Jugaad- makeshift/ make do- traditional approaches to recycling

This post originally came out of a series of small connections in the course of fieldwork. However after originally posting it in January many more perspectives on the concept of “jugaad” emerged in the course of conversations and interviews exciting some quite passionate views. It would seem that “Jugaad technology”- and many inventive forms of thrift, sharing, reuse and refashioning can be found in peoples clothing practices. This is therefore a reposting and since I will be mentioning jugaad to more people over the next few weeks, I don’t rule out further revisions as we hammer out the multiple meanings and potential interpretations of jugaad for issues of sustainability!

Sahdev talks about aspects of jugaad- reuse and refashioning

Sustainable fashion depends upon a re-evaluation of the impacts of clothing supply chains upon toxic pollution, use of energy, water consumption, effects on bio-diversity and contribution to climate change at every stage of the product life-cycle: cultivation/ production; use and as post consumer waste. Yet sustainable fashion not only demands a re-evaluation of the modes, speed and scale of textile production, but also a reassessment of the ways in which consumers use and discard clothes. In addition much can be learnt from the creative and adaptive ways in which individuals refashion, share, treasure and reuse clothes amongst other practices falling within the rubric of what sustainable fashion expert Kate Fletcher calls the “user -maker”  (Kate Fletcher, 2008, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys, p. 185). Following on from this, the concept of zero waste, undergirds the sustainability mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle and can be integrated into all phases of the product life-cycle through well thought through design. However, such processes need to speak to the ways in which people, communities and the environment are mutually constituted by the material culture around them.

Delhi like any other city has a plastic bag problem; in fact Delhi’s government has banned plastic bags, although this is hard to enforce and they are still widely available. Going to buy eggs the other day from the little corner shop by my flat in South Delhi, I was struck by the beautiful paper bag, into which the eggs were carefully put. Neat, curlicues of writing and what appeared to be elongated flowers in blue ink covered the surface of the bag. On closer inspection it turned out to be someone’s old science homework, recycled into small paper bags. It was somehow so beautiful, the flowers (in actuality overlapping atomic orbitals) rendering the eggs inside into delicate sculptural jewels. These kinds of bags, made from old newspaper, magazines -and sometimes old school homework-  are what groceries, medicine and other shopping is often wrapped in at the countless small, independent shops that line city streets. They are part of a culture of recycling as a form of thrift, deeply embedded in Indian society.

Chatting to a friend one day- a professional product designer-he noted that the contemporary concept of recycling has an older, more traditional equivalent in Indian culture- he calls this by the Hindi word “jugaad”. Translated, it means “makeshift” or “make-do”; I have also heard it equated with “creative improvisation”. Many traditional artisanal crafts incorporate elements of jugaad, for example the straight “kantha” stitch now often seen decorating stylish shervanis or dresses in Delhi’s boutiques, has its origins in the practice of recycling worn saris by stitching them together to make quilted bed covers. 

Whilst on a domestic flight recently, I was especially struck by the sight of a bag seemingly made from recycled newspaper on the food trolley, was this jugaad in the air? I bought the packet- containing two fresh samosas- for a closer look. Airplane street foodBearing the legend “Chandni Chowk to the sky” (Chandni Chowk is an old part of Delhi famous for its teeming bazaars and street food), the bag was actually printed to look like recycled newspaper (much like the fake newsprint that serves as a brilliant exercise in nostalgia to wrap fish and chips at UK seaside resorts). What seemed to jar with the pretend recycled newspaper bag provided by the airline, was their inflight brochure declaring that, following the ban on plastic bags in many cities, said airline now “..bans them from the skies!”. This contradiction, between banning plastic bags yet using chemically treated paper from virgin sources to fake a recycled bag seemed to illustrate the problem with approaches to recycling more generally; where the zero waste principles of reduce, reuse and recycle often become relegated to fairly meaningless declarations of good intent, and token practices. Think “I’m not a plastic bag” bag packaged in plastic bags for another example of this kind of skewed logic. Whilst mass consumption grows exponentially in India, cars cause impossible congestion and pollution, rubbish lined streets and rivers clog urban landscapes and cheap mass produced goods dominate. Yet in many homes- well-off and middle class included- care is taken to conserve energy and other resources. In poor communities jugaad becomes a matter of survival, one way it is described is to make the impossible possible- engines will be attached by dexterous mechanics to old carts to create vital transport, or food such as chiles are preserved by drying on every available surface (including the roof of a stationary rickshaw). In this way, the traditional practices of jugaad, grounded in values of thrift, domestic provisioning and care of loved ones would appear to offer much in terms of the concept of zero waste.

On the other hand a growing turn toward mass brand consumption may create a distaste for jugaad, which may become equated with being poor or unfashionable. Not least, whilst some talk of jugaad in positive terms, others may feel it has negative connotations. One friend I speak to explains is at a form of “laziness” -using the Hindi expression “Chalta hai” or “it will do”.  For some commentators on Indian society, the Chalta hai approach is indicative of moral and social erosion. In another discussion with the director of an amazing waste recycling initiative she baulks at the idea that jugaad may in some way inform what they do. The idea that jugaad represents a positive kind of innovative, indigenous technology is for her untenable. Instead she compares the “it will do” approach to the precision and perfectionism of German engineering, asing the pertinent question, why cant this kind of exacting approach be encouraged and  celebrated as Indian? On the other hand the notion of “Jugaad technology” is analysed by some business experts and academics as a form of extremely creative and adaptive informal economy engineering. Of course, it’s all about context and necessity, and indeed it would be as unwise to romanticise jugaad as to completely dismiss it.

Focusing in on how jugaad can relate to fashion practices I speak to yet another friend who notes that if one wants the latest designer denim jacket, then going and buying a regular one and getting a tailor to refashion it to look like the brand version is a form of jugaad, as is the fact that he prizes and wears his father’s old Woodland boots and a beautiful tailored suit bought in the 1950s. He cautions that jugaad isnt a question of environmental sustainability for people, they do it because they need or want to save money or may have no other available option.

Whilst, therefore it would be misguided to romanticise jugaad, and therefore unwittingly celebrate the poverty that is at the heart of many approaches to jugaad where something is reused or refashioned because it is a matter of survival and a lack of resources and training to invest in research and design development; nevertheless it can be argued that there are lessons to be learnt from the creative ways of adapting machinery or clothing to creatively reinterpret material things for both practical and expressive purpose by  the thrifty reuse of materials…especially where this has ramifications for lessening the use of virgin sources at the same time-saving money and even creating livelihoods.

How then, can these these traditional values of creative adaptation and thrifty reuse be harnessed to begin to address pressing questions of the effects of consumption on resource depletion, bio-diversity and climate change? Recasting practices of jugaad in light of contemporary environmental issues is one such way, and many social entrepreneurs are marrying recycling with micro-enterprise for sustainable livelihoods in order to create desirable products for high-value added markets.  Another way is to connect jugaad with creative forms of expression such as the refashioning of clothing. Whether recast or reinterpreted to make value out of waste whilst providing sustainable livelihoods or translated into personal practices of thrift and creativity, jugaad as both practice and concept seems to provoke useful debate and reflection in terms of local understandings of cycles of value and ethical consumption.

(Thanks to Ships and Rahul for introducing me to the concept of jugaad!)

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