Many of us are looking for our own ways to have a positive effect on the environment. One of the most accessible approaches is to reduce waste from our daily life by getting more use out of the things we buy and avoiding products that are discarded after only a few uses. Some fashion companies are taking notice of this consumer trend and taking old or discarded items of clothing and repurposing them as new and stylish goods. Here in Japan, a few designers have started looking at ways to breathe new life into old traditional garments like kimono.

The high-quality fabric and color designs of kimono make them well-suited for upcycling

At a recent English-language roundtable, “Sustainability with Ross Rowbury” the Japanese philosophy of mottainai (waste not) was highlighted. The event introduced Haruka Sugihara, a Japanese-Belgian entrepreneur who was inspired by the traditional Japanese fabrics and the movement towards a sustainable future for fashion to launch her own contemporary fashion brand, RE:MONO. Ms. Sugihara was raised in Belgium and when she moved to Japan in her 20s she was passionate about reconnecting to her Japanese roots. Additionally, being the granddaughter of Sugihara Chiune, a Japanese diplomat who risked his job to create over 2,000 illegal visas to help Jews escape the Holocaust, Sugihara may have felt a drive to represent her family history and to improve the world.

According to Sugihara, while the fashion industry originated the idea of a cycle of trends (Spring, Autumn, Summer and Winter Collections) it was the younger generations who became heavily invested in fast fashion trends which propelled consumer behavior beyond the seasonal collections cycle. For Sugihara, the biggest issue is that many of these fast fashion items end up in landfills, indeed she highlights that the fashion industry is the 4th largest contributor to global landfills. Roundtable moderator Rowbury also noted that “it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt,” as such the environmental impact of the fashion sector and, more specifically of the fabric and textile industries, is undeniable.

A bold alternative to buying new clothes

Sugihara said that even more interesting than recycling clothes (which may still end up in landfills) is the idea of upcycling. As fashion trends from the past always come back, it is possible to reuse fabrics and clothing items to fit new trends. This is why she launched RE:MONO, to bring awareness to both upcycling and the history of the traditional Japanese kimono whilst creating innovative and modern designs.

Haruka Sugihara shares some of her fashion designs using upcycled kimono

RE:MONO is not the only brand working to upcycle Japanese kimono and there has been an increasing trend of sustainable fashion brands which has only been amplified since the COVID-19 Pandemic, both in Japan and across the globe. At the onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic, Japanese craftsmen re-used kimono fabrics and even tatami mat scraps to create face masks in response to shortages of their fellow countrymen. These acts play on the Japanese spirit of mottainai.

Mottainai philosophy

The term in Japanese conveys a sense of regret over waste; the exclamation "mottainai!" can translate as "What a waste!". From the spiritual perspective, mottainai is directly tied to the Buddhist concept of regret over squandering or misusing material objects or other resources. Increasingly the Japanese term has been used by environmentalists. Most notable is Wangari Maathai, famous Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who introduced the term at a United Nations session as a slogan for environmental protection, while effectively using limited resources.

With the upcoming COP26 Climate conference in Glasgow, the world could certainly benefit from revisiting the spirit of Mottainai which continues to inspire activists and entrepreneurs like Maathai and Sugihara.

Watch the full roundtable here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=by-r8mbqNuc

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