Mar 04, 2024

Can India’s traditional crafts inspire sustainable choices?

Aakriti Khurania, PGDM 2023-25  

Sustainable living is about making choices today that positively impact the planet tomorrow. We make these choices every day, consciously or subconsciously. The kind of products we buy, how we consume them, how we dispose of them, and how often we replace them are some of the choices we make that directly or indirectly affect the planet and people around us. This blog delves deeper into the intricate connection between India’s traditional handicrafts and the principles of sustainable living.

Indian crafts: Local and handmade

While everyone is talking about sustainability, with huge investments in renewable energy, the race to net zero, and global initiatives, India’s rich handicraft heritage offers valuable inspiration for integrating sustainable practices into our daily lives. It’s interesting to know that ‘upcycling’, ‘recycling’, ‘slow-fashion’, ‘responsible sourcing’, etc., were practical aspects of daily life in ancient times rather than being more of a conference agenda than they are today. For example, handloom weaving techniques like Kancheepuram and Ikat sarees employ locally sourced degradable dyes,1 and metal crafts like Bidriware from Karnataka or Dhokra from West Bengal involve intricate metalwork2. These crafts primarily use recycled or upcycled materials. Chikankari of Lucknow or Kutch embroidery of Gujarat showcases meticulous craftsmanship with an emphasis on quality over quantity, which aligns with the principles of slow fashion and encourages sustainable and durable clothing3. We need to revisit the past to make sustainable choices in the present.

The contrast between Indian handicrafts from the past and contemporary mass-produced items provides an intriguing comparison.

  • Products of the past: The Indian handicrafts were manufactured by artisans, wherein the entire family was involved in the designing, developing, and manufacturing process. The products were economically sustainable as they provided livelihoods to the community involved. Note that they were directly producing a high-value product and were not responsible for just one stage of the process. They were produced ‘not for the mass’ but ‘by the mass’. These products were high in functional value. A mere aesthetic value was never the focus, be it tangible products or a daily practice. These intricately designed products were long-lasting. For example, the kolam, a decorative art made using rice flour at the house entrance, had the purpose of feeding ants, highlighting the value of serving the wider ecosystem4. There is no need to mention that the products were made from natural, locally sourced, and degradable materials. Hence, the handicrafts of the past were functional, aesthetically appealing, and economically and environmentally sustainable.
  • Products of the present: The mass-produced items of today engage the community in the form of hourly wagers who are involved in low-value steps of the manufacturing process. Materials like plastic, polyester, and synthetic dyes are hazardous to the planet and life forms. Hence, economic and environmental sustainability are challenged. The availability at a cheap price leads to multiple purchases and an increased volume of waste.

The challenges and dominant mindset

The question is: why can’t we look at the past and adopt select practices from it that make sense even today? In the Indian context, the past provides us with the lessons of local, natural, degradable, reusing, and community-led. These are integral to sustainable living even today.

Despite nations promoting large-scale sustainability initiatives, the reluctance at an individual level to adopt and follow sustainable measures is still one of the biggest challenges we are grappling with. Without making responsible choices at the individual level, we risk not creating a sustainable environment for future generations. Therefore, fostering a sustainable mindset is equally important. It starts with not ordering disposable cutlery from commerce and instead putting effort into using regular utensils and washing them post-use. Or buying from a local store rather than placing an order from an e-commerce platform for the items locally available. Embracing a sustainable mindset is about recognising that the short-term comfort offered by single-use products and packaging is outweighed by the long-term harm these choices inflict on the planet. It is about taking into account the extra packaging material and transportation effort that went into getting the same thing online as from a local store.

While the scarcity of handmade local products is a concern, the central question is whether our lifestyle choices align with the sustainability values upheld by traditional crafts. Are the behavioural shifts moving us towards sustainable choices, or are we increasingly leaning towards fast fashion and disposable products—essentially, choices that deviate from the essence of Indian crafts?

The economic impact and initiatives

The often-raised argument regarding the price disparity between handmade sustainable products and cheap mass-produced products can be viewed through a different lens. One, the indirect cost of dealing with the non-biodegradable waste produced from cheap mass-produced products is a significant burden, and unfortunately, it does not get captured in the unit economics of so-called cheaper products. Second, the crafts sector stands as the second-largest source of employment after agriculture in India and employs more than seven million households. The loss of livelihood to artisans with the advent of industrialisation has been massive. Many of them, previously producing high-value products, consequently became a part of the mechanised workforce. Despite the significant contribution of the manufacturing sector to overall workforce employment, its contribution to the GDP is disproportionately low and, hence, concerning. The focus on inclusive production, which is production-by-the-masses, i.e., the artisans, in this case, is important. Revitalising lost crafts and preserving existing ones through skill development initiatives becomes crucial. It not only supports the creation of high-value products but also serves as a vital step in structurally transforming India from a consumption-driven economy to a manufacturing-led economy.

An interesting initiative taken by the government in this regard is setting up craft villages5. Craft Village thrives on the principle that tourism and traditional craft are intertwined. Under this initiative, an ecosystem to employ traditional practices is provided to artisans native to the place. They work, produce, and sell at the same place. The tourists engage with the community and buy locally produced, authentic products. This hyperlocal model generates employment for the artisans and ensures that the products are exceptionally eco-friendly. So far, only eight craft villages have been sanctioned under the scheme. But we surely need more of it.

Adoption areas and routine implications

We talked about how the ethos of Indian crafts is aligned with sustainability and how to adopt it at the individual level. The same can be extended to broader societal applications. For example, in buildings, ancient Indian architecture deployed organic raw materials that were energy efficient and stood the test of time. The design had natural ventilation methods like courtyards and strategically positioned windows, which decreased the reliance on artificial cooling systems.

Not only that, engaging local skills in the process brings in a sense of ownership and empowers people, making them feel like they belong. Today, we are losing this soft power or the social value that old processes used to offer as modern processes become increasingly mechanised. Many MSMEs in Gujarat manufacture earthen water bottles and refrigerators6; Germany-based Leaf Republic Limited produces plates and bowls made from banana leaves7; and these are the practices that were already devised in ancient India.

The magnitude of future challenges, the hidden costs of not adopting sustainable practices today, and the inspiration from our heritage underscore the critical importance of making sustainable choices today. In embracing sustainable practices inspired by India’s rich heritage, we find a blueprint for making wise choices today, fostering a collective mindset towards sustainability. By weaving traditional craftsmanship into our daily lives, from handmade products to eco-friendly architecture, we pave the way for a sustainable future.

A step towards sustainability could be as simple as

  • Replacing a plastic toothbrush, which can take up to 500 years to degrade, with a bamboo or neem toothbrush.
  • Prefer slow-fashion, degradable clothing over mass-produced polyester.
  • Proudly using fabric cutouts and jute rather than having to buy plastic decorative items from the market.
  • Replacing plastic utensils with leaf-based alternatives.
  • Buying wooden toys for kids rather than plastic ones that prevent them from ingesting hazardous microplastics.

Aligning our actions with the essence of Indian crafts makes us more conscious users of the resources, a non-negotiable stance in these challenging times.

1. E. N. S., & E. N. S. (2022, August 12). Natural dye for handloom silk: Tiruppur teacher to apply for patent. The New Indian Express.

2. Gangurde, K. (n.d.). How To Create Complementary Products Around Technology Products Using Handicrafts And Handmade Processes. | Rural Handmade-Redefine Supply to Build Sustainable Brands.

3. Sustainable Chikankari Art in Contemporary Indian Fashion Industry: An Observation. (2017, September). International Journal of Advance Research in Science and Engineering, 6(09).

4. C. (2022, March 26). Kolam, Beyond the Aesthetics. Center for Soft Power.

5. Craft Village. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2024, from

6. S, L. P. (2018, April 2). New-Age Matka: This Man’s Innovation Is a Great Alternative to Plastic Bottles. The Better India.

7. S. J., & S. J. (2017, March 13). This German Company Is Bringing India’s Leaf Plates To The World. Homegrown.

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