through sustainable fashion
Mama Tierra was born to strengthen indigenous women
Lourdes Grollimund and Katherine Klemenz met in 2013 in Switzerland while organizing protests due to the human rights violations happening in their birth country Venezuela. Back then, activists made visible human right abuses, corruption of judicial system and restriction of freedom of the press. Because the inadequate food supply shapes a large percentage of children malnutrition, Venezuelan media speaks of the "generation of hunger”. As per end of 2021 a combination of violence, insecurity, starvation, and many other needs have forced more than 5.9 million Venezuelans to flee. This is one of the largest displacement crises worldwide.
Given the situation of despair in Venezuela, Lourdes and Katherine felt the need to help. Along with other human right activists they founded in 2015 the association Mama Tierra to help people who needed the most support. The team focused on indigenous women, given that indigenous peoples are a vulnerable minority, more so indigenous women. Since then, Mama Tierra’s mission has been to drive social change and gender equality for women at the border between Colombia and Venezuela.More
Trade not Aid
Mama Tierra has been financing social programs at the border between Colombia and Venezuela since its beginning. The plan is to cure poverty and foster gender equality by producing and selling accessories. Following the premises from the Fairtrade movement in the 1960ties “Trade not Aid”, Mama Tierra empowers 120 people each month.
Our experience shows that indigenous women seek work rather than benefiting from social programs. In such situations people can feel as passive recipients, hindering their agency and bureaucratizing their life. Mama Tierra has listened carefully to the needs and desires of the women we work with and have found that the best way to empowering them is through work cooperation.
The angle that Mama Tierra takes is to focus on the people rather than on the profits.
Fair trade and the sustainable market overall find themselves facing a discrepancy between fighting the unfairness of the free market and tacitly accepting its rules (the fair trade scandal, S. Sylla, p. 76). Thus capital, competitive prices, profit maximization - and overall unstoppable growth - are the maxims of the players in the fashion industry, including those marketing sustainability. The net profit formula is simple: total revenues – total expenses. The less these expenses are, the higher the profits, because profits are the ultimate goal of companies, including social companies.
If for social enterprises the social would count more than the business, then why not operate as a non-profit organization?
There are several studies showing that consumers base their purchase preferences on environmental and social impact. Making green and social claims is a strategy many companies are making. Zara, H&M and ASOS have been accused of greenwashing consumers with
Thus, sustainable fashion is trending to build differentiation and strengthen competitive advantage.
Many are the broken promises of sustainable fashion
The problem is the untransparent origin of the fashion items.
Maybe a jungle was deforested in order to plant the cotton the shirt is made of. This piece of very important information will not appear on the clothing label.
Following the report, a minority of fashion brands disclose concrete information that supports the claims about sustainability. Such as number of workers who are actually paid living wages, production and waste volumes or chemical use in their supply chains. In fact, while fashion brands where promising sustainability, they cancelled orders worth USD $40 billion in response to lockdowns and fear of lost profits in 2021.
During the pandemic, major brands left many already vulnerable workers in dire conditions, without money for basic needs like food and housing.
For two months every year, the Uzbek government forces 1.5 to 2 million schoolchildren as young as nine years old to miss school and help with the cotton harvest. The workers work every day from early morning until evening. Children live in filthy conditions (in unheated, non-insulated field barracks). They often contract illnesses and receive little to no pay. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat strokes are common. Schoolchildren can be given harvest quotas as large as fifty kilos of cotton per day and are beaten or threatened with bad grades or expulsion if they fail to meet their quota or pick low quality cotton.
Why do we do sustainable fashion as a non-profit organization?
“[…] The index helps you to hold brands and retailers to account for their claims.”Carry Somers, Co-founder, Fashion Revolution S. 23
If transparency is a key criterion for securing fair and sustainable fashion, then we believe a non-profit oriented approach provides the best structure.
Here is why:
Because non-profits need to disclose their financial statements, including salaries of management and what happens with the money they made.
The reason why a non-profit exists is social. So, the logic is inverse as those of social businesses or companies with a sustainable angle. Improving the living conditions of workers or preserving the environment are not secondary goals but their raison d’être.
NPOs are not owned by anybody. Thus, there is no interest of paying back shareholders nor investors. NPOs are also not entitled to take loans. If a NPO is dissolved, assets should be passed to another NPO.
At the end everything goes back to the project. At NPOs there is no distribution of profits nor dividends to shareholders. All profits are invested in solving social problems governments do not address, like hunger, access to clean water, gender equality, racism, education (the list goes on and on).
Doing good needs professionals. Serving a community needs time and especially a professional approach to understand which action to do first and which Solidarity economy have the most impact and acceptance. Is the buy-one-give-one model really a good idea? For example, giving away shoes to children in need for every purchase of a product. Critics say that giving products for free ruins local markets as locals can’t compete against free stuff.
In addition, it has been proven that people do not value freebies either.
Another example of good gone wrong is a social enterprise in Colombia giving away a plastic water bottle when people buy a bag. As valuable as water is in this region, what should the indigenous people do with the accumulating amount of free plastic water bottles that will not be recycled and that in turn will be polluting their surroundings?
Democracy! A Non-Profit organization such as an association, offers the possibility to all people interested in the brand, to actively participate as members. The strategic orientation of the brand is ruled by a board, its members and statutes are based on social principles. In our case the indigenous women periodically organize assemblies and discuss the production process as well as needs in the community that we as organization want to cover.
For example rebuild some houses after the hurricane Iota hit in December 2020, where to build water wells or potentially where to build a new atelier in Venezuela.