For these Indigenous brands, sustainability is not a trend
A relationship to the land and duty to next generations means the commitment to ethical practices runs deep
If you understand that any effort toward climate justice must prioritize Indigenous leadership, why would sustainability in the fashion and beauty industries be any different? As we see the rise of sustainable brands and corporate missions to lower carbon footprints, look also to these five Indigenous business owners who are leading the way to a more ethical and sustainable future. They represent diversity in Indigeneity itself, and with different ways of putting sustainability into practice, these brands show what it takes to commit to responsible design.
Cheekbone Beauty: The makeup mogul
Cheekbone Beauty, founded in 2016 by Jennifer Harper (Anishinaabe), is known for its commitment to sustainable beauty products. While many would-be entrepreneurs may be discouraged by the oversaturation in the fashion and beauty markets, Harper saw a missing voice. "Cheekbone Beauty knew the world didn't need another beauty brand to exist," she wrote. "It did need a brand focused on Indigenous representation, offering products that are safe, and [that] understood raw ingredients and ethical sourcing. The next area was looking at new sustainable packaging options."
In creating its Sustain line, Cheekbone Beauty is aiming for zero waste by 2023, ensuring its packaging is compostable, reusable, recyclable, biodegradable and even plantable in some cases. "We spent the last three years in research and have started to create products with [the] idea of using less," said Harper. "Our first product was our Sustain lipstick — no additional boxing, making sure all the important information was on the biodegradable paper tube."
Many Indigenous teachings are centred around having a harmonious relationship with the Earth and all living things, and Cheekbone Beauty incorporates those teachings into its business practices. "This is a journey," Harper said. "We see the need for new, better innovation, and technology is changing all the time. It comes at greater cost, but this is our Indigenous responsibility to the land."
Tania Larsson: The land-based designer
In acknowledging our inherent stewardship of the land, Tania Larsson (Gwich'in) combines traditional teachings with contemporary design. Using materials directly from the lands of the Canadian Arctic and splitting her time between moosehide-tanning camps and the drawing table, the concept of no waste is built into her design process. "When you see the elements and the land as alive, with their spirits watching over you, that sense of responsibility is so much deeper," wrote Larsson. "When I cut the moosehide that I smoke-tanned to make adornments, all of the extra bits that most fashion industries would throw out, I salvage and create smaller designs with it."
Larsson's line is naturally unique, and her jewelry runs, limited edition. "All the animal byproducts I use are from subsistence hunting, and I use whatever is left over to create tools, jewelry and hides. I decided to only use metals that can be recycled like gold, silver and copper. I now only use vintage and antique glass beads that are dead stock [product a company is unable to sell]."
With this particular process has come the need for transparency and education — key to combating the consumer's expectation to receive goods almost immediately. "Educating my clients about my process, the materials, the work, the time it takes to create these adornments is a big part of my communication," Larsson said. "I didn't realize that speaking your truth and education would be such a huge part of my work. I didn't realize that thinking differently, doing things differently and constantly challenging the status quo would lead me to where I am today."
Urban Native Era: The content creators
While many Indigenous designers work at the intersection of education and aesthetics, Urban Native Era makes its voice known in a five-word slogan: You are on Native land. Founded by Joey Montoya (Lipan Apache) in 2012 to spread awareness about Indigenous issues and social movements through clothing, the brand's mission is not only to increase the visibility of Indigenous life, but to commit to eco-conscious production practices too. "I had to really think, how can Urban Native Era begin to make this slow shift to become more eco-friendly even as a small business?" Montoya wrote. "It is not an easy shift to make because the [cost] of producing eco-friendly clothes is much higher. But I believe that every brand, artist or individual can slowly shift their mindset to make small or big changes to where they are getting their resources from."
Urban Native Era continues to hold itself accountable in its journey toward more sustainable practices. Last year the team hired sustainability lead and warehouse manager Chantel Ricks, whom creative director Hud Oberly (Osage, Caddo and Comanche) already credits with helping them reach those goals. "[She] has done a tremendous job completely transforming warehouse processes to be more eco-conscious," he said by email.
The brand recently launched its Sovereign collection, combining luxury and responsible design. "This collection itself is a first of its kind for Urban Native Era, where we used bamboo cotton, recycled-paper buttons, and [it] was sourced and made in Los Angeles," said Montoya.
Ginew: Built to last
Ginew's apparel line runs contrary to fast fashion: its garments are meant to be passed down through generations. And as one of the few Indigenous-owned denim brands, the company sources premium American-made materials — like selvage denim, wax canvas and Pendleton wool — for its collections.
Husband-and-wife team Erik Brodt (Ojibwe) and Amanda Bruegl (Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican) run their label with the utmost gratitude while fostering the talents of the larger Indigenous community. "There is a huge difference between market [and] commodity economic practices and gift economic practices. When everything — life, time, relationships, objects etc. — are approached as gifts, they are inherently more precious," they point out. "If one adheres more to these practices [and] philosophies, which are central to our tribal communities, there is a propensity towards sustainability. Only what you need is utilized, no more, no less."
Ginew has an eye on every aspect of its supply chain, from visiting the sheep whose wool is sheared to walking the fields where its cotton is grown. While this level of detail and care can come at a cost, the Ginew team sees ethical and sustainable production as all-important. "We see the costs to the Earth, places, beings and humans as too great, too high, too costly to do things any other way," they said.
The brand seeks to elevate Indigenous visibility across all avenues of its work, fostering Indigenous talent through collaborations and staffing, and create sustainable fashion while ensuring the future of their communities. "Ginew is a tiny brand, [but] we'd like to think it is possible for us to make a larger and broader impact," they said.
Brass Arrow: The upcycler
Quality design and manufacturing are pivotal to sustainable design. But what happens when durable items have become outdated? That's where upcycling comes in. Noel Bennetto (Chiricahua Apache), who founded Brass Arrow, sees opportunity and inspiration in vintage and discarded clothing. "There is already so much clothing that we can work with, whether by buying vintage, upcycling fabrics and articles to give new life to them, [or] mending what we already own," she said via email.
Using printmaking, hand-dyeing and painting, Bennetto transforms each item into a collectible one-of-a-kind piece. Inclusivity and empowerment are also a particular focus of Brass Arrow, as Bennetto uses her social media platform to amplify Indigenous movements and advocate for Indigenous people and QT2SPOC (queer, trans and two-spirit people of colour). "I donate portions of my sales to different BIPOC organizations, especially centred around environmental protection, and often make pieces that I use to directly inform people of issues through the imagery used as well as written descriptions," she said.
Taking the climate crisis seriously, Brass Arrow seeks to eliminate waste by using old materials. This sense of preservation is realized in all aspects of Bennetto's work, be it in fashion or in culture.
"I don't want to speak for all Indigenous peoples or to generalize, but I think a lot of Indigenous cultures have Earth-centred values, and that is reflected in the choices that Indigenous designers make," said Bennetto. "For myself, I know that my culture and those that I came into community with through powwows, activism, protests and other gatherings, really hold the stewardship and protection of nature as a primary ethic.... It affects my choices, from imagery to materials used through to shipping."
Korina Emmerich (Puyallup) is a designer, writer and artist based in New York City. She is the founder of the ethical slow-fashion label Emme Studio, a community organizer in the Indigenous Kinship Collective, and serves on the board of directors for the Slow Factory Foundation.