The ever elusive fashion industry gets an ethical checkpoint.
Information about what goes into our food is becoming increasingly transparent—with nutrition labels can find out what’s in it, how much, where it was made, and in some cases, under what conditions. When it comes to fashion though, the commodity chain still largely remains in a state of elusiveness.
Twenty years ago, when designer Carry Somers founded Pachacuti—a hat brand that specializes in panama and felt hats made in Ecuador—there was no question that she would base her brand on a framework of transparency and equitable practices, even though it was far from en vogue at the time.
“When I first went to Ecuador in 1991, I saw at first hand how balance scales were skewed by the vendors of the raw materials so that independent purchasers paid an unfairly high price,” says Somers. ‘The supply chain [of genuine panama hats—which have always come from Ecuador, despite the misnomer] is generally steeped in exploitation, involving around seven middlemen or perros (dogs) between the weaver and the exporter.”
By contrast, hats from Pachacuti—which means “world upside down” in the Andean Quechua language—are produced by an association of women, who do all the work including weaving, finishing, blocking, sewing, allowing them to retain more of the profits.
A regular at fashion weeks around the globe and one of the the first apparel brands to be certified as Fair Trade, Pachacuti was recently invited to participate in a an EU pilot program known as the GEO Fair Trade Project.
The project can easily be described as nutrition facts for clothing, as it attaches a uniquely scannable QR code to items, allowing the consumer to gain access to 100 social, economic, geo-localization and environmental indicators tracking change over several years and tracing production to the GPS co-ordinates of each weaver’s house.’ The social indicators include things such as producer literacy rate, access to primary healthcare, investment for healthcare, and hours of work per week.
Somers, who has developed a deep connection with the women and the region in which Pachacuti works, says that that often the external conditions of the region influence her design. For example, when other brands’ requests for machine embroidery sent a lot of local embroiderers looking for work, Somers included embroidered accents in her SS13 collection and is now developing a specific clothing line to keep the artisan technique going.
“Someone commented recently that Pachacuti performs the role that local government should play within the community and that is probably quite an accurate description as there is no social security safety net for these marginalized women.”
As the only non-commodity company asked to participate in the EU pilot, Pachacuti is again leading the way in the growing field of sustainable and conscious fashion, but Somers said the industry as a whole still has far to go.
‘The globalization we have seen during the 21st Century, coupled with the growth of the internet and the boom of cheap, fast fashion, has brought exploitation within fashion supply chains to the forefront,” Somers says. “Ethics and sustainability are no longer marginal issues in the fashion industry, but we are still too far from making them truly mainstream.’