It’s no secret that fashion is getting cheaper and cheaper, and we are consuming it faster than ever. Fast fashion giants offer prices that are hard to beat, encouraging shoppers to consume quantity over quality. Due to the low prices, many customers end up treating their clothes like they are disposable. While the customer may seemingly benefit from the low prices, the negative environmental and human rights consequences are vast. For example, fast fashion is one of the two biggest threats to artisanship, a fact highlighted in Fashionscapes: Artisans Guatemaya, a new short documentary by Eco-Age. The film documents a trip to Guatemala with fair fashion advocates, hosted by PACUNAM: The Foundation For Maya Cultural And Natural Heritage, and narrated by Livia Firth, Co-founder and Creative Director of Eco-Age and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge.
According to the film, one million of the 17 million residents of Guatemala are artisans, and their craft is at risk of extinction given the changing values in the fashion landscape. It’s a multi-generational craft, in which girls learn weaving and dying, starting as young as eight years old, from their mothers. The artistry is inspired by nature and the season, and garments are dyed using local produce such as avocados. Each piece is made by hand and can take up to a month to complete, which is radically different from the current fast fashion model. Artisan fashion is slow and sustainable at its core.
Fast fashion is not the only threat to artisanship. Despite the sizable effort and history behind artisan-made goods, local residents are choosing to forgo artisan-made pieces for second-hand items that are imported into the nation due to their low cost. Additionally, many designers in the United States and Europe are appropriating artisan designs instead of collaborating with the makers in Guatemala and elsewhere. While global interest in artisan designs could provide fundamental support to the artisans, the appropriation of their work by global designers further devalues their goods on the world market.
Foundations like PACUNAM, and organizations like Nest, a nonprofit “building a new handworker economy to increase global workforce inclusivity, improve women’s wellbeing beyond factories, and preserve important cultural traditions around the world,” are actively working to support artisans in Guatemala and, in the case of Nest, across the globe. “The foundation realized the important connection between ancient patrimony and living patrimony. Craftsmanship is one representation of this very traditional Maya heritage,” shared Marianne Hernandez, President of PACUNAM. Nest Founder and Executive Director, Rebecca van Bergen, who also joined the trip to Guatemala documented in the short film.
Organizations like Eco-Age are taking on the fashion industry at large. Beyond and including the artisans in Guatemala, Firth’s work with Eco-Age spans across all definitions of sustainable and ethical fashion. “At Eco-Age, we have never separated the environmental impact from the social impact. The social impact is almost more important because if you look at fast fashion, the business model is only able to exist because of exploitation of labor,” Firth explained. To that end, Firth also started the #30wears movement, which encourages individuals to consider if they will wear an item of clothing at least 30 times before purchasing. That alone, Firths shared with me, will radically reduce consumption of fast fashion. She is also the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge, which encourages and supports celebrities in wearing conscious fashion on the red carpet.
So where does that leave the artisans, and how do we value a garment made by an artisan in Guatemala at the same level as a couture piece from an Atelier in Italy? It’s all about the stories, according to Firth. “On top of the footprint of fashion, we started talking about the handprint of fashion— what are the stories of the people behind the clothes that we wear every day?” Firth explained. “With fast fashion… they can never appropriate is the handprint. They can’t tell the stories of the people making the clothes because they’re all bad stories.”