From Trash to Fashion
By Andrew Downie and Anna May Shamoon.
This article originally appeared in Green Futures the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future
At least, that’s the answer if you’re Rio sociologist María Teresa Leal. Back in the 1980s, Leal found untapped potential in the women of Rocinha, one of the sprawling favelas perched high on the hills above the city. She saw that they were regularly recycling rags to clothe their children, and thought they could make a living from their skills without having to compromise on domestic duties. Drawing on the women’s mutual love of fashion, Leal managed to bring them together in a sewing cooperative – and gave birth to Rocinha Co-operative of Women’s Artisans and amstresses, or Coopa-Roca for short.
She convinced textile companies to give her their unused scraps of cloth, and then trained the women in techniques such as fuxico (broidering with pieces of fabric), crochet and patchwork, all using recycled material. The women’s attempts at fashion design were not as brilliant as their sewing, however, and so they concentrated on making their mark on other people’s garments.
So they crochet, knit, attach and sew pieces together with their own touches that include pom-poms, frills, sequins and other accessories. The sheer quality of the finished garments has kicked deep into touch outdated notions that work from favelas is always of a low standard. Thirty years on, and Coopa-Roca has gained a worldwide reputation for craftsmanship, with a client list which includes internationally renowned designers such as Paul Smith, Todd Boontje and Carlos Miele.
Coopa-Roca’s women have crocheted CD covers for Gilberto Gil’s 28-CD boxed set, and put the finishing touches on Agent Provocateur lingerie. In 2009, they signed their biggest ever contract, to sew hundreds of limited edition Lacoste polo shirts. The deal will enable Coopa-Roca to double its workforce to more than 200 full- or part-time seamstresses. “It’s a huge expansion for us,” says Leal.
Although Leal is the brains behind the organisation, Coopa-Roca is true to its cooperative background and the women vote on all big decisions and set their own production targets. They can choose to work from home, which is vital given that most of them have children to look after. Each is paid on a piece-rate basis and the only demand is that they meet their own targets.
“Coopa-Roca enables women to fulfil their potential,” Leal said. “They can earn money without abandoning their homes or their children.”
In some ways, Coopa-Roca is an exception. Brazil’s fashion industry is worth over £18.9 billion annually – and growing. Much of it is geared to providing cheap clothes, with little or no consideration given to sustainability issues. But some companies are looking for more innovative ways to design the fashion of the future. One such is E-Fabrics, a collaboration between Brazilian label Osklen and E-brigade, a network of retail stores selling sustainable Brazilian products internationally. E-Fabrics uses only fair trade or recycled materials, including Amazon rubber, treated cotton that takes on the quality of leather but involves no animal products, and even the skins of goldfish and frogs.
And it’s not just about clothes. Brazilian label Melissa makes stylish footwear from recycled plastics - including last year’s unsold stock. Following sales of more than 25 million pairs worldwide, they have set up high-profile collaborations with UK designer Vivienne Westwood and the renowned Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
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