AAPI Heritage Month: A Celebration of Sustainability in Asian Cultural Practices
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re celebrating sustainability practices and philosophies ingrained in cultures across the Asian continent. Many of our Consciously team members are of Asian descent, and with recent surges in anti-AAPI violence, we’re proud to be celebrating and sharing aspects of our cultures that you may not have previously encountered.
Sustainability has been ingrained in us from a young age, whether that’s consciously or not. It’s not unusual in Asian households to avoid waste of any sort. Many of us share memories of repurposing old food containers as Tupperware or using cookie boxes to store sewing supplies or treasured jewelry. One that will resonate with many fellow Asians is being unable to leave the table until every single morsel of food, down to the very last grain of rice, has been eaten.
In this article, we look at various traditional Japanese, Indian, Bengali, Pakistani, and Thai cultural practices, crafts, attitudes, and understandings that are anchored in sustainability. Not only can we take inspiration from the specific artistry, and maybe try our hand at one or two of them, but we can learn from the philosophy of fundamental respect for material objects and nature that underpins them all.
A disclaimer before we jump in: Asia is not a monolith, it comprises so many wonderful, vibrant, and diverse cultures that it would be impossible to include them all in this article. We’ve selected a small handful of examples, and we’d love for you to share any we’ve missed.
Sustainability in Japanese Culture
THE CONCEPT OF MOTTAINAI
Although there’s no direct equivalent in English, ‘mottainai’ roughly translates to mean ‘what a waste’, and expresses a feeling of guilt or regret over something being wasted. ‘Mottainai’ is much more than just a word though. With roots in Buddhist and Shinto belief systems, it encompasses a whole philosophy founded on respect and gratitude for the innate value of material possessions and natural resources, and the relationship between object and owner.
This mottainai mindset is so embedded in Japanese culture that it’s tangible in a lot of mundane daily activities: being mindful of food waste, repairing and reviving old clothes, repurposing old objects, drawing a single bath for the whole family…the list goes on.
The concept of ‘mottainai’ captures the three conventional R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and extends it further by including the notion of Respect. The added nuance of respect for one’s possessions and surroundings centers an important individual intentionality and value which makes the three Rs more purposeful. And that’s exactly why many environmentalists around the world have adopted mottainai into their vocabulary.
‘Kintsugi’ (literally: ‘golden joinery’ or ‘golden repair’) is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold instead of simply throwing the fragments away. This tradition is anchored in the understanding that breakage does not constitute a failure or a loss, but rather forms a beautiful part of an item’s value and history.
The repaired object with its newly emphasized flaws and imperfection is embraced as an authentically beautiful and resilient object, now with added character. Beyond the striking pieces that kintsugi creates is a joyful celebration of imperfection, one that might serve us well in other areas of life too.
The word ‘boro’ derives from ‘boroboro’, referring to something tattered or repaired. ‘Boro’ is the practice of repairing textiles (bedding or clothes) by piecing, stitching, and patching them together to create something new and extend their usage.
‘Boro’ is the mottainai mindset in practice, originating in the early 19th and 20th centuries as a means of making do within poorer rural communities in Japan. Boro has influenced modern trends of ‘distressed’ fashion, but also just like kintsugi, carries an important message of celebrating imperfection and repair as a joyful and fruitful element of life.
That same sentiment underpins Sashiko, a running stitch that is used to visibly and emphatically repair and reinforce worn or tired fabric.
Sashiko was first borne out of necessity; to strengthen, reinforce, and repair clothing and create warmth by incorporating more layers, but has also flourished as an art form distinguished by its striking white thread on indigo blue fabric.
Sustainability in Indian Culture
PATTAL/PATRAVALI AND BANANA LEAVES
‘Pattal’ or ‘Patravali’ (Sal) and Banana Leaves are an integral part of Indian culture and have been used for years to serve food. ‘Pattal’ or ‘Patravali’ is a plate made from dried leaves stitched together using wooden sticks and is traditionally used to serve meals to guests in the home or at celebrations. These plates are now widely recognized as a natural alternative to single-use plastic and are being adopted by international companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.
In Southern India, and also parts of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the banana leaf is traditionally used to serve and package food. Their naturally waxy texture means they stay fresh for up to a week, and for obvious reasons, they decompose once discarded.
YOGIC PRINCIPLE OF APARIGRAHA
The yogic principle of Aparigraha forms one of Pantanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, which are essentially moral guidelines for life, and is a central teaching in the Bhagavad Gita. Aparigraha is the practice of ‘non-greed’ or ‘non-attachment’ and refers to the notion of detachment from materialistic possession and keeping only what is necessary at certain stages of life.
Aparigraha encourages sustainable, intentional, and minimalistic choice-making so as to refrain from leading a cluttered life.
Sustainability in Pakistani Culture
A kulhar (also known as a kulhad, shikora, and bhar) is a traditional handleless, unpainted, and unglazed clay cup which is commonly used in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Kulhars are actually intended to be single-use, but they trump their plastic counterparts every time. Being made from clay, kulhars can be disposed of without worrying that they’ll be hazardous to wildlife or the surrounding environment.
The beverage served in a kulhar is absorbed by the clay enhancing the flavor with an earthy fragrance. Although in recent years the kulhar has been replaced by single-use plastic, these traditional and eco-friendly cups are making a comeback as sustainability becomes more mainstream.
Sustainability in Bengali Culture
‘Kantha’ which means ‘rags’ in Sanskrit, is a stitching technique that originated in Bangladesh and West Bengal in the 18th-19th century. According to Elle India, Kantha is one of the earliest examples of feminist art, representing a means by which women could express themselves.
Kantha, like Sashiko, uses embroidery and running stitches to join together old saris and soft dhotis, fabrics, and cloths, to make something new. Its principal aim is to preserve, reuse, revitalize, and create riches out of rags.
Sustainability in Thai Culture
PHILOSOPHY OF SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY
Attributed to a speech made by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the 1970s, the philosophy of sufficiency economy encourages a ‘balanced way of living’ underscored by the three principles of moderation, reasonableness, and self-immunity and aided by notions of morality and knowledge.
This philosophy is intended to be applied on both an individual and collective basis, to encourage living within one’s means and coming together to participate in sustainable decision making. At its heart is the notion of drawing on readily available local natural resources.
In the context of rapid globalization and development, King Bhumibol Adulyadej encouraged his country to prioritize stable all-rounded progress as opposed to quick and fast economic prosperity.
From clothing and fabrics to food and philosophy, looking back at our roots for inspiration can lead to some wonderful discoveries. In a world grappling with fast fashion, industrialization, and often unruly consumption, slowing down to cultivate more intentionality in our actions and choices might just be the answer we’ve been looking for.
Lastly, in the context of AAPI heritage month, it also feels both poignant and appropriate to highlight the crucial and long-standing role of non-white folks and cultures within the sustainability space. Conversations around environmentalism and sustainability are often subsumed by white activists, becoming white-washed as a result. We feel a celebration and a reminder of the long-standing sustainable cultural practices of Asian cultures and beyond is long overdue, and this is just the beginning.