Transparency and traceability are two key ideas that help to define ethical fashion. To put it more simply, knowing how and where our clothes are made. That's pretty important if we want to be sure they're being made with the appropriate levels of respect for the environment and people who create them.
Technology is helping companies that would otherwise have little idea or control over the production process to ensure their products are being put together as they'd hope. The communication and navigation tech that we take for granted is changing the way ethical fashion gets from remote locations to your door.
We've talked in the past about Pachacuti, who work with native artisans in Ecuador to make brilliant Panama hats. Over the past three years, they've been willing partners with the EU Geo Fair Trade project in a scheme which has brought unprecedented levels of traceability to their supply chain. The aim: to provide visible accountability of sustainable provenance, both for raw materials as well as production processes.
The results have been pretty remarkable. Pachacuti hats are woven in the remote region of Azuay–an area that is largely inaccessible by road. Despite that, the project has managed to log GPS tags that shows the 154 houses in which Pachacuti hats are woven. It doesn't stop there. Data on the areas where the all-important straw is harvested and processed has also been collected–from weather patterns to the times when the roads become impassable.
Why bother with all that? Well, by tracking where materials are coming from, it's easier to open lines of communication, allowing Pachacuti to work with the Ecuadorian people to ensure their product is produced sustainably and fairly. The communities that produce the straw and hats work as collectives, protecting the land and the folks who toil upon it. Communication equals transparency, allowing both sides to deal with each other openly, honestly and most importantly, accountably.
The craft of creating a Panama hat in Ecuador is, if you'll pardon the pun, woven into the culture. It permeates so deeply into Ecuadorian life that in 2012 UNESCO put hat weaving onto their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage: knowledge, traditions and rituals which pervade the everyday life of a community, passed down through generations and forming an intrinsic part of their identity and culture. It's vital that it be both celebrated and protected.
These rural communities suffer from high rates of migration and alcoholism, which aren't helped by the unscrupulous practices of most traders who buy hats from them. Pachacuti are setting a different example, working directly with collectives to ensure high quality and a fair price. As the word gets out that there is a better way than deling with the scalpers, one that protects their rights and culture, then communities are seeing the benefits to allowing a transparent and sustainable model guide the way they do business with the West. The EU Geo Fair Trade project is a pilot, but everyone involved is highly enthusiastic about the future.
Most importantly, it dispels a well-worn myth. Panama hats aren't made in Panama at all, and now we have the data to prove it!