Buried in the headlines of product roundups for Latine Heritage Month is a deeper story on how fashion entrepreneurs are sharpening their sustainability advocacy amid growing climate inequity.
Latine entrepreneurs own 3.96 million businesses across the U.S., per Google data, creating a vital force for the economy, and fashion is no different. But this month especially, given all the climate change-related disruptions affecting their countries, Latine founders — among them Santos by Mónica, Carolina K, Cuyana and Ética — are not only celebrating their sustainability values but also mobilizing for their communities.
“The climate crisis is felt strongly in Puerto Rico, where each hurricane keeps getting worse and worse,” Mónica Santos Gil of Santos by Mónica, a Puerto Rican handbag designer who is based in New York today, told WWD. “The island was still feeling the effects of Hurricane Maria five years ago, now experiencing windier storms and heavier rainfall than before while also embattling the political undertone these carry to the island as the U.S. colony we are.”
Hurricane Ian may dominate the latest headlines in real-time as the tropical storm surges in Southwest Florida, yet Puerto Rico is still feeling the wrath of Hurricane Fiona which struck Sept. 18. Though the entire island lost power, an estimated 233,344 homes and businesses are still without power as of Thursday per PowerOutage.us, a real-time utility data tracker.
A month prior, parts of Mexico — namely the Oaxaca Valley — began facing extreme droughts as water runs dry in two-thirds of all municipalities. What’s worse is that the weight of the climate crisis has always been unequal, with the lowest emitters suffering the brunt of it. (For an example, Mexico emitted just half a million kilotons of carbon dioxide in 2019, compared to the U.S.’s more than 4.8 million kilotons of CO2 the same year, according to World Bank data.)
Yet hope is not lost, as Santos is raising money to fund hurricane relief efforts — donating 15 percent of the brand’s sales until mid-October to Techos Pa’ Mi Gente. The local nonprofit group mobilizes funds to rebuild homes in affected communities.
She also gave a few other tips in terms of how people can help. “I always recommend researching first and donating to groups and organizations that are non-government-related and have pledged to use their funds to help affected communities.” Some of those include grassroots organizations like feminist nonprofit Taller Salud, community organizations like Brigada Solidaria del Oeste (BSO), Techos Pa’ Mi Gente, Casa Pueblo and El Foster Club, which supports animal rescue.
Though Santos by Mónica is one of the first emerging labels to fully devote itself to cactus leather and low-waste design, Santos Gil is hopeful other companies will follow her lead on biomaterials and demonstrated community relief efforts.
“The world is facing the most challenging times we’ve seen,” added Agustin Ramirez, founder and chief executive officer of Ética. “We believe that these challenges are worth facing, and by joining together to produce with purpose, we can be a part of the solutions.”
The denim brand — which is “great”-rated, the highest rating on Good On You brand ratings platform — is designed in Los Angeles, California, and produced in Mexico where Ramirez’s family has been closely connected to the local community in Puebla. “It is important to me to support that community and provide a healthy environment for future generations.”
Year-round, Ética accomplishes this mission by supporting job creation, as well as by supporting farmland and housing projects in partnership with local environmental nonprofits, like Friends of the LA River, Heal the Bay, 1 Percent for the Planet and more. Clean manufacturing is another component of its long-term business view. A closer look at the company’s denim wash processing reveals Jeanologia’s E-Flow (vapor rinsing), ozone (oxygen lightening) and laser tech, as well as high-efficiency drying and natural, low-impact chemical management through Bluesign.
“Through education, our message of sustainability, clean manufacturing and social responsibility can live on for generations,” Ramirez said. “Our hope is that the love we put into our product, our planet and our people will be embraced during times like these, and will continue to spread as our brand grows.”
Argentinian brand Carolina K’s founder and creative director, Carolina Kleinman, offered additional community-derived inspiration.
Founded in 2005, the women’s lifestyle brand partners with artisans all over Latin America, including shoemakers in Peru, jewelry artisans in Mexico and so on. Throughout the year, Carolina K supports giveback through nonprofits like Lotus House (supporting unhoused women and youth), Bye Bye Plastic (plastic pollution reduction) and Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge that gets retailers to dedicate at least 15 percent of their shelf space to Black designers.
“Coming from a family lineage in textiles and designs from my father’s upbringing in Bolivia and mine in Argentina, I’ve always been enamored with different cultural fabrication techniques such as hand-crocheting, weaving, embroidering and more,” Kleinman said. “I first fell in love with these techniques after a trip to Northern Argentina. These ancestral techniques sustain local communities and protect their cultural history, which are important traditions I want to help preserve for generations to come.”
Her travels in Bolivia, Peru and Mexico influenced the brand’s craftsmanship. “It became natural to incorporate these intricate techniques into my designs to create intentional statement pieces that will stand the test of time,” she said.
Carolina K will expand its home category, which includes ottomans, blankets, pillows and rugs, and now handmade homeware and ceramics — with wallpaper and furniture to come. Through it all, Kleinman remains committed to the bigger picture: creating a fashion industry free of electricity, pesticides and chemicals.
“Ever since starting Carolina K, I’ve been a pioneer in preserving cultural tradition and supporting local artisans,” she said. “Creating statement pieces through sustainable methods is my ultimate goal.”
Meanwhile, Karla Gallardo, CEO and cofounder of Cuyana, a leather goods brand based in San Francisco, California, also had her say in how fashion can regain the humanity in its craft — a lesson that applies to the latest string of disasters.
“Growing up in Ecuador, I was taught to invest in quality products that are made to last,” she said. “I also observed my father caring for and repairing pieces within our home, instead of throwing them away. My family raised me to appreciate everything that we owned and to recognize where these pieces come from. Behind each and every product, there were craftsmen and women with incredible skills that deserve to be celebrated and acknowledged across the globe. These values ultimately shaped my lifestyle when I moved to the U.S., as I continued to make conscious purchasing decisions and appreciate the heritage behind different products.”
This “fewer, better” mind-set was ultimately what inspired Cuyana’s supply chain and lifestyle vision.
“I’m very proud of our supply chain, which prioritizes giving back to Latin America and communities around the world. Our suppliers are an integral part of our Cuyana family — with leather from Argentina, alpaca and Pima from Peru, and toquilla straw from Ecuador. In sourcing these items from our global suppliers, we’re supporting micro-industries and preserving heritage craftsmanship. As an example of this, we recently launched a campaign around the “Panama* Hat” — Cuyana’s first product — reclaiming the heritage and sharing the stories of the Indigenous female artisans in Ecuador. Ecuador is where these products are actually made, and we hope that our efforts will give this community the recognition they deserve after years of misappropriation.”
And as for how the industry can carry on efforts past Latin Heritage Month, Gallardo said, “Industry and customer support for Latinx-owned businesses should be a year-round commitment and an intentional choice. By making a conscious effort to support these businesses, consumers are also supporting indigenous artisans — helping to preserve their craft, and paying homage to heritages that have been passed down for generations.”