"What happens when you learn to read between the lines of some [fair trade] labels and find their claims don’t stand up?"
As consumers, we are constantly faced with choices. But many of us are also busy. We don’t have time to investigate where every ingredient in a face cream comes from, or which coffee farms treat their workers fairly. We can’t all be experts on how long it takes to tool leather, or even where in the world certain countries are located. So especially as conscientious consumers, who care about where our money is going and who it is benefitting, it’s important to feel we can trust the information on product labels. We need the branding and labeling of products to help guide us through the obstacle course of choices encountered even in our simplest purchases at the grocery store. But what happens when you learn to read between the lines of some labels and find their claims don’t stand up?
"I’ve seen firsthand how weavers are taken advantage of when the “fair market” turns into the free market; when companies misrepresent themselves and unsuspecting consumers are led to believe their money is benefitting weavers, when really they see no profit from the sale of the company’s final products."
Over the past three years living in rural Guatemala, I’ve gotten to know some of the people and processes behind this country’s amazing textile tradition, and have seen how some companies’ practices do not always align with their marketing claims. I’ve seen firsthand how weavers are taken advantage of when the “fair market” turns into the free market; when companies misrepresent themselves and unsuspecting consumers are led to believe their money is benefitting weavers, when really they see no profit from the sale of the company’s final products.
"This is a global challenge to keep terms like 'fair-trade' and 'ethical' from losing their significance."
This issue is one of integrity and accountability, and therefore applies beyond the world of Guatemalan products. If consumers don’t hold brands and their labels accountable, then words that were created to set companies apart based on the principles and practices they champion cease to have meaning. It is a global challenge to keep terms like “fair-trade” and “ethical” from losing their significance. If anyone can use them as a marketing tool, even when they do not accurately represent their practices and values, then why use them at all?
Informed consumers are the best accountability mechanism there is in the face of this unfortunate development in the fair trade space; this article was written with consumers in mind. It will provide you with some background on the traditions and techniques most often abused in Guatemala, and includes a checklist at the end for the next time you are faced with a choice of artisan products, so that you can make a more informed decision.
So where to begin? When navigating Guatemalan fair trade and not-so-fairly-traded products, a word you’ll often come across is “huipil.” A huipil is a blouse worn by indigenous Maya women that is part of their traditional dress and also, in many cases, their cosmovision. Huipiles (plural of huipil) vary greatly in style and technique, with over 110 different styles of daily use huipiles in Guatemala – a country roughly the size of the state of Ohio! Most huipiles are woven on a backstrap loom – a technique exclusively practiced by women – and can take up to six months, or longer, to complete.
A traditional huipil from Chichicastenango, Guatemala.
Photo: Elena Laswick, 2018.
Before huipiles became a popular tourist commodity, women would only weave them for their personal use, and wouldn’t dream of selling them. Now, with such high demand for these woven wonders, weavers in Guatemala are often coerced into selling their huipiles, or sell them for a fraction of their worth out of dire necessity (such as to buy medicine for a sick child). These un-ethically sourced huipiles make their way to markets in Guatemala such as that of Chichicastenango, where they are sold for as little as $2 – $15 depending on the intricacy of the brocade and/or embroidery. As a point of comparison, a new huipil typically costs between $60 and $450! The raw materials alone could cost a woman up to $100, without factoring in her time investment.
"Un-ethically sourced huipiles make their way to markets in Guatemala such as that of Chichicastenango, where they are sold for as little as $2 – $15 depending on the intricacy of the brocade and/or embroidery. As a point of comparison, a new huipil typically costs between $60 and $450!"
The intricacy and beauty of these textiles has led to their transformation by different companies into handbags and other products intended to appeal to a broader, more international market. These items are then billed as “artisan-made” and “ethically sourced,” although many times the textile element was acquired through a middle-man. This issue of repurposing used or more appropriately, “embezzled,” huipiles, is not a new controversy, and illustrates that there are problems with interpreting how product labeling reflects the true benefit to weavers in Guatemala.*
Photo: Elena Laswick, 2018.
(*Read more about the sale of used huipiles discussed by the Guatemalan anthropologists Linda Asturias and Lucia Jimenez, with Brenda Rosenbaum of Mayan Hands, on pages 5 and 3 respectively, here: http://weavearealpeace.org/weave/wp-content/uploads/Summer-2014.pdf)
In order to know that weavers will indeed directly benefit from your purchase of a Guatemalan artisan product, it is important to be aware of the existence in this space of fair trade membership groups, such as the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and the Fair Trade Federation (FTF).** In fact, the first reason the WFTO lists under “why to become a member,” is to help brands, “differentiate from pretenders.” These membership groups include feedback mechanisms like annual peer reviews, to ensure member brands are honestly representing their practices. The membership application for the FTF includes questions to ensure Federation members understand and respect the cultural identity of the products they are selling in order to qualify for membership. However, there is no policing the language brands can or cannot use to promote themselves and their products. Brands that are not members of fair trade membership groups see “artisan made” and “fair trade” as trendy marketing buzzwords, and use the associated language regardless of their true sourcing and/or production practices.
(**Read more about fair trade membership versus certification here.)
This leads to the problem of non-fair-trade brands creating (unfairly, as it were) competition for brands that are following fair trade principles. By co-opting fair trade language for their own commercial purposes, non-fair-trade practitioners are able to recycle language (and textiles) with virtually no negative repercussions. In fact, quite the opposite; these brands have some of the largest market bases. They boast up to forty thousand followers on Instagram, as well as ties to international brands like ASOS, Keds, and Free People, to mention a few.
"This is essentially the free market all over again: fashion brands that rely on unfair working conditions in order to turn a profit."
Here’s an example of this type of co-opted language (these are examples and haven’t been taken from any specific brand):
Typical language of FTF member that works directly with weavers:
"Our products make a difference in the the lives of indigenous women and ensure a better future for future generations and communities."
Typical language of a brand with no membership affiliation that buys textiles from a middle-man:
"Your purchase supports the Maya culture and contributes to the success of local family businesses."
To the untrained eye, both of the above statements sound great and also very similar. In both cases, it sounds like your money is doing good, and going to the people who need it most. The differences between the same two types of companies become a lot clearer when comparing products and product descriptions, such as these two handbags:
Typical language of FTF member (bag #1):
Choose from any of four colors of our “Arizona Highways” designs, handwoven in 100% AZO free cotton.
Typical language of non-member (bag #2):
Our bags are handmade from discarded fabric from Guatemalan weavers. Your purchase is not only sustainable, it’s guaranteed one-of-a-kind!
If a brand partners with artisans, rather than using “discarded fabric” (the “discarded” fabric mentioned here are the embezzled huipiles discussed above), then everything is still handmade and therefore unique, but also replicable. In addition, if a brand is working directly with weavers, they are coming up with designs (eg. Arizona Highways, in this example) typically offered in several color options. While it might sound great that something is “one of a kind” and “unique,” this just goes to show the brand isn’t partnering directly with weavers. If they were, there should be no problem getting several made.
Since there are no major negative repercussions for brands that purposefully blend transparency with opacity when advertising their supposed “fair trade” practices, the consequences impact only the people at the bottom of the production chain: the weavers. This is essentially the free market all over again: fashion brands that rely on unfair working conditions in order to turn a profit. Whilst the ideals promoted by these brands may lead us to believe they are creating transparent chains of production and providing opportunities for disadvantaged producers (fair trade principal #1), in reality they obscure the fact that the women who created the most eye-catching element of their products don’t see any profit from the sale. In fact, it’s likely these women have no idea how much their weaving sold for, much less how it was used.
"Since there are no major negative repercussions for brands that purposefully blend transparency with opacity when advertising their supposed “fair trade” practices, the consequences impact only the people at the bottom of the production chain: the weavers."
Left: Used and lightly used huipiles (blouses), cortes (wrap-around skirts), fajas (belts), and cintas (hair wraps), at the market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo: Elena Laswick, Chichicastenango, 2018.
Right: Product made from a “recycled” faja (belt), much like the one of the ones seen in the upper left-hand corner of the market photo on the left. Source: Undisclosed Website. Retail Price: $79.
Even if a brand’s mission is based on a genuine desire to help, their marketing typically represents their perceived version of reality, which can clue consumers into the fact that they may be unaware that their practices are misguided or are hurting weavers instead of helping them. This guide should help consumers to recognize the difference between a brand that truly is working to support weavers, and one that just believes they are. So next time you think to buy a product that claims to be ethically sourced from Guatemalan artisans in your local grocery store or fair trade store, take 3 minutes to read between the lines on the label by going through the following checklist:
Part One: One minute
Does the brand pair one of these adjectives with the word “textile” or “fabric”?
- Does the label make a grandiose claim or statement about the impact of your purchase? (i.e. “Your purchase helps lift indigenous artisans out of poverty.”)
- Does the product have a WFTO or FTF label?
- Yes: Good sign. Continue through the checklist just in case.
- No: Think again. Continue through the checklist.***
***To secure WFTO and FTF membership requires being fully legally registered and operational for two years and one year, respectively. It’s possible a brand could be too new to qualify for membership. Feel free to reach out to them to ask if they’re in the process of applying if you’re not sure!
- Does the product have a B Corp label?
- Yes: Think again. Continue to part two.
- No: See question 3 or proceed to part two.
Translation: This certification isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not always appropriate for businesses that should more appropriately adhere to WFTO and FTF membership standards. These groups only accept as members adherents to all fair trade principles and additionally include peer feedback and other accountability mechanisms that B Corps does not. The B Corps website says itself that “it’s simple” to secure certification, and membership is treated like a for-profit business.
Part Two: Two minutes
If you have an extra two minutes, go beyond the product label and glance at the brand’s Instagram account. How a brand markets itself on Instagram usually aligns more closely with its true values and sourcing techniques than a label might let on.
Trends to look out for and avoid:
- The “white savior” complex: Does the brand’s founder appear in most of the photos? Or often appear with local children?
Translation: The underlying appeal of this trend is that it lends the sense that the representative of the brand, and therefore your purchase, lifts artisans out of poverty. By representing themselves as a savior and using children to represent their positive effect on future generations, these representatives avoid addressing the underlying inequalities and complexities that have led to the economic and political situation of the country they are trying to support.
- Romanticizing indigenous peoples and/or the country in which they work:
- Are the people featured the weavers or artisans who are supported by the brand, or do they seem more like photos of strangers?
- Does the brand’s instagram account look like it was curated by someone on an expensive vacation?
Translation: This trend homogenizes the country and the indigenous population and in the process, dilutes or avoids topics relevant to why these brands can exist, such as the disparities indigenous women face every day in Guatemala. Instead, your purchase is supposed to transport you to a vacation paradise where life is good.
While the information and checklist presented here was created specifically with Guatemalan products in mind, I’d encourage you to search for these troublesome trends when considering purchasing a textile product from anywhere in the world. If you make it through this checklist and are not convinced a brand is truly dedicated to working ethically, feel free to reach out to them to ask questions or to encourage them to change their practices!
If you still feel uneasy about being able to distinguish between the two types of brands I’ve discussed here, I’ll be publishing another blog post soon to highlight some brands that are doing right by weavers and who are using the word “recycled” the right way!