Conscious consumption and ethical style can be powerfully symbolic in a world saturated with excess and waste.
In the 1960s, the premise “the personal is political” was coined, introducing and consolidating the notion that apparently small, personal things and actions had the ability to reflect wider structures and issues. Personal experience can, in many ways, mirror what is embedded in ampler political and socials schemes that surround us. In a contemporary landscape that has come to be dominated by the frenzied rhythm of constantly changing digital images, a saturated market of consumable objects and alarming statistics when it comes to waste, conscious consumption has become a personal and individual way of responding to overload and excess. It has also become a way of creating more ethical ways of approaching what one wears and uses to adorn personal surroundings. Ethical choices have become the substance of contemporary style.
Some of the most important creative industries in our hypermodern, digital world, are now being asked unprecedented, necessary and uncomfortable questions. Who made the clothes you wear? What were the creative conditions? Where and how were the materials for that beautiful object you love and show proudly at home sourced from? Did the makers involved earn fair wages? Are children kept entirely out of these systems of production? Are working conditions safe? How are women being treated in their productive environment? Are empowerment and non-discrimination important motifs?
Fair-trade has bloomed as an answer to many of these matters, materializing a trading partnership where respect, transparency and symmetrical dialogue are at its core. Fair-trade also seeks to subvert the long-standing asymmetry of power created within capitalist industries, in which certain groups – like artisans or indigenous communities – are provided with self-sufficiency and a genuine sense of ownership. In this sense, fair-trade consumption helps to disarticulate the status quo. In this way, the personal can become political. Buying fair-trade produced objects contributes to generating fairness, and using small scale approaches to create change.
This is what HOPE does when working with a diverse and exuberant array of Colombian artisan communities. The platform’s work with the Arhuaco community, for example, materializes how fair-trade comes to life through beautifully hand-made mochilas or handbags, whilst also creating a carefully sought out model of just commerce. HOPE also works with communities such as the Eperara Siapidaara, from Cauca, with its fully organic and hand made lovely patterns. When buying these objects, individuals also contribute financially to an association of producing women who were displaced by the guerrilla forces.
In a similar note, the Kankuamo people, who live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, have the fique, from the maguey plant, as one of their main sources of production in agriculture. This raw material has been used by ancient civilizations to make hammocks, ropes and the fair-trade handbags that also characterize HOPE’s commercial motifs. Other mochila bags that follow this symbolic power are the ones crafted by Flérida Gutiérrez and Leonidas Gutiérrez, from the Koreguaje community in the Colombian Caquetá region. Arts and crafts are, for example, among the primary sources of income of this ethnic group, comprised of approximately 2000 people who are scattered around different departments. This all entails a strongly driven human component. Something that is not always visible in a steeped consumption market.
This also means that, by buying these objects, it is also possible to purchase something of substantial meaning. The techniques and materials, the shapes and patterns, the processes and their temporalities all remit to ancestral knowledge, history, and a sense of tradition that responds to immediacy and mass production.
So, why does buying fair-trade objects matter? Because, today, shopping is no longer just an isolated, whimsical action of personal desire, it can also be a means of stating something, of symbolizing a set of beliefs, of subverting the problematic aspects of capitalist production, of rebelling, even in what may seem a small way, against the thorny issues that have been signaled in recent years when it comes to manufacturing processes.
Shopping for fair-trade can be a means of strengthening ethical fashion. It can be a way of enlivening the old premise “the personal is political.” Consumers can also make shopping choices inspired by a sense of social responsibility. They can choose to wear things and adorn their households with objects that are a reminder of how the system can be changed. Fair-trade shopping can challenge the dehumanization often perceived in the manufacturing process that strives to keep up in a world where images and commodities are vertiginously changing. It can build up new models of the economy that aim for a world in which beautiful objects, for personal style and home décor, can also represent social impact.
Wearing these fair-trade HOPE handbags, for example, cannot just create a scenario in which the item can turn into a conversation piece. “Where is your bag from?” can become a question that begs more than just a simple geographically oriented answer. It can be a way of stirring up a conversation on how and why individual consumption can be a vehicle for social and political consciousness. A single mochila can be a symbol of such a model, and also a reminder of how fairness can be achieved through conscious and soulful production and commercial models. Shopping for fair-trade can be a way of transforming a personal choice into a political affirmation. One in which aesthetic beauty can be enhanced by the fairness of the movement in which HOPE so deeply believes in creating and spreading.
Written by Vanessa Rosales.