The Japanese Concept of ‘Mottainai’ Teaches Valuable Lessons on Slow Fashion and Waste Avoidance

The Japanese Concept of ‘Mottainai’ Teaches Valuable Lessons on Slow Fashion and Waste Avoidance

For years, I’ve been obsessed with traditional and modern Japanese textiles. When I finally travelled to Japan, I realised why; Japanese textiles have a deep culture of minimalism, connection, and no waste. The ancient term ‘Mottainai’, linked to Buddhist philosophy, means too good to waste. This term has been rooted into the history of beautifully handcrafted Japanese objects and even its people. After going to the Amuse Museum in Tokyo, which shows unique products and textile arts that are exclusive to the Japanese traditional culture, I realised Western consumers had a lot to learn from ‘Mottainai’. With fast fashion destroying the environment, the fashion industry needs to bring back a culture of connection, respect, and care for clothing and the people and resources that make them.

Mottainai attempts to communicate the inherent value in a thing and encourage using objects fully or all the way to the end of their lifespan. Leave no grain of rice in your bowl; if a toy breaks, repair it; and take good care of everything.” – Kevin Taylor, ABC News May 2017


One of the most important aspects of Mottainai is that it has been ingrained into children’s education, allowing them to understand the importance of it and carry it on through generations. ‘Mottainai Grandma‘ is a famous Japanese children’s book series by Mariko Shinju, teaching the importance of not being wasteful. The fact that it’s popular is testament alone that children are interested in sustainability. “There are some Japanese words that cannot be translated into English and Mottainai is the one and is difficult to explain even in Japanese. This is how I started to think about making this picture storybook.” 

Mottainai Grandma a popular Japanese book teaching the value of avoiding waste


Just walking around the streets of Tokyo, the sense of respect for fellow beings and nature is observed. There is not a speck of litter on the floor, beautiful gardens full of trees line the city and people bow to each other. In regards to ‘Mottainai’, clothes are treasured as they hold a story. In the Boro exhibition at the Amuse Museum in Tokyo, one of the most beautiful quotes I read was about a kimono passed down through generations:

There is life dwelling in it; the endless will and wishes of humans are delicately woven into each cloth.” 

In modern-day fast fashion, it’s disgusting that consumers have very little respect for their clothing. There’s no connection to the maker, the country the item has been produced or the fabric (increasingly synthetic). Obviously, in an ever-expanding and global world, we can’t expect to personally know the maker of our t-shirt, nor can we expect it to be made entirely by a person as machines are increasingly taking over from human hands. What we can expect and demand, however, is for the brands we buy from to be transparent, respect their garment workers and the planet across the supply chain, including the end-life of a garment. This respect and responsibility should be placed on the consumer and the brand. This is already moving in the right direction with organisations such as Fashion Revolution encouraging brand transparency and worker’s rights.

Related Post: The Fashion World Commits to Change and Sustainability in Copenhagen

The Japanese Concept of 'Mottainai'- Valuable Lessons on Slow Fashion and Not Wasting


The importance of simplicity in fashion was once trendy, less should be more. Sadly, our thirst for fashion in the Western world is increasing and clothing production since 2000 has doubled. Clothing is getting cheaper and more disposable. In the history of ‘Mottainai’ culture in Japan, the ‘Mottainai Grandma’ teaching requires you to ask yourself: “Do I actually need this?”

During a recent Japanese textile talk at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, curator Dr. Gene Sherman discussed the relevance of Japanese fashion and sustainability in the modern day. Japanese culture and designs are the original slow fashion, using natural indigo dyes and incorporating natural materials. Dr. Sherman also discussed how she kept a minimalist wardrobe of timeless and treasured pieces, ensuring no item was left unloved or discarded. How wonderful would it be if we all treasured the clothing we wore and just purchased less?

Related Post: 6 Steps to a Sustainable Wardrobe

The Japanese Concept of 'Mottainai'- Valuable Lessons on Slow Fashion and Avoiding Waste

Reuse and Recycle 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians send about 88 percent of leather and textiles to landfill. This means that nearly all of the clothes we buy in Australia end up sitting in a dump clogging up the ground. If Australian’s understood and used the concept of ‘Mottainai’, clothing would be reused and recycled. This means, learning how to mend clothing items that are broken such as sewing a tear or reusing materials to make something else.

Until the end of the Taisho Era, people took their own handspun and hand-dyed hemp cloth to the tailor in town to make work trousers which the husband then wore for years and the wife kept mending no matter how threadbare they got.” – Quote from the Boro exhibition at Amuse Museum in Tokyo

BORO The shining Boro exhibition is currently showing at the Amuse Museum in Tokyo. The exhibition shows a selection from the collection of ethnologist Chuzaburo Tanaka and artist Toshiro Kojima.

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