By Danica Ratte
As a sustainable travel addict, I discovered the beauty of traditional handicrafts while on a five-week trip through South East Asia. I was amazed at how hard these women worked to make their traditional textiles, and pleasantly surprised by their excitement for teaching it to others. I was also shocked to learn that their weaving cultures are in danger of going extinct, as modernization is slowly filtering into the traditional communities and younger generations are forced to move away in order to find jobs that will support their families. That’s when I knew I had to do something. I now live where the weavers are located, work closely with these amazing women, and ask this question every day: "Do you know where your bags come from?"
Most people only think of clothing and accessories as a way to stay warm during the day and get in on current fashion trends. Fashion is fun and inspiring, but we rarely ever think about how a product is made or who it’s made by. About 80% of garment workers worldwide are female, which means that it is more than likely that it was actually a woman who made your clothing. There is a deeper and more meaningful effect your purchases can have; they can help empower women!
According to UNESCO:
Women constitute one half of the world’s population, they do two-thirds of the world’s work, they earn one tenth of the world’s income and they own one hundredth of the world’s property including land...Women’s responsibilities place them in a unique position to improve human and economic well-being, and to conserve and maintain the natural environment. Yet their needs, their work and their voices are often not considered a priority. As a result, women in many countries do not have equal access to education, healthcare, employment, land, credit, technology or political power.
Below are three simple ways in which you can empower women through the fashion you buy.
1. Empower the maker
Learn about the brands you are wearing. Are they making it their priority to work with female artisans; support them by providing jobs; give safe working conditions; access to mentors; and offer ongoing training? Economic empowerment makes women less vulnerable and dependent, improves their education, decreases child mortality rates, and positively changes a family’s quality of life overall.
Many women in developing countries lack the monetary resources they need to create and sustain a healthy lifestyle for their families. According to the Mekong Development Research Institute, approximately 49% of ethnic minorities in Vietnam live in poverty; that’s over 6,357,451 people who lack proper education and decent living conditions. The majority of Vietnam’s ethnic communities are located in the northern mountains, meaning they have to deal with harsher environmental surroundings and live in remote locations which makes trading very difficult. These local families live on less than a few dollars a day, so just a slight increase in their wages could really make a world of difference in their lives.
As the sustainable fashion industry grows, finding brands that create their products with a purpose and choose to work with female artisans directly has become a little bit easier.
2. Empower the designer
Who is the designer behind your clothes? Gone are the days when we could turn a blind eye to the conditions people are forced to work in; the Rana Plaza catastrophe in 2013 was an event that made us realize just how unethical the practices of large, international brands, and corrupt leaders in Bangladesh really were.
It is up to you to support female designers who create their products transparently. As a sustainable fashion designer, I can say that my hope is to create a mix of traditional and modern design that is aesthetically pleasing, intriguing, and makes you want to learn more about different cultures.
We often find that the artisans we work with already have the ideas and the ability to create, but they need someone that can guide them and connect them to financial support and the international market.
A few of my favorite sustainable fashion brands founded by women are:
3. Empower yourself
What do you stand for? What is your purpose and your system of values? You'll feel better about what you represent if you know it’s substantially changing someone else’s life for the better and you have their story to share as proof. Your choices have weight, and if you choose to use your purchasing power to curve demand towards sustainable business practices, more brands will change their production processes and stop exploiting workers in third world countries.
By keeping these three principles in mind, we can create a sense of community amongst all women. So my question to you is: How are you, right now, empowering women every day, and what are you planning on doing in the future?
For more information about women’s empowerment, sustainable fashion, culture preservation, weaving, eco-tourism and anything Vietnam-related, check out Wild Tussah’s blog. To see our handbags, which incorporate Lu and Cham weaves, visit our online shop.
If you have any comments or questions you’d like to send to me directly, you can reach me at danicaratte[AT]gmail.com.
Danica Ratte is a sustainable fashion designer who grew up in Maryland, moved to Brisbane, Australia after university for 3.5 years, and now lives in lively Saigon, Vietnam. She founded Wild Tussah, an accessories brand that works directly with weaving artisans from various ethnic communities in Vietnam. They create high-quality weave and leather handbags and have made it their mission to preserve traditional weaving cultures and to empower local women by appreciating and purchasing their creations
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