Creating Transparent Fashion Supply Chains in Rural Ecuador

The current lack of transparency in fashion supply chains makes it virtually impossible for people to know who made their clothes and accessories. Without knowing #whomademyclothes, how can we know in what conditions they were made?

This blog is part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion across HuffPost UK Style and Lifestyle. Here we aim to champion some of the emerging names in fashion and shine a light on the truth about the impact our appetite for fast fashion has around the world.

The current lack of transparency in fashion supply chains makes it virtually impossible for people to know who made their clothes and accessories. Without knowing #whomademyclothes, how can we know in what conditions they were made?

At Pachacuti, we believe fashion needs to rediscover a traceable narrative. We worked for three years as a pilot on the EU Geo Fair Trade project which has brought an unprecedented level of traceability to our supply chain. The project aims to provide visible accountability of sustainable provenance, both for raw materials as well as production processes.

This level of traceability data is far from easy to collect - it cannot be achieved by a few clicks on the computer - but it is essential to guarantee that our supply chain is as transparent as we can possibly make it. Despite the remoteness and inaccessibility of the region of Azuay where our Panama hats are woven, we traced the production of our hats back to the GPS coordinates of 154 of our weavers' houses - not easy data to collect when only 45% of homes are accessible by road, located high in the Andes. Pachacuti's weavers are delighted that this research data helps correct a historical misnomer and Panama hats can now be tracked back to their country of origin - Ecuador!

But it doesn't stop there. We then traced the straw back to the communities on the coast of Ecuador in Guayas province where it is processed. Next, a bumpy hour by truck from the nearest paved road, we mapped the GPS coordinates of each plot of land in the coastal cloud forest where the straw is harvested on community-owned plantations. The community has been working hard to protect their area of land and to increase sustainability and biodiversity in the area. They are now seeing a lot more toucans, armadillos and monkeys in the plantation.

Once established, the carludovica palmata plant can be cropped monthly for 100 years - surely one of the most sustainable sources of raw material imaginable. The plants also help to a prevent erosion and improve air quality. Our straw is gathered by 32 harvesters who form the Love and Peace Association - maybe a rather incongruous name for men who spend most of their lives wielding a machete! The straw harvesters are keen to point out:

"We are producing oxygen for the world"

But traceability is just the first element of creating a transparent supply chain. Transparency also implies openness, honesty, communication and accountability. Regular, ongoing monitoring of the supply chain to measure both the social and environmental impact is essential if we are to claim that our products are truly sustainable.

In 2012 UNESCO declared that the art of weaving a Panama hat in Ecuador would be added to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Intangible Cultural Heritage is a term used for knowledge, traditions and rituals which permeate the everyday life of a community, passed down through generations and forming an intrinsic part of their identity and culture. The art of creating Panama Hats is woven into the fabric of daily life in rural Ecuador: women weave on the bus, walking to market, on their way to the fields. For the women who weave Pachacuti Panama hats, weaving is more than an art, more than a skill; it represents the cultural heritage of an entire community.

However, the historic exploitation of weavers by middlemen means that this timeless skill is under threat as young people are searching for alternatives. This has led to the small, rural community where we work in Ecuador having one of the highest levels of migration in the country, with 60% of children having at least one parent living overseas. The destruction of family and community life has led to high rates of alcoholism, double the national rate of youth suicides and teen pregnancies are the norm.

Unlike the journey taken by most Panama Hats in the world, which pass through the hands of around seven different intermediaries (known as 'perros' or dogs due to their unscrupulous purchasing practices) Pachacuti works directly with women's associations in Ecuador through every step of the process, weaving, dyeing, blocking, finishing, to ensure that as much of the final value as possible remains in their hands. Our work on the EU Geo Fair Trade project involved the collection of 68 social, economic and environmental indicators which enabled us to track progress on our Fair Trade impact. Pachacuti is working to prove that the a better Panama hat industry is possible.

Fashion Revolution believes that transparency is the first step in transforming the industry and is a way to bring wider recognition to the many skilled artisans within the fashion supply chain. This, in turn, will help ensure their work is properly valued and justly remunerated in the future. #whomademyclothes

Join millions of people around the world and ask #whomademyclothes. Watch the video by Sienna Somers, the Savvy Student, and and follow these instructions for asking brands and retailers #whomademyclothes

Carry Somers is a Director of Pachacuti and Fashion Revolution

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