Using Fashion To Create Change

Levi Strauss & Co.
November 23, 2016

Ruth DeGolia, executive director of Mercado Global, recently visited Levi Strauss & Co.’s San Francisco headquarters to talk about the potential of ethical fashion to create change – and how consumers and retailers alike can help drive that change.
Mercado Global empowers indigenous women of Guatemala to break the cycle of poverty by connecting them with international markets to sell their artisan goods. The organization fosters sustainable livelihoods for these women, working closely with retailers like Levi’s® to create products that draw on traditional techniques, colors and motifs but meet the design needs of the U.S. market.
LS&Co. has supported Mercado Global since 2006, both by carrying its products and through grants from the Levi Strauss Foundation (LSF).
Here are some highlights from Ruth’s conversation with Kim Almeida, senior program manager for the Levi Strauss Foundation.
How did you come to establish Mercado Global?
When I first went to Guatemala when I was an undergraduate, it was such an eye-opening experience. It was a beautiful country, but most indigenous people are living on less than $1.25 a day. I met these amazing women who had lived through so much, but their children were starving. In fact, two-thirds of all indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition. These women are living in situations of domestic violence – the U.N. estimates that the rate of domestic violence in rural Guatemala is about 90 percent. Most of the women that we work with have never had the chance to go to school.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, because these women have amazing skills. They make products like this and all they need is access to market. And that’s where Mercado Global started.
Who do you work with?
We only work with cooperatives. What we’ve seen is if you work with one or two women in a community, you’re maybe bringing a lot of resources to one or two families, but you’re not lifting up the community. And when we work with whole co-ops, we’re not only bringing in resources to the whole community, but we’re helping build a support network for those women, and we’re helping to rebuild civil society.
What are some of the successes Mercado Global has seen?
We think that the artisan sector is such a great way to help indigenous women start to bring in major income, organize themselves, develop business skills and really get to the next level. A lot of artisans have kids who aren’t going to be artisans. We have several artisans whose kids are currently getting their medical degree, and others that have become accountants and then often will help their moms with accounting for their co-ops. So we think that this is a big opportunity.
How can ethical fashion make a difference?
We’re trying to help groups involved in the fashion industry identify how they can have a positive impact through what they do every day. By sourcing products from artisans that help moms send their kids to school, they are using their purchasing power to actively create the kind of world we want to live in: a world where everyone has the chance to go to school, and kids don’t go to bed hungry at night.
There’s no question that there’s increased demand for products that have that social impact. Millennials – but not just millennials, older consumers as well – are increasingly realizing that they have two votes. You vote at the ballot box, but you also vote with your dollar. And people are demanding products that have an impact.
What are the challenges to ethical fashion?
There are a lot of challenges that we need to work through. Some companies are really great at marketing, but there’s not necessarily a lot behind it in terms of how they’re working with artisans, and whether or not their products are really having a social impact.
There are a lot of dangers that come with that. We don’t want consumers to get cynical, where they just kind of give up and feel that they can’t understand which products are really having an impact and which ones aren’t.
There are certification systems that you can definitely trust, like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. Short of that, there are not a lot of shortcuts around investigating for yourself. Look at a company’s website: Do they talk about how the product is made? Do they tell you where they source their materials from? Look for transparency.
What has the partnership with Levi’s® meant to Mercado Global?
From the very beginning, this company has partnered with us in building and developing our model.
For me it’s such an honor to be here at LS&Co.; you are such leaders in the movement. I remember when we were pitching all kinds of retailers that said, ‘That’s so cute, you work with moms in the mountains. But we’re XYZ company, you couldn’t possibly work with us.’ Levi’s® was our first major wholesale partner, Levi’s® helped us build our model, and now all these other retailers want to work with us. We are so full of gratitude to all of you.