JOLIET, Illinois — Guatemala is the motherland of skilled artisans and hand-loomed textiles crafted with indigenous wisdom. One million of the 17 million Guatemalan residents are artisans who use the foot and back-strap loom to preserve their history, multi-generational craft, patrimony and dreams. With the resurgence of small artisanal businesses in the late 20th century, more artisans have received a living wage. They provide culturally rich designs and styles to consumers all over the world. Fast fashion brands must address the impact of producing cheaply made clothing on the livelihood of artisans. Slow fashion in Guatemala helps address the issues found in the fashion industry. Furthermore, it helps preserve artisan’s handmade skills and goods in the midst of a pandemic and increasingly mechanized world.
Fast fashion has caused the systematic disenfranchisement of Guatemalan artisans as brands push for the production of trendy clothing. Their deeply cultural designs are imitated and stripped of their historical narrative and folklore. The imitations threaten artisans’ livelihood as they rely on crafts to feed their families. Furthermore, the handwork preserves their cultural integrity and uplifts their ancestral skills. Artisans don’t have the education, resources or network for their products to enter global handicraft markets. They are often cut off from the process of non-indigenous designers selling their textiles to global clients at large mark-ups. It leaves artisans unfairly compensated and taken advantage of. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the hardships of artisans suffering from years of drought, violence and extreme poverty.
Elevating artisanal work would uplift Guatemala’s 24 ethnic groups and languages, each with its own cultural heritage and artisanal skills. In May 2016, the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepequez (AFEDES), an indigenous women’s rights organization, lead a bill into Congress to collectively recognize and compensate the intellectual property rights of the weavings from indigenous artisans. It aims to prevent US and European designers from appropriating designs and textiles and to foster collaboration with Guatemalan artisans. AFEDES is supported by 18 linguistic communities and 30 weaving cooperatives. In 2017, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala ruled for the second time in its favor. The bill proposal has dragged on, but it highlights Indigenous people’s need to protect their weaving designs as collective intellectual property.
Slow Fashion in Guatemala and COVID-19
Slow fashion in Guatemala invests in the economic empowerment of indigenous women, often artisans. Mercado Global, an ethical fashion nonprofit, started making face masks at the beginning of the pandemic to support over 750 indigenous female artisans and about 5,000 of their family members. Levi Strauss & Co. partnered with Mercado Global by providing 7,000 yards of deadstock denim to make their first 55,000 nonmedical grade masks. Their recent Masks Where They’re Needed Most campaign has allowed consumers to choose where another mask will be donated to those in need. Artisans making the masks received 15,000 pounds of emergency food supplies and 2,500 masks.
At the start of COVID-19, the National Coalition for the Economic Empowerment of Women launched to elevate indigenous women’s livelihoods. Due to the strict COVID-19 lockdown protocols, Guatemalans have struggled to find work or have already lost their jobs. Around 79% of Guatemala’s indigenous people live in poverty and only one in 10 indigenous women have paid work. This multi-stakeholder alliance between U.N. Women and the Government of Guatemala addresses the barriers limiting women to participate in the economy and providing economic opportunities.
Slow fashion in Guatemala allows artisans to thrive during a global pandemic. Securing the prosperity of their cultural craft requires collaborations and partnerships in the fashion industry. It prevents appropriation, uplifts artisan communities and elevates their culturally rich textiles in global markets. In turn, slow fashion preserves the essence of artisanal labor in Guatemala.
– Giselle Magana