How I have come to redefine what 'Ethical Fashion' is and should be.
I got into fashion as a path and a career because I fell in love with textile art.
When I was 16 I went to Guatemala to stay with extended family and when I visited the markets there, I immediately was enamored by the loom woven cortes and huipiles (traditional skirts and blouses) made by the Mayan women. When I went to Wakarusa Festival in 2013, I came across a vendor booth that featured Mayan artisan made fabrics and thought it was so awesome to see the artwork turned into festival gear.
I took a couple classes on sustainability and fair-trade my sophomore year of college (about a year after I started sewing again) and remember reading a chapter in a book primarily about agriculture that described the plight of the Mayan women in many communities to find markets for their textiles.
In that moment it seemed like a lightbulb went off in my head,
“This is how I can combine my passion for female-empowerment, fashion, travel and textiles into one endeavor.”
I spent the rest of my time at college studying fair-trade fashion (with a focus on female-empowerment), going back to Guatemala with a group from school to research sustainable production, and then spent 5 months in Huaycan, Peru doing an internship with a small group of local, women artisans working for a fair-trade project.
Through all my research and travels, my excitement around the potential for fair-trade grew deeper and stronger. I did not think of this purely as a career but as a spiritual path and deep passion project.
If you have never heard of fair-trade or don’t fully understand it’s aim, here’s a basic definition:
Fair-trade is an arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve sustainable and equitable trade relationships. Members of the fair-trade movement add the payment of higher prices to exporters, as well as improved social and environmental standards. Female-empowerment is one of the key target areas of the movement. When done well, projects also work towards bettering education for families and communities, worker benefits, safe and respectful working conditions, and healthcare.
This sounds freaking awesome, right?
And compared to fast-fashion, free trade, and the majority of globalized manufacturing practices, it is significantly better and more promising.
By now, it is known to many that the fast-fashion industry vastly contributes not only to environmental degradation (the second largest carbon footprint behind oil), but also to a new wave of forced labor that either relies on extremely cheap labor in developing economies from those who have no other income opportunities, or from prison labor.
“Brands have created a production model that keeps garment workers poor and working in unsafe conditions to maximise their own profits. The buying practices of fast-fashion include turning a blind eye to illegal subcontracting and allowing forced and unpaid overtime. These practices have incentivised the erosion of garment worker rights by manufacturers and government” (Legesse, 2020).
Since the rise of globalization within the fashion industry in the 1970’s, brands have been able to scour and ransack the world to find factories that will produce garments the cheapest in order to reduce production costs, increase profit margins, and sell more pieces at a lower price point, thus allowing cheap clothing to become the norm and in turn becoming disposable.
So compared to the status quo of fast fashion, fair-trade definitely raises the bar. But not without its own set of problems.
Towards the end of my stay in Peru and after returning I began coming across work from many black women, indigenous women and women of color and everything I thought I knew about ethical fashion came crumbling down. Until the end of 2017, I realized that nearly all of the research I had done involving fair-trade and social entrepreneurship was through the eyes of white academics and business people.
Meaning that everything I had come to believe about this work was not the whole story. All of my views were lacking and honestly were rooted in a white feminist lens.
I had to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask myself if what I aimed to do was actually helpful or if I chose social entrepreneurship work that existed outside my country because it seemed more glamorous than aiming to work in my homeland.
Is a white woman from the United States wanting to promote the work of artisans in Latin America a just enterprise that benefits everyone involved or is it a version of white saviorism?
Is a brand ethical if the only women of color in the business are still the lowest paid positions? (Even if they are more environmentally sustainable and pay better than fast fashion brands?)
My views on ethical fashion have changed so much. It is not enough just to be handmade or environmentally sustainable. If the brand only features thin, white women; if the brand’s boardroom only features women with the most power...it can’t be called ethical.
If there are not a significant number of women of color in the boardroom (at least 30%), how can we ensure our designs and marketing are not problematic or culturally appropriative?
Sustainable fashion (and so many feminist and social movements) were started by women of color - the ‘me too’ movement, the ERA, Pride and many more. Yet so many brands and blogs have become white washed and elitist and strayed so far from what they should be about.
Are we really empowering women if we only work with and market to white women? Only to cis and straight women?
Is fair-trade really fair or does it still rely on exploitation and new wave colonization? Could it exist without the foundation of racism and economic disenfranchisement?
When I started Fusion Threads Co. in 2018, it was always with the intention that it would eventually become a fair-trade project that would highlight women artisans in Guatemala and Peru, and maybe other counties where weaving and dyeing fabrics was an ancestral tradition.
I no longer know if this is my place or my path. I know I have a lot of deep inner work to do before I can even begin to think about taking on such a responsibility. And it may never be something that I can or should attempt. Maybe my focus has to be given first to my own community, and really discovering what ethical fashion must do here in the states to be more inclusive and more radical.
I think for a long time after finding the communities I was/am so involved in - fair-trade fashion, yoga, the festival scene - I was so entranced with and excited by the potential for change and goodness, and the seemingly progressive and alternative aspects of the spaces, that I did not realize what was going on beneath the surface (and beneath the marketing). I wanted to believe these were spaces where people could feel not only safe but also empowered to self-actualize and find deep belonging.
With all the light shed on the exclusivity and elitist nature of sustainable brands, in addition to the allegations of sexual assault amongst prominent artists in the music festival spaces that have recently surfaced, and becoming aware of how many yoga and spiritual gurus have also harmed women and their communities, I have realized how crucial it is to stop pretending that we are better than the rest.
How important it is to check ourselves and do the deep shadow work that is required both on an individual level and at the group and communal levels.
So many of the spaces I had believed were above defining sectors of power and privilege are still in fact rooted in bigotry, racism, white supremacy, misogyny, exploitation and sexual assault.
It is a hard pill to swallow.
But I do not believe all hope is lost in these spaces. I still see the love and potential that exist here. More importantly, though, I see the need to dig deep and open up. To stop being silent and stop silencing others. To stop sweeping our shit under the rug. And to use our voices and do the important work to actually lift each other up.
What have we been blind to? How have we been complacent? What is our own personal medicine we have to offer one another?
Highlighting and empowering textile artists is still my passion. To me, handcrafted and dyed fabrics are an incredibly potent and powerful form of art, adornment, and storytelling and one with rich histories tied to the cultures they stem from. This fascination and affection for fabric is what drew me to Galit (co-founder, dye artist and graphic designer for FTC) whose dyeing abilities are incredibly beautiful, unique, and sophisticated, and whose work I am endlessly inspired by.
I am grateful that we found each other and can navigate these ethical boundaries together. There is no such thing as a perfect brand, but the only way to truly become ‘ethical’ is to commit wholeheartedly to learning and unlearning. Taking a good, deep, and honest look and how we market ourselves and who we work with.
We have a long ways to go. Our brand baby has so much maturing to do to become what we truly envision her being.
And it starts by lifting the veils of power and privilege so that we can uncover our blindspots...
Mariel, Fusion Threads Co.