The Issue of Exploitation and Appropriation of Artisan Textiles

In the age of technology we have more access to information about the world than ever before. The internet has made everything seem smaller and more connected. However, it’s also become a breeding ground for misinformed opinions and blatant lies from politics to the fashion industry. Although more people are able to learn about and appreciate artisan textiles, companies are also taking advantage of that interest for their own personal gain. Through disconnected supply chains, ignorant design use, and corporate greed, artisans around the world have become particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Broken Supply Chains

In 2017 a marketplace for Guatemalan artisans to sell their goods was launched called Ethical Fashion Guatemala. This was a response to the growing numbers of fake and exploited textiles being sold on sites like Etsy, copied by fast fashion brands, and appropriated on runways across the globe. Artisan textile exploitation has been running rampant throughout the country as brands claiming to be fairly or ethically traded forgo relationships with artisans for easy purchasing through middle men. There have been countless accounts of traditional garments, such as the “huipil, being bought from artisans for a fraction of what it actually costs and then deconstructed for accessories to be sold elsewhere. This type of exploitation is unfortunately not unique to the South American country. Last year Eco Warrior Princess dove into the broken supply chains within India, citing home working as a key hiccup in the ethical fashion system. While artisans working from home is by no means inherently exploitative, these unregulated working situations leave a lot of room for unethical practices. The platform also discussed the use of middle men to lower costs and take advantage of artisans who don’t receive as much work in the age of fast fashion. “Artisan does not equate to ethical, and conscientious shoppers shouldn’t fall for this greenwashing campaign,” author Mary Imgrund asserted in the piece. Although many companies are seeking out equal and ethical partnerships with artisans, organizations like the International Labour Organization have still estimated that as of 2016 there are 40.3 million people victims of slave labor worldwide.

ikat artisan textiles
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Appreciation Turned Appropriation

Not only are makers being shortchanged for their work, but traditional artisan textiles are ripped off by companies with even less connection to the areas in which inspiration comes from. Fast fashion is one of the two leading threats to artisanship (the second being an overwhelming second hand clothing market) due to its push for mass consumption and appropriation of artisan textiles. According to a Forbes piece on the 2019 short documentary film Fashionscapes: Artisans Guatemaya “one million of the 17 million residents of Guatemala are artisans, and their craft is at risk of extinction given the changing values in the fashion landscape.” Fast fashion brands like Zara and Max Mara have been called out for their appropriation of the Indian “lungi” and Laotian designs of the Oma people. Recently, fashion label Carolina Herrera came under fire recently for using traditional Mexican textiles without crediting, consulting, or compensating artisans from the country. The patterns used for the brand’s Resort 2020 collection belonged to several Indigenous groups including communities within the Tehuantepec isthmus and the Tenango de Doria. More luxury houses like Dior and Louis Vuitton have had their own scandals as well, proving that stealing of artisan textiles is an industry-wide issue. So many fashion brands defend appropriation by calling it appreciation of other cultures, though ethical fashion advocate Benita Robledo explained in a 2017 blog post that there is in fact a difference. “Appreciation is bartering. Appropriation is conquest.” Avoiding appropriation and artisan textile exploitation requires brands to do their research and commit to partnerships where both parties are benefiting from the exchange. 

Creating an Ethical Industry

Combatting the exploitation of artisan textiles takes work and commitment to creating ethical supply chains, not profiting off of the work of others. Brands must focus on the unique storytelling of ancient textiles and transparently sharing those stories with customers. Additionally, customers must be aware of the dangers of taking fashion companies at their word without proof. “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,” explains consultant Elena Laswick via Ethical Unicorn. After living and working in Nebaj, Guatemala for three years she’s compiled knowledge on how to spot a truly ethical or fair trade company, from an exploitative one. It takes care to create, share, and purchase artisan-made goods in a way which benefits all involved. By taking time to ask a few questions before investing your money, you can make a huge difference in changing the fashion industry for good.

Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.

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