Gladys Ciriaco was 8 years old when she started to learn ancient Mayan weaving techniques in Santa María de Jesús in Guatemala. But later on, she was prohibited from using her skill to work.
“My husband forced me to stay home; he did not want me to work,” she said.“He used to drink a lot, so not only did he abuse me psychologically, but he also threatened me and hit me.”
Eleven years ago, Ciriaco’s life changed. She met fashion designer Alida Boer, Miss Guatemala 2007, and the founder of Marias, a company based in Guatemala City and New York City that produces handmade purses and accessories.
Now at age 37, Ciriaco has steady work managing the weavers that make up the network of 600 craftspeople that create handmade pieces for Boer. She also takes pride in her role as one of the brand’s leaders, helping to source the company’s raw materials and checking the sustainability practices of the farms they buy from.
“They use natural fertilizers; they do not use chemicals,” said Ciriaco, referring to the cotton farms and cotton thread producers the company works with. “It’s important to see that they are doing a good job producing the threads and to see how they work.”
Improving the lives of women like Gladys Ciriaco may not seem connected to the fight against climate change. But over the past three decades, there has been a growing understanding that women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability are closely linked. This, along with mounting evidence that the fashion industry is a major contributor to environmental destruction and climate change, has prompted a new model of textile production that is friendlier to the planet and to workers.
“A deliberate approach to hire locals and provide fair working conditions, fair wages and support for these communities, while doing things that are sustainable from local sources, makes a huge difference,” said Frances Colón, senior director for international climate policy at the Center for American Progress, and a native of Puerto Rico.
It is estimated that the fashion industry - both its production and consumption - is responsible for 3% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That number is expected to increase in the coming years.
“The prediction is that fashion will account for about 24 or 25 % of [global greenhouse gas emissions] by the year 2050,” said Colón, who is also a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the Biden administration. “So we need to put the brakes on this now by developing better practices. Every half of a percent matters because it contributes to increases in degrees of temperatures that have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem and causes all of these dreadful impacts on communities: massive floods that have taken the lives of so many people, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts like we have never experienced.”
A NEW FORM OF LUXURY
For many Latino designers that come from cultures with ancestral garment-making traditions, the trend towards greater sustainability comes naturally. Uruguayan fashion designer Gabriela Hearst spoke recently about a new concept of luxury. Representing the fashion industry at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, last November, Hearst talked about beautifully crafted handmade pieces made to last or to pass on to future generations, a trend that is slowly gaining traction in the fashion industry.
“People are forgetting that something that can be 100 percent handmade, only the human hand can make it,” said Hearst, founder of clothing and handbag collection Gabriela Hearst and creative director of the luxury brand Chloé.
An alarming new study published by Slow Factory – a non-profit research and education institute devoted to creating a climate-positive society – links major fashion brands to Amazon rainforest deforestation and irreversible ecosystem collapse. The study, conducted by Stand.earth Research Group, blames the cattle industry as the largest driver of Amazon deforestation, based on its ties to leather production. This group of scientists specializes in tracking raw materials, tracing environmental destruction, and human rights violations. The data they collect is used to hold companies accountable for their environmental impact, and hopefully force them to change their destructive practices.
Colón notes that fashion lines use many products derived from fossil fuels. “A lot of fashion is produced from polyester, which is literally plastic from fossil fuels,” she said. “So it has the same issues that we see in other industries where manufacturing the final product uses the fossil fuels that produce the emissions that are warming the planet.”
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Empowering women while preserving traditional Mayan weaving techniques with sustainable practices has been Alida Boer’s main goal with the Marias line.
Boer said her company’s textiles are “100 percent handmade,” referring to the elaborate traditional indigenous woven tunics called huipiles that inspired her collection. Huipiles are made from two or three pieces of fabric joined with stitching, ribbons or fabric strips. “There are very pretty huipiles made by machines in 10 minutes,” she said, “but our huipiles can take months.”
Boer, a mother of two, who competed in the Miss Universe pageant in 2007, now lives with her family in Manhattan, where her studio is located. When she traveled the world as a model and toured her country doing charity work as Miss Guatemala, she discovered the wealth of Mayan culture. “Guatemala has the biggest heritage of textile craftsmanship and the most complex textile techniques in the world,” she said. “I realized that all those woven textiles were ‘haute couture,’ and they were not appreciated.”
Madres & Artesanas Tex specializes in handmade production methods such as macramé (a knotting technique), crochet, and other knitting styles. Manos del Uruguay’s rural women are experts in handling and knitting wool.
Using skills passed down through the generations, these women have seen their work represented in the most exclusive international markets and on runways.
“Those women that are putting together these products that are done in an environmentally conscious way for sustainable fashion designers are also protecting their own environment because they are sourcing the product locally in a sustainable way,” Colón said.
Concerns about fashion’s environmental impact extend to the dyes used in clothing manufacturing. “If you are making jeans, how are you making them blue or black?” Colón asked. “Those are dyes that end up in the water supply. So you are affecting the water supply when you are using the water to farm, and you are affecting the water supply when you discard the dyes.”
Boer said the Marias line is created primarily with raw cotton from Guatemala. She uses mainly natural dyes, but said that it's impossible to get all colors from nature. “But,” she explained, “we buy [dyes] from a company that works with chemicals that are safe and are approved.”
Boer said the dyes come from suppliers that are B-Corp certified, which means they meet high standards of social and environmental accountability and transparency. “I know they are responsible,” Boer said.
It’s part of a Boer’s holistic approach to fashion design and manufacturing. “It’s our art, our culture. Each piece has a story and a woman that spent weeks weaving it,” she said about the handmade textiles.
For Gladys Ciriaco, the opportunity to work for Boer allowed her to flip the dynamics in her own household. She found the strength to confront her husband and told him that if she couldn't work, she would leave. “I became independent from my husband. Now I’m the boss,” she said, laughing.
Her husband, also a weaver, now works for her.