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Sustainable and Slow Fashion in Latin America

The "fast fashion industry", which is the second-largest sector polluting our world the most, has a large and growing rate in the usage of chemicals that both damage health and pollute nature. In addition, this sector also has devastating water consumption. The globalised fashion industry has always emphasised that we don't need to consider the ease of accessing "cheap" products, copyrights and designing processes etc. Unfortunately, in general, what and who is "sacrificed" to produce our clothes is ignored.

All of the elements that compose today's fashion industry have billions of dollars worth of "contributing" to the world GDP. The market value of the Latin American Fashion Industry is worth 160 billion dollars and covers almost 10% of the world market for the fashion industry. In this regard, Brazil and Mexico are the major fashion markets among Latin American countries. Colombia and Peru are the two Latin American countries that represent the highest growth rates in the industry.

On the other hand, Latin America faces several problems in this sector. The lack of integration of regional value chains and the fact that big brands producing due to the practices of the fast fashion industry cause deforestation, especially regarding the Amazon Rainforest, are just a few of these problems. We can say that both consumers and producers should choose products with local and natural ingredients to overcome these problems. Furthermore, the value of the local identities and culture with an intersectional and inclusive perspective should be considered. Therefore, sustainable production and consumption models must be developed.

Compared to other countries, Latin American countries hold great potential in the steps taken on the road to sustainable fashion: Traditional Latin American textiles contain high-quality 100% natural raw materials (such as camelid fibres). As a result, it has sustainable and biodegradable materials that can be adapted to high technology. In addition, it carries traces of natural features and cultural elements unique to Latin America. These elements are one of the cornerstones of today's Latin American local economy.

Historically, Latin American nations have had a rich tradition in textile making and weaving. The Latin American fashion industry and the market draws a more substantial graph in the face of the devastating effects of the fast fashion industry. The biggest reason for this situation still lies in the traditional production dynamics, the commitment of local groups and indigenous peoples to environmentally friendly production, and the existence of textile cooperatives. Of course, there is still much more to be done. However, it is essential not to miss the critical point here: When you buy a Latin American fashion product that is traditionally produced without polluting nature, you support small and women-owned (in general) businesses by opposing the polluting and labour-exploiting nature of fast fashion.

Many fashion labels in Latin America are certified Fair Trade (that guarantees no workers are exploited), GOTS (which regulates the procedure of growing and processing organic cotton) or Certified Wildlife Friendly Fibers. It can be said that access to such certifications has started to become widespread among local producers. Latin American local manufacturers are trying to continue their ancestors' fabric making, natural dyeing, weaving, and braiding techniques with low budgets involving the traditions handed down for generations. By supporting these manufacturers, you get both unique and incredible quality slow fashion products that will last as long as you use them. You also have the chance to experience the culture passed down for thousands of years closely. And, of course, you help these producers to find funding by purchasing their products in sustainable certification and standardisation processes.

What are the Sustainable Latin American Textile Materials?

Sustainable Latin American textiles, which include the highest quality of pima cotton, merino and the most expensive fabric in the world, vicuña, are used in production by almost all indigenous peoples and local people. At the same time, many eco-friendly Latin American fashion brands that are mass-produced also prefer these environmentally friendly, biodegradable and sustainable textile materials.

Unique to Colombia, "fique" is traditionally used to make ropes and bags. These products are adorned with slow fashion practices and are entirely handmade, depending on ancient traditions and cultures.

“Chusquea quila” is a botanical species that grows in the Valdivian Forest in Chile and belongs to the bamboo subfamily. Since the Valdivian Forest also extends to Argentina, this plant is also found in the forest border regions of Argentina. It is used primarily for medical purposes. Due to its solid structure, "Chusquea quila" is also used in construction and textile manufacturing.

In addition to all these, Alpaca wool, which is highly preferred in the Latin American fashion industry, is allowed if the Responsible Alpaca Standard (RAS) conditions are met. Thanks to this regulation, alpaca welfare is also guaranteed. Furthermore, free-range sheep in Patagonia and the Andes are also among these materials. Finally, it should be added: the first-ever certified wildlife-safe wool comes from South America.

Plant-Based Dyeing Techniques

Of course, chemicals that will poison nature are not used in the slow fashion approach of Latin America, which produces traditionally; colouring of textiles is done by using natural pigments. This production technique has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years and has survived today.

Natural pigments obtained from plants, including tara, turmeric, cabbage, beetroot, anchancaray, are preferred for dyeing textiles (as is often encountered in Peru). These techniques are generally vegan. However, insects such as cochineal are also used in natural colour production. Nevertheless, traditional small businesses and mass-produced eco-friendly Latin American fashion brands continue to preserve and use these techniques. In this way, both synthetic chemicals that threaten the health of all living things are used, and the awareness of environmental protection increases thanks to the ecological stance shown.

It is critical to the indigenous peoples not to pollute mother nature because there should be no environmental pollution for these ancient people who live in harmony with nature to continue their lives. However, in today's dynamics, indigenous communities, who have to cope with many environmental disasters, especially the climate crisis, also face difficulties producing slowly and with ethical values in many fields, especially textile and food. Some cultural accumulations and techniques are on the verge of being forgotten. Therefore, a "clean" nature also means a "fertile" nature.

It should not be forgotten that an important way for fast fashion brands to keep their prices "low" is "stock production" in large quantities. As a result of this stock production, the expanded production scale represents a stereotyped and mechanised process, unlike a handmade process made by a skilled tailor, and causes local production to disappear. The disappearance of this local production in Latin America means the unemployment of a large part of the population and the traditional output and culture's death. "Excess stock production" also causes "overconsumption" to which our world's natural resources are exposed. From this point of view, it can be said that, just as experienced in the traditional and slow production techniques of Latin America, it is essential for the continuation of humanity to turn to more minor, minimal and what we really need.

In summary, how do these Latin American producers adhere to values of sustainability and slow fashion?

  • To "return" to local and indigenous development origins and embrace traditional fashion's cultural elements.

  • To provide the necessary budgets for local production, prepare programs to encourage traditional and slow production, accelerate and standardise the certification processes of sustainable practices, and regulate training programs.

  • To create a sustainable supply chain in order to ensure that local and domestic products are opened to the international market.

  • To develop technology platforms for the use of sustainable textiles by not falling behind the trends of the 21st century (Andean Youth holds significant potential at this point).

Closing thoughts

It is crucial to expand our "inclusive" understanding when evaluating clothes that are produced ethically and sustainably. Sustainable fashion includes a fair working environment, safe workplaces, local producers and artisanal labour, organic and natural materials within its pricing. Therefore, unlike those who produce within the scope of fast fashion, sustainable fashion pays attention to the dignity, safety, remuneration of their efforts, quality and qualified production, the maximum quality that can be obtained from an outfit and that this clothing can be used for a long time.

When we decide to integrate ourselves into a sustainable lifestyle, it is vital first to understand our products' "real" cost. We can say that the first glance at a price tag puts many individuals in a position that often confuses them and leads to a biased approach to the value of sustainable fashion. Today's consensus is that buying a new outfit is more of a privilege than a necessity, no matter how often we do it or how much money we spend doing it. However, it should not be forgotten that having this privilege in the fashion world requires thinking about yourself first. And without a doubt, the age of consumption we live in also causes and continues to cause great environmental disasters, as it brings with it rapid access to products. That's why making sustainable alternatives a part of our lives is more important than ever.

The traditional and sustainable fashion approach in Latin American countries influences brands and initiatives that remain eco-friendly even if they are mass-produced. This means that big brands worldwide can also experience these production fashion practices unique to Latin America. In this regard, water resources will not be polluted, the health of every living thing will not be in danger, employment will be created by encouraging local production, cultures in vulnerable positions will not face assimilation, and the value of labour will be appreciated. If even one of the sustainable and slow fashion techniques in Latin America were implemented by almost every country globally, a much better future would await us.

And finally, let's not forget before it's too late:


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