Textile Urgency in the Andes

The fashion industry is in a state of transformation. Over the past three decades, we have seen the rise of fast fashion, clothes that are low quality from retailers having high rates of product turnover. Consumers feel disconnected from how clothes are made and who makes them. It has implications on the well-being of garment workers and on the environment. This has led to the fashion industry to be the second most polluting industry in the world and for 80% of the workers in the industry to not make a living wage.

Dying batik fabric in Phrae, ThailandAnirut Rassameesritrakool/Pond5

Dying batik fabric in Phrae, ThailandAnirut Rassameesritrakool/Pond5

We are now experiencing a shift in consumer culture where people are seeking more mindfully made products. There is increasing demand for products with transparent supply chains that support every person from the raw materials to the knitters. Since this is currently not the norm, it is a great struggle for designers to find each part of their supply chain so that they can verify the ethics behind it.

There is a great opportunity to create desirable products while also supporting the traditions of cultures with textile crafts. In addition to the labor and environmental issues connected to the fashion industry, cultures with textile crafts are being lost as fast fashion becomes cheaper and more accessible.

Textile knowledge is a form of traditional cultural expression in danger all around the world. Without a consistent and real incentive for traditional communities to keep these practices, they will be lost. A knowledge that is not transmitted to new generations decreases the changes to have strong value production chains.

One of the reasons people don’t work on this techniques is the time inconvenience. In the Andean textile context, just to clean the wool and make stream, it is necessary at least a week. Producing a meter of fabric in the loom is totally doable in one day, if working wouldn’t be necessary. The looms are active for couple months to make clothes for special holidays such as Dia de Muertos and some of the people are working in the production of handicrafts, but the local market (Ecuador) don’t pay fairly rates; without mentioning the great competition with industrialized crafts from Otavalo.  

Dying techniques have been almost displaced by toxic dyeing pigments which are brighter and faster to use. Younger generations don’t have idea about the process of the cochinilla to get red tones. Process that is extremely expensive for the couple people who know about the technique because each disc of cochinilla paste has a market value of $100 versus a $2 package of Chinese or Colombian dyes. Tones like brown and black used to be found on burned bones and plants that no one knows uses anymore. According Martha Masakiza, director of the local school, there are couple elderly carrying this knowledge, but without documentation and active production in couple years this important element of their culture is going to be lost forever.

Masakiza works with parents at school. She told us that one of the big problems for the Families at her community is the lack of profitable employment in town. Most the men have to go to closet cities  to work in the construction industry leaving the crops and families without attention. On the other hand, women are mostly working on the crops for local consumption or selling to cities around town. Any of the sources of income are stable because of the instability of the agricultural market in the country and the sporadic hires in the construction industry.  

Women in these communities have a tremendous potential in their hands. Culturally, the textile knowledge is transmitted between the female members of the families. Some men are being included in the sales of crafts but this activity is mostly handle by woman. If this textile knowledge could be reevaluated, recovered and given a re-signification we can guarantee the inclusion of women and the town itself as an ethnic minority into the industry of sustainable fashion while empowering local culture and textile traditions.

It is really urgent to empower this traditions because they can really contribute to a better production of clothing. Currently, the traditional fashion industry constitutes the second source of global contamination. Along the globe, 25% of the production of toxic chemicals are present in dyes and fibers of all kinds affecting the health of workers, the environment and even consumers. 2.5 billion metric tons of water are contaminated every year; Since 2010, the rivers of China have changed their tone with the seasonal color, leaving them totally sterile (Bell 1). Because producing clothes under this conditions is cheaper and it does not require much involvement from the big brands, social and environmental parameters are not taken in consideration. In this way, selling clothes is a business with tremendous profit margins that grow each season, USD 1.5 trillion. The social and environmental impact is great if we consider the facility for consumers to buy clothes every season, garments that individually will not be used more than 7 times until the trend change.

Consuming garments whose origin of production is unknown generates a high social and environmental impact, a problem of traditional fashion consumption. 97.5% of the clothing we consume is produced in developing countries (Morgan 1) whose labor policies have blind eyes to fair wages, occupational safety, health, among others.

by Rodrigo Muñoz and Hannah Phang