Green politics left behind by Indonesian fashion industry

As Indonesia grows into a global textile powerhouse, the nation must grapple with the environmental consequences of its economic output. Photograph: Artificial Photography.

The growing movement in opposition to fast-fashion poses a significant hurdle for the Indonesian textile industry, which is both an economic jewel and an environmental nightmare for the nation

The fashion industry, particularly textile production, is of great economic importance to Indonesia, where it employs over 2.5 million people and produces over $18 billion annually in exports alone.

But while the industry’s growth poses a significant opportunity for the nation, environmental and labour concerns embody a growing trend away from fast-fashion.  

The term fast-fashion has arisen in recent years to define inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, usually in response to trends.  

Where fashion has historically revolved around four annual “seasons” for production, fast-fashion retailers like Zara and H&M produce 52 seasons a year – one every week.  

Consequentially, nations in the Global South have become the world’s primary textile producers and the fashion industry has become the second-largest contributor to global pollution.

Carla Van Lunn, a sessional academic at the Queensland University of Technology School of Design, specialises in Indonesia and fast fashion and laments the rise of cheap, disposable production cycles.  

‘Fast-fashion and our global corporate capitalist system is not a local problem,’ Van Lunn says.

‘This is a collective human decision about how we want to live and how much we want to pollute our world.

‘It’s not an Indonesia-specific issue.

‘Humans and the living world have lived in a sea of pollution for a long time.’

Indonesia’s Citarum River is considered one of the most polluted in the world, and textile factories on its banks dump chemicals like lead, mercury, and arsenic into the water, causing severe health problems to arise in the local population dependent on the river.  

A 2020 report by Greenpeace International found that the Citarum River will even ‘burn human skin in direct contact with the flow and will have a severe and fatal impact on aquatic life around the [textile factories] disposal area.’ 

But this seemingly unsustainable reality exists in opposition to the Indonesian Government’s bid to become the world’s Muslim fashion capital, a goal that has empowered Muslim women in the nation to enter the workforce as designers.

‘Unlike Australia, Indonesia has more nationalistic policies around the importing and sale of international products, so native Indonesian fashion and textiles are more protected,’ Van Lunn says.  

‘In terms of scale and revenue, it blows Australia’s industry out of the water.  

‘There is a lot of local production for international and Indonesian apparel brands.  

‘Indonesia has a long history of textile creation, and today a large population with a large labour force and consumer market … [and] also a lot of corporate and government support for Indonesia’s textile and fashion industry.’

With consumer awareness of the costs of fast-fashion on the rise in recent years, Indonesian textile producers face a PR challenge as well as an environmental one.  

Eristia Paramita, a researcher in the field of green economics at the Satya Wacana Christian University, sees a return to traditional, natural dye in Indonesian textiles as a sign of positive change in the industry.  

‘It is important for Indonesian fashion brands to continuously develop their sustainable initiatives as well as openly communicating and validating their practices to the public to inform about the values,’ Paramita says.  

‘Sustainable fashion is an integrated and holistic concept that involves everyone within the whole supply chain to work together towards conscious and responsible fashion production and consumption for sustainable futures.’

But Van Lunn believes Indonesian companies could potentially maintain an economic edge even after cleaning up their production.  

‘I think they should follow the example of Italy and brand their national craftsmanship and textile/fashion industry with a sense of heritage, luxury, prestige,” she suggests.  

‘Slow and beautiful Indonesian textiles and fashion should lead the way, with a higher price point.  

‘I encourage the Indonesian designers I work with to recognise their native sustainable fashion – natural plant dyes, organic fibres, and hand-crafting.  

‘Indonesia has more to teach the West than we have to teach Indonesians – it is a very spiritual country with a great connection to culture.’ 

In the meantime, the Indonesian Government continues to grapple with major environmental upheaval due to climate change and pollution. 

The fast-fashion industry has devastating environmental ramifications. Infographic: Tom Loudon/Canva Pro.



Tom Loudon
Tom Loudon

Tom (he/him) is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer and the Editor in Chief at Glass Media. He has a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts (Creative Writing) and is currently studying Communications (Journalism) at QUT.

Articles: 75

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