Intersections of Art, Activism and Sustainable Fashion with Niha Elety

Intersections of Art, Activism and Sustainable Fashion with Niha Elety

We're excited to share an enlightening interview with Niha Elety: climate activist, sustainable fashion designer, and founder of the innovative sustainable fashion brand Tega Collective.

Niha gives an inside look at what inspired her to become a climate activist using art, design, and heritage to raise awareness. She also discusses Tega Collective's unique partnership model that empowers indigenous artisans by directing profits back into their communities.

Additionally, Niha shares her thoughts on policy changes needed in 2024 to advance ethical fashion and how readers can support her mission. From her passion for reviving ancestral practices to her collaborative design process, Niha provides a wealth of insights on how to drive positive change through sustainable fashion.

Niha Elety with orange dresses by Tega Collective

To begin, we'd love for our readers to get to know you on a more personal level. Could you share a bit about your background - where you grew up, what your interests or hobbies are, what you enjoy doing when you’re not creating beautiful and ethical fashion?

Since my early years, I've been immersed in the realm of visual arts, diving into the world of art and design at the age of 5. The trajectory of my life took a turn at 11 when I moved from the United States to India. This marked a crucial phase where I gained profound insights into sustainability, viewed through the unique lens of South Asian culture. It became apparent how deeply rooted sustainable practices were in our heritage, a stark contrast to the Western approach, where it often felt like an additional and demanding effort. The accessibility of locally crafted textiles, fresh produce, and the thriving cultural heritage in India showcased systems inherently promoting health, standing in stark contrast to what I observed in the Global North. Unfortunately, many nations, including India, continue to grapple with the enduring effects of colonization and capitalistic systems. This realization fueled my determination to advocate for change through the mediums of South Asian art and design.

Throughout my college years, I pursued biomedical engineering, exploring the intersection of science and creativity. However, I craved an artistic outlet and decided to advocate online through Instagram. Initially centered on art and design, I recognized the significance of incorporating my cultural heritage and its profound link to sustainability. This not only became important but also presented an opportunity to contribute unique perspectives to the climate movement.

When I am not speaking about sustainable fashion, I derive joy from various activities such as hiking with friends, indulging in evening tea sessions, attending dance classes or workshops, experimenting with new vegan recipes, and cherishing quality time with close family and friends.

Niha Elety on beach

Between designing and uplifting indigenous craft, running your own business, and climate activism, you wear so many hats! What does your daily routine and self-care look like to rejuvenate, stay balanced, and bring your best energy to the work that matters most? Are there any favorite nourishing rituals, calming activities, or skincare staples that prepare you to keep making positive changes through your climate activism?

Balancing various responsibilities can be a juggling act, but I make a conscious effort to incorporate self-care into my routine. Establishing a sustainable daily routine is key; I prioritize waking up early, dedicating 1.5 hours in the morning to myself to workout and make a wholesome breakfast and tea.

My day kicks off with a 9-5 tech job, and once the workday concludes, I find solace in the evening tea ritual shared with my sister and friends, providing a much-needed decompression from the day's demands. At 6 pm, I shift gears to focus on my activating and business endeavors, often delving into these tasks until 10 pm, punctuated by a dinner break.

To unwind, I indulge in the simple pleasures of a captivating TV show or a cozy book. My commitment to maintaining a healthy balance extends to dedicating ample time to friends and family, serving as a grounding force for my sanity. Engaging in calm and rejuvenating activities like hiking, meditation, and regular workouts further contribute to my overall well-being.

Niha Elety in the garden

Who or what inspired you to become a climate activist who uses fashion, art, and heritage to promote sustainability awareness? What is the personal story behind your activism?

Growing up in both India and the US, I noticed sustainability was practiced and viewed differently in each place. I realized how ingrained sustainability was in South Asia from the local accessible food systems, homegrown textiles, ancestral practices, and perspectives. In India, “sustainable fashion” was just fashion to me 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 natural textiles that use fibers like jute, khadi, and eri silk that are natural to certain regions as products 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. I personally loved this ecosystem of relationships and would cultivate them with my local makers. With the rise of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, our relationships with labor and the planet were cut, and we became dissociated. More and more fast fashion has infiltrated our wardrobes and it is crucial that we continue to support local systems. I started educating people on different regional textiles of India through my Instagram page via body paintings, and I saw so many people excited to learn. That is why South Asian textile and fashion has become a vehicle for self-expression, sustainability, and relationship with my culture.

Nina Elety self care practice

When joining the sustainability space full of advocates and leaders, I noticed that there weren't many discussions about race, culture, and ancestral knowledge. Sustainability is often thought of as a new Western concept that is quantified by CO2 emissions, green technology, or saving endangered species. People forget that BIPOC communities are endangered because their communities are located close to toxic industrial sites and a lack of clean water and healthy food. BIPOC isn’t given credit for being the original sustainability stewards. Indigenous peoples steward 80% of our population but make up only 5% of our planet.

To me, sustainable fashion is a powerful lens to explore the problems in our systems, and that goes deeper than just environmentally friendly fabrics and fair wages. We need to focus the conversation around its effects on black and brown bodies, who hold power, creating localized economies, thinking of fashion as a product of agriculture, focusing on regenerative agriculture, embracing colorful and cultural designs, and reviving/centering indigenous craft and knowledge as the means to move forward.

Niha Elety with group

Can you tell us more about Tega Collective and how this innovative partnership model amplifies indigenous craft while empowering communities? How do you co-create the fashion collections with the Adivasi artisans?

I always knew I wanted to create a brand that was more than just a brand but focused on amplifying communities and their practices.

When I was speaking on a sustainability panel, I came across a group called Adivasi Lives Matter and really resonated with their work amplifying Adivasi youth. A lot of tribes have had their crafts and designs stolen and mass-produced by non-Adivasi people.

A few friends from the Adivasi Lives Matter group knew of Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra, an NGO in Bellary working with Lambani artisans to create products. I thought it would be incredible to collaborate with them and amplify their work, so I reached out and visited the community. They were very excited to collaborate. That is what inspired me to advocate through Tega. We are a fashion collective striving for justice for people and the planet through Adivasi craft and knowledge. Adivasi communities are appropriated for their culture, and as a result, being put out of work for their own crafts. Our collective supports Adivasi craft by communities who it belongs to. We aim to go beyond products and create a system built on reciprocity without hierarchies of power and profit.

Niha Elety at a march

Our first community collaboration is with one of India’s nomadic indigenous communities, the Lambani people. Commonly recognized as "the tribe of wandering grain carriers, the Lambani tribe is known for their colorful clothing, ornamentation, and spice trade.

In a world where Western modernity overflows with neutral tones, the Lambani women ensure their walls and dress are adorned with vibrant colors and do not subscribe to modern-day monochromes and minimalism. Our current fear of pattern and color is due to the pressure to aspire to Western standards of wearability and modernity. For Indigenous communities’ color, pattern, and embroidery are integral to culture, freedom, and self-expression. This idea is what inspired our pieces.

Their involvement was so important in bringing profits for indigenous craft back to themselves. Indigenous work by Indigenous peoples.

Most of our garment creators and artisans are currently in Karnataka. The garment creation, from handloom textile weaving to natural dyeing processes and stitching, takes place in Bangalore with our garment team. Once the garment is semi-stitched, it is sent to Bellary for hand embroidery by our incredible artisan partners, Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra. We wanted to keep our teams as local to the regions as possible.

We chose everyday silhouettes that people were familiar with, like button-down shirts, blouses, hoodies, slacks, and dresses. We wanted everyone beyond the gender binary and a wide range of sizes to feel comfortable wearing our pieces. Then we asked our artisans what colors they loved, and three of them stood out: red, periwinkle, and matcha green. We created these hues with natural dyes like madder root, indigo, and marigold flowers.

For fabrics, we went with indigenous fibers of Khadi, as Lambani people wear, and Eri silk for our airy styles. Both fibers support our local biodiversity.

Niha Elety suit

Our artisan partners and our team collaborated with embroidery designs on each piece to make sure they felt unique and true to them. Overall, it was a slow, intentional, and collaborative process end to end.

We communicated in person and over WhatsApp, especially during covid. I sent them a lot of images, and they were immediately able to translate that into the vision we had. They also showed us ideas they had for embroidery, and we were excited to explore them.

In Dallas, we have Tega’s brand director and me. I am the fashion designer and founder, while our brand director takes care of branding, websites, and marketing. We house our pieces split between Dallas and Bangalore to be able to ship domestically in the US and India and cut down on emissions.

15% of Tega Collective’s profits support the artisan communities directly, and 3% support broader land regeneration efforts. Why was it important to incorporate this profit-sharing/wealth distribution into your efforts from day one? How does it challenge norms?

Integrating profit-sharing into our model has been pivotal since the inception of our mission, which is amplifying and redirecting profits to Adivasi communities. Tega actively engages with unique artisan partners for capsule collections, wherein 15% of our proceeds are reinvested into the communities we collaborate with for each collection. This deliberate approach aims to dismantle traditional hierarchies of power and profit prevalent in the fashion industry.

In contrast to the common practice in fashion brands, where garment workers and artisans are often paid the least and occupy lower hierarchical roles, we sought to revolutionize this model. Our goal was to honor and truly respect the crafts and contributions of the people involved.

A significant portion, 3% of our profits, is dedicated to broader land-back initiatives and the sharing of indigenous knowledge. We believe in reparations and pay our communities for sharing their indigenous knowledge on various platforms. Tega is committed to fostering healing and enriching relationships with the communities and ecosystems that sustain us.

Niha Elety in turquoise

In a recent interview, our artisan partners expressed the positive impact of collaborating with us, highlighting the beauty of the relationship. Through these collaborations, we have gained profound insights into the essence of creation, cultural preservation, and the importance of reciprocal collaboration. The artisans, often gathered in sewing circles outside or against the walls of their homes, weave each piece together as a community. For Tega, fashion transcends the mere creation of a beautiful garment; it embodies the knowledge, practices, and sense of community cultivated throughout the entire process.

You mentioned working with advocacy groups like Remake and Fossil Fuel Fashion Campaign. As part of these coalitions, what policy changes or actions would you like to see in 2024 related to ethical and sustainable fashion?

It has been an amazing experience working with Remake and the Fossil Fuel Fashion Campaign on raising awareness about regulation needed in the fashion industry.

The Fashion Act (S.7428/A.8352) is a crucial act I would like to see implemented in 2024. The fashion industry's massive environmental footprint and lack of regulation demand urgent action. This groundbreaking legislation mandates transparency in supply chains, ensuring fair labor practices and environmental responsibility. Aligning with the Paris Agreement, it tackles the industry's fossil fuel addiction. Embracing circular economy principles and reducing single-use plastics are key steps. Strengthening labor rights and incentivizing sustainable practices are pivotal. This act represents a transformative shift towards a responsible and ethical fashion industry. It's time for tangible change, not just promises.

The FABRIC Act is another act that tackles exploitation by introducing a garment industry registry, joint accountability for brands and retailers, and hourly pay standards. It incentivizes domestic manufacturing with a $40 million support program and a 30% reshoring tax credit. The act is crucial for transforming the industry, fostering transparency, responsible production, and positioning the U.S. as a leader in ethical apparel manufacturing. As a part of Remake’s Fellowship Class of 2024, I will be participating in person by lobbying at city hall in NYC and Washington DC, as well as creating awareness online through campaigns and acts, so stay tuned for actions to take!

Niha Elety with record player

What are some of your major goals related to ethical fashion and sustainability that you are focused on accomplishing in 2024? How can your supporters and our readers best help amplify your mission during this pivotal year?

Through Tega, we want our artisans and communities to be reflected in the collections we create, whether it is visually in the final garment, the process, or aesthetic. Reimagining textiles and crafts to reflect our love for vintage street style and bright patterns will be key in all our collections. With each collection, we also distribute profits back to the communities that we create with to remove the traditional wealth distribution model in fashion. We want to educate our audience about the communities and their practices for each collection through articles, videos, and oral histories. We would love for our supporters to amplify our mission, share our artisanship, and support a small business if they are able to!

Thanks to Niha for sharing her story with us. Follow her at @nihaelety and @tegacollective.

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