Social Entrepreneurs’ Dilemma: What Constitutes “Ethical Fashion?”

by Mihai Patru, Co-Founder GuaTela

Every Friday morning, the city of Panajachel turns into “the place to be” for those interested in vintage fabrics. Tens of Mayan women from around Lake Atitlán and beyond come to Pana to sell their old huipils, the traditional blouse worn by the indigenous women, vintage cortes, a type of  wrap skirt, or any other used pieces of fabric that could add a few quetzals to their families’ budgets. This is not a unique situation. Almost every location selling textiles in Guatemala – from the Sunday market in Chichicastenango to the shops in touristy Antigua – displays a pile of vintage huipils and fabrics.

 

 

The idea of upcycling textiles is as popular nowadays as concepts like ethical fashion, slow fashion, eco fashion and the list can go on forever. Leaving aside the aesthetic impact, giving a new life to vintage pieces is for sure an excellent way to reduce waste in fashion and a very practical response to our concerns regarding environmental responsibility. Yet, no matter how good wearing a vintage piece makes us feel while feeding our environmental and fashion conscious egos, packaging this trend as a viable solution for the myriad of human development problems the indigenous weavers in Guatemala are facing is deceiving.

The practice of encouraging the Mayan communities to sell their old fabrics is widely spread across Guatemala and especially in the Lake Atitlán region, where GuaTela is working with indigenous women artisans. Emptying their coffers of any vintage piece of cloth is appealing to most of the families because it is the fastest way to make some money. Yet, to chase the few extra quetzals they can earn, our women weavers recall countless stories of how they were forced to sell every single huipil that belonged to their mothers and grandmothers, and most likely even their own. Thus, these fabrics are not technically discarded, rather sold out of desperation. It is also important to recognize that this practice provides a very short term solution to the chronic poverty these communities have been struggling with for generations. Weaving is one of their main sources of income, in many cases the only one, and they are fully aware that only by engaging in the production of new fabrics they can provide a steady and long-term income for their families.

Buying already woven fabrics is an easy path that many enterprises choose to follow while ignoring the impact this practice has on the local communities. It is rather destined to satisfy the Western customer than support the economic development of the Mayan women weavers. Aiming to achieve social impact and empower communities is challenging, there is no doubt about that. But working together with the artisans to make the weaving process more efficient, reduce waste and limit the impact on the environment is what provides long term solutions to their problems.

 

For a social enterprise like GuaTela which aims at empowering Mayan women weavers by promoting fashion accessories they produce and inspire, the temptation to cut corners is there. Yet, in order to chase our mission, we choose to commission new orders for 100% cotton textiles. We engage in the production process even before the yarn is dyed, make efforts to minimize any waste, give constant feedback on quality and are constantly working together with the women artisans to enable them to adapt their work to global market standards. We strictly limit the use of old textiles despite the customer’s fascination for “the vintage” and accept only those pieces that can truly no longer be used and are going into landfill.

We are trying to stay true to our social impact driven mission and constantly remind ourselves the things that motivated us to start this journey.

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