It has become apparent to many that in the battle for a safe environment on the planet, all efforts count.
In particular, the fashion industry is seen as key in taking a stance. According to the U.N., fashion is the second most polluting industry after the oil industry. As Latin America represents around 10 percent of fashion in the global market, the local approach on the issue matters and players are acting accordingly by following the global trend — or in some cases setting the trend — of sustainability.
In the land of the Andes and Amazonia, where deserts and seas coexist, sheltering a diverse people with traditional crafts created by local artisans, it would be easy to imagine an eco-friendly scenario where natural materials are used, zero-mile criteria are applied and small amounts of production avoid stock excesses. But that’s not entirely true.
Local artisans exist, sure, but they don’t represent much of a real number in the industry, and the risk of losing that cultural heritage and natural resources persists in light of the industrialization and globalization phenomenon.
One thing is clear, all designers and people involved in sustainable projects firmly believe that sustainability is not just a trend, but a mind-set that sooner or later everyone will adapt to. Indeed, many agree that the fact that the biggest names in the industry are starting to take concrete steps is already a clear sign things are moving in that direction.
In November 2018, the first Latin American Fashion Summit was celebrated and more than 320 professionals from more than 20 countries gathered to share ideas and explore new ways to succeed. The three-day-long agenda included discussion panels headlined by some of the most important players in the region such as Colombian designer Esteban Cortázar; Farfetch director for Latin America Daniel Funis, and the editor in chief of Vogue Mexico and Latin America Karla Martínez de Salas, among others. “I was encouraged to attend LAFS last year and see how they are working to engage both consumers and brands in the challenge of creating a more sustainable fashion industry for the future in Latin America,” explained Carry Sommers, founder of Fashion Revolution, the not-for-profit global movement that campaigns for a systemic reform of the fashion industry.
For this year’s edition, running from Nov. 13 to 17, the lineup includes worldwide names like Venezuelan luxury entrepreneur and cofounder of Net-a-porter, Carmen Busquets, to focus on the future of fashion, business strategies and the importance of social responsibility and sustainable development. In line with the above, an activation program for local artisans will be done with Artesanías de Colombia, aiming to promote their techniques, labor force and the collaboration between designers and artisans from the region.
As an opportunity for designers to present their collections, the platform created the contest “Pitch to LAFS” where in last year’s edition, Peruvian sustainable brand Escvdo obtained second place with its proposal to rescue the oldest Peruvian traditions by the hand of expert artisans, ancestral methods and the use of Pima cotton and ecological alpaca wool, both of the Andes.
This Peruvian luxury fashion brand works closely with the local communities focused on social aid and the preservation of traditional textile techniques, producing handmade pieces woven by looms. Their fall 2019-20 collection, which features prints and colors inspired by 19th-century Peruvian textile artist Elena Izcue, was available wordwide for preorders through the fashion platform Moda Operandi.
LAFS will continue to collaborate as it did in its first edition, with The UpCycle Project, an agency focused on fashion sustainability education and consulting. This year, LAFS and The UpCycle Project will launch a contest to promote last year’s finalists of “Pitch to LAFS,” who will be working with their own unsold stock to create a limited-edition collection, which will be available for purchase at the summit, as well as online at the luxury sustainable fashion retailer Fashionkind — a site created by American entrepreneur Nina Farran.
“We want to create consciousness on crucial topics that affect not only the fashion industry’s economic impact, but the environment and the future generations to come. Latin America is a region with great undiscovered talent and vast natural resources and a big part of our mission in this yearly event is to start educating young entrepreneurs on how to create a more sustainable fashion industry,” cofounder of LAFS Samantha Tams said.
Observing the countries with a greater impact in the region, Brazil represents the biggest fashion market, and here, the local online platform Moda Limpia has emerged as a project to help industry players to produce ecologically, providing valuable insight and information.
After experiencing a personal loss, Moda Limpia founder Marina De Luca felt the need to reflect on the meaning of life and explore sustainability. “I believe that sustainability is a means, not an end,” De Luca said, defining sustainability as “the new way of thinking, a new way to live and to relate, and it has to come from within.”
The project is a collaborative platform that offers a database of green suppliers filtered by the categories vegan, organic, fair, recycled, upcycled, small producer, support for traditional techniques, biodegradable, made in Brazil, support for vulnerable groups, social, lower environmental impact and educational, offering explanations of each category.
Users may not only search through the listed categories to find the best supplier according to their needs, but the whole system relies on the feedback on the working experience. Users, who can remain anonymous, are encouraged to evaluate suppliers with comments on sustainability and ethical responsibility and to add contacts and content to help expand the platform, which in 2016 started with 40 registrations and has grown to 446.
“I believe that sustainability within the Latin American fashion industry is still a baby,” De Luca observed. “Anyway, I can see the progress. Five years ago, it was much more difficult, but each day becomes more viable, although we still have a long way to go.”
As education is an important pillar for Moda Limpia, a fashion course focused on sustainability is offered for those professionals who believe that fashion can change the world and want to know more about ways to develop this industry. “I believe that education is one of the main tools for this transformation, and by education I mean all relationships existing in life, among all people, in all situations,” De Luca mused.
In order to provide a complete offer, a corporate bespoke training program is available, with the goal to promote experiences within a company, where employees and partners can awake to conscious consumption and get to know the real impact of consumer choices. They can also learn to work with the right tools to create a better social, environmental, economic and cultural impact, not only in fashion, but also in industries such as food, cosmetics, hygiene and decoration.
Another major market in Latin America is Mexico, where among other sustainable brands and initiatives the Caralarga company is described as an inspiring example with its workshop of handcrafted jewelry and textile pieces inspired by the raw materials of nature.
Located in an antique textile factory in Querétaro city, the project started in a spontaneous way five years ago, as founder and designer Ana Holschneider didn’t have either economic resources or the time to travel to look for textiles. She began experimenting with the local resources she had access to. “Mexico is a producer of natural fibers and a cradle of amazing people and impeccable craft,” said Holschneider. “The natural resources and the crafts of communities all around Mexico should not only simplify work and motivate creativeness, but they should also become a natural inclination for any local designer.”
Holschneider also believes that sustainability is not just a trend. “I think that once you lean toward sustainable practices and means, at a low or high level, it becomes irreversible. As designers and manufacturers, sustainable practices add value to our products; as consumers, responsible consumerism becomes part of a collective conscience,” the designer concluded.
Commonly, sustainable fashion was associated with clean and pure, but not necessarily commercial pieces. On the other hand, luxury was traditionally related to leather goods, and the lack of that material was seen as synonymous of lower quality. Argentinian brand Nous Etudions breaks away from that concept with a minimal but complex style, proposing a high-end vegan alternative that is fashionable and ethical at the same time.
With a strong international profile, the brand presented its collections at London Fashion Week in 2018 and participated at The Next Green Talent, a scouting project established from the collaboration of Vogue Italia and Yoox, in Milan in 2019. Founder and designer Romina Cardillo also recently partnered with Nike to co-create a capsule of seven looks inspired by the first vegan and sustainable Nike sneaker, Air Max 720, on the occasion of its worldwide launch on Feb. 1.
“When fashion imposes this type of fashion trend, we have to support fashion,” Cardillo said. “Although I was aware that I was working with a corporation that is often questioned on its methods, I’m convinced that we must support the fact that big brands like Nike want to go another way and explore sustainability. Otherwise, we just criticize and there’s no contribution. So, for me it was a very favorable experience, one of the most beautiful of my career.”
For Cardillo the vegan path was a natural choice that came from her own lifestyle. It took a journey of experimentation and learning process to not only avoid the use of animal products, but also to try to stay away from materials harmful to the environment. “In my early days, when I started with veganism, although I did not use skins, I used all synthetic fabrics derived from oil, which at that time I didn’t see as a negative because I did not have enough information. Vegan and sustainable were two separate things,” the designer said.
Cardillo also believes that educating the consumer is an important part of the process. She can tell that the brand’s audience has changed from a proportion of 50-50 to 70-30 percent in terms of the approach, with the eco-friendly views overtaking others. “When people who come only for the brand’s style find out that it is also sustainable, they are surprised and take it as an added value,” Cardillo said.
Nous Etudions is now also participating at the “Sustainable Thinking” project at the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence, Italy, which will run until April 2020, with a piece in kombucha, a textile made from black tea, sugar and microorganisms that undergo fermentation to create cellulose, and 100 percent recycled cotton.