Mottainai (pronounced moat-tie-nigh) is a Japanese term that conveys a sense of regret concerning waste.
You may not have heard the term before, but you’ve probably felt it. It’s the need to finish every bite on your plate, despite being stuffed to the brim. The urge to bite your roommate’s head off for leaving the tap running whilst brushing their teeth. The reason you keep that shirt you paid far too much for but never wear, it’s too valuable to throw away after all!
Mottainai stems from the belief that to not fully use the intrinsic value of an object or resource is wrong, thus, encouraging us to use our belongings for their entire effective life, with respect and a sense of gratitude.
Whilst the term doesn’t have a direct English translation, it’s loosely equivalent to ‘what a waste’ or ‘waste nothing’.
Think of it like the three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle, but add a fourth – respect.
Amongst our mass production and consumption, this particular environmental awareness can feel lost.
Australia is the second largest consumer of new textiles, averaging 27kg of new textiles per capita per annum.
But as quickly as we’re buying clothes, we’re throwing them away. Of these 27kg, 85% are discarded into landfill each year.
Note: The ABS reports 501,000 tonnes of leather and textiles sent to landfill in 2009-10. This figure may include carpets but that is not specified by the ABS.
Japan's Edo Period
During the Edo period, the final era of traditional Japan, a kimono would be used for 10 to 20 years and when it could no longer be worn, it would be used as a cleaning rag, and when it could no longer be used for cleaning, it would be used to light a fire. Even the ashes left behind had value and were used as soap or fertiliser.
The value of mottainai was deeply ingrained into the Edo society, nothing went to waste and nothing was thrown out.
In stark contrast...
We often don’t wait for our possessions to break or wear down before replacing them with the latest trends.
Just another cotton t-shirt?
A cotton t-shirt that only costs $15 may seem easy to throw away because we overlook the numerous resources involved in its production.
But it’s not just a t-shirt that’s being dumped, it’s the materials, the water, the energy, the labour and the transport.
It takes 2,700 litres of water to make this cotton t-shirt. That’s enough for one person to drink for 900 days!
Fashion has become disposable and the environmental impact of this behaviour is significant.
The rise of fast fashion – the rapid mass production of inexpensive clothing in response to the latest trends – has made the fashion industry one of the major polluting industries in the world.
The production and distribution of crops, fibres and garments is depleting non-renewable resources, requiring enormous quantities of chemicals, water and energy, all of which contribute to water, air and soil pollution.
With billions of new garments consumed each year globally, there is a lot we can learn from mottainai, which calls on us to respect and express gratitude for our belongings and to avoid waste.
Ensuring clothes are used for their entire lifespan by giving them a second life or buying pre-loved is just one way we can adopt the mottainai philosophy.