* Photo credit educationandmore.org

Fashion designers often use other cultures as creative inspiration, just as artists and musicians do. But increasingly, attention is being paid to clothing that copies indigenous designs without compensating the communities that originated them. Many of these communities, in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru, for example, are struggling to lift themselves out of poverty, and the cultural appropriation of design and textile work undercuts this struggle.

“Drawing on local customs, fabrics, and colors from an exotic locale can help provide the creative direction for an entire season,” states a 2011 HuffPo blog titled “Peru, Fashion Muse.” But as an article on fashionunited.com from June 2017 counters, “…it is, without a doubt, the fashion industry that tops the charts when it comes to examples of cultural appropriation.”

Fashion lines including Zara, Isabel Marant, Mango, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, Star Mela and Rapsodia, among many others, have been accused of blatantly copying indigenous designs from Mexico’s Zapotec and Mixe cultures, as well as Guatemala’s Ixil. The famed weaving designs of Peru’s Quechua people have also been copied without compensation. Depending on the intricacy of the design, it can take traditional artisans weeks, or even months, to complete their woven items. Machine-woven duplication of their work ignores the worth of traditional craftsmanship, and distorts its market value.

But indigenous communities are fighting back. As reported by fashionunited.com, 180 indigenous cultures have called upon the UN to outlaw cultural appropriation. “The Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore has been working since 2001 to bring about such protection for cultures,” states the article. In Mexico, according to remezcla.com, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia has partnered with the Registro de Patrimonio Cultural y Mercado “to protect the patrimony of Indigenous communities.”

What does this mean for conscious consumers? Genuine fair trade companies, such as Genesis, which work directly with indigenous communities’ artisans, preserving their traditional techniques and paying them a fair wage, offer you a way to enjoy the designs’ beauty while honoring the cultures from which they come. If it’s true that, “You are what you eat,” it’s equally true that, “You are what you wear.”