiles, weaves and types of embroidery. I loved watching them spin magic with their hands.

How does the city where you live, in addition to your cultural heritage, influence your personal style?

I live between Dallas and Hyderabad and love to take inspiration from both to create a vintage, colourful and earthy style. My style heavily draws from my heritage and the work of weavers and artisans in India. I love experimenting with vintage saris, kurtis and colourful patterns and juxtaposing them with Western styles on my page. I accessorise with flowers and hair jewellery a lot like my grandmother once did.

How do you apply minimalism to your beauty routine and buying habits?

I love keeping my beauty routine minimal with just a few products and using multi-use products to create soft monochromatic looks. I also love reusing and repurposing outfits to create unique looks. It really helps push my creativity; cultivating a personal style transcends time and media influence to create something truly unique to you.

Tell us more about your skincare routine. 

I don’t like to fuss with my skin too much because the more I add, the more irritated my skin becomes. The products in my routine are mostly refillable, low-waste and BIPOC-owned. I start with a simple kale cleanser from Youth to the People, then go in with a vitamin C serum from Soma Ayurvedic, moringa eye cream from Soma Ayurvedic, moisturiser from Upcircle Beauty and finally sunscreen from Live Tinted.

What is your earliest memory of beauty?

Watching my mother take care of her waist-length curly hair. I was always in awe of how she kept her curls so lush and healthy. My mom would sit me down and give me an oil massage on my hair-washing days with amla oil and it always helped with my hair and scalp health.

How has your family or culture influenced your understanding of wellness?

Ayurveda is rooted in my heritage and is important to my family’s wellness. We incorporate the principles of Ayurveda from everything to our hair, skin, beauty and food to create a holistic wellness routine focused on natural ingredients.

You’ve lived in Dallas and Hyderabad, each with its different approach to beauty. Where do you relate to most?

I related more to Hyderabad since I grew up there during my formative years. The approach to beauty here is very low maintenance and focuses on less is more. We use ingredients native to the region and love to line our eyes with kohl and subtle rouge on the lips.

What are your goals for the future? What are you working towards?

In 2022, I am launching Tega Collective, a sustainable fashion enterprise that champions Adivasi communities from India and their textile traditions. With each clothing collection, Tega co-creates with communities by highlighting their traditional colours, patterns and natural symbols.

Tega collaborates with unique artisan partners for capsule collections where a 7% percentage of our proceeds are funnelled back to the communities we work with for each collection to remove the traditional hierarchy of power and profit.

These communities are paid for sharing indigenous knowledge on platforms as a part of reparations. We strive to build healing and enriching relationships with the communities and ecosystems that support it.

What does a better future for fashion look like to you?

Right now brands are focused on the new buzzword like ‘circularity’ with the goal to reduce waste, reuse products as many times as possible and regenerate natural systems. But sustainable fashion is more than just eco-friendly fabrics—it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. We still aren’t talking about these solutions critically enough, they are very isolated and do not think of the rest of the ecosystem, colonial history or the bigger picture.

I am already seeing these different concepts used as marketing to greenwash and tick a box without making real changes or evaluating impacts. This is dangerous because a lot of this waste management will be outsourced to the Global South for cheap extraction and production. The wealth distribution won’t change, these companies will continue to scale and grow profit infinitely.

Sustainability needs to be about acknowledging how colonialism has created the environmental crisis we see today. Countries need to focus on reparations to the Global South and their waste crisis by banning secondhand exports. We need transparency for the full cycle. The supply chain doesn’t stop at the consumer, it continues onto what the brand does after. We need to form connections with our clothing and create systems where weavers and tailors are more accessible. We need to acknowledge these ideas and concepts and take inspiration with credit from such practices.

Niha’s Beauty Picks

Youth To The People Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser, SGD94
Soma Ayurvedic Vitamin C Serum, USD118
Upcircle Beauty Face Moisturiser with Argan Powder, SGD30.50
Live Tinted Hueguard, USD32
Lilah B. Glisten + Glow Skin Illuminator, SGD80
Mango People Multi Stick, USD24
Lilah B. Divine Duo Lip & Cheek, SGD69

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