Fast fashion–the burgeoning trend of quickly and cheaply moving clothing from the catwalk to consumer to capitalize on current fashion trends. Companies using this approach promote it as fast, low priced, and disposable. Opponents point to its shoddy workmanship and its polluting effects from production and the decay of the tossed-aside synthetic fabrics.
Fair trade fashion, the polar opposite, promotes natural and organic raw materials, environmentally safe production methods, and non-toxic dyes. Products aren’t churned out in faceless factories, but in small workshops and co-operatives where handcrafted artistry and attention to detail are the underpinnings of its approach.
Silk makes up many luxuriously chic fair trade scarves. Unlike commercial silk, where moths are killed inside the cocoon before they fly free, “Ahimsa,” or cruelty-free silk, allows the moth to complete its metamorphosis before the silk threads are harvested.
The threads are lustrous and soft and give completed garments a textured look, as seen in the stunning Ocean Waves scarf. Fair trade artisans in India hand-spin the silk threads on foot-powered spinning wheels. They weave the silk threads into fabric that is then fashioned into Ocean Waves’ beautiful pleats and ruffles.
Ethiopian cotton is another common material used for fair trade clothing. It’s believed that cotton originated in Ethiopia, where much of its production still comes from small-scale organic and traditional farms.
Ethiopians in a fair trade workshop hand spin and dye the cotton threads with berries, flowers, and other natural products. They weave the cotton into shawls like the Danakil on wood looms. The artisans work in an oasis of stability in the otherwise harsh existence of Addis Ababa, where jobs are extremely difficult to find.
Cotton grown in the Quetzaltenango region of Guatemala is the starting point for the women of the Corazon del Lago co-op. I was privileged to visit the co-op recently where I saw first hand the meticulous and labor-intensive processes involved in creating their signature scarves and shawls.
After spinning the yarn, they make their own dyes. Saffron produces shades of orange, blues come from indigo, coconut shells are used for peach tones, sarsaparilla creates a lovely light brown shade. Even a very tiny bug, the Cochineal, produces tones of red and pink.
Working in a small, covered, open-air workshop, the women use a centuries-old weaving method called backstrap weaving (see video). For other designs that combine silk with the cotton, as in the gorgeous Francisca shawl, a traditional hand- and foot-powered loom is used.
Unlike computer-designed scarves and shawls, these talented Mayan women and men create their designs with pen and paper and use their hands every step on the way to the finished product.
One of the most earth-friendly fabrics used widely by Central and South American fair trade artisans is alpaca. Once reserved for Incan royalty, who called it the “fiber of the gods,” many consider alpaca a higher quality fiber than cashmere.
Alpaca ranching has a low impact on the environment, and its conversion from sheared wool to fabric requires no mechanical or chemical methods of production. Some finished products, like the reversible alpaca shawl, were actually made on 400-year-old wood looms.
So the next time you’re in one of those fast-fashion stores lining the malls these days, think fair trade before you buy. It’s the stylish and sustainable alternative to fast fashion!
Last in a series about fair trade and the environment in celebration of Earth Day 2014.
Sources: Cline, Elizabeth L. (2012) Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Penguin Group. New York.