Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Fashion Finds Green Style

Daniela Estrada* - IPS/IFEJ

SANTIAGO, Oct 26 2009 (IPS) - Young Chilean designers are turning their creative energy to recycling, natural fibres and working with disadvantaged groups as they produce clothing and accessories – but it is an effort that is not free of tensions.

“There are many design students making green items, but there are few spaces where they can show and sell those products,” said Josefina Heiremans, member of the design management agency MH Design & Networking, representative in Chile of the Italian brand Remade.

The annual contest that MH Design & Networking has held since 2007 has brought a certain amount of visibility to designers with environmentally sustainable approaches. But there are still few who dare to set up companies of scale because the local market is so small.

The Modulab company, created by a married couple of industrial designers, Felipe Ferrer and Pamela Castro, made a splash in 2006 with handbags, hats and boots made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) canvas printed with advertising from the film industry.

Inspired by the work of the Swiss company Freitag, Modulab partnered with film distributors to make use of the discarded advertising panels. Later, they began producing purses, belts and other accessories from the rubber recycled from car tires. And now they are experimenting with plastics.

Modulab’s designers produce made-to-order items, distributing their wares in small shops, but they also export to Britain, Japan, Netherlands and the United States. “We generate exclusive business deals from design to recycling,” said Ferrer, given that all of Modulab’s products are made by people with otherwise scant resources, “who are paid very well and on time.”

Another design company that has made a mark is Duotipo. Among its products are buttons made from recycled 1.44 megabyte computer diskettes, with hundreds of red, blue and yellow buttons sold in shops.

The choice of diskettes emerged from an “analysis of obsolete products that are no longer being used in homes and were accumulating because they have been replaced by others that perform better,” said Duotipo designer Francisco Véliz.

Visual artist Consuelo Riedel creates accessories with materials discarded by the textile industry and designer Paula Vidal makes jackets from reused industrial felt.

Under the Mantis brand, Alexandra Guerrero and Ricardo Cheuquiante manufacture hats, dresses, vests and blankets from the filters of cigarette butts.

First they separate the filter from the paper, and then they remove the toxic substances, like nicotine and tar, in an autoclave using steam, pressure and heat. The clean fibre is untangled and dyed, and then mixed with sheep wool. The skein of yarn is about 10 percent cigarette filter, and the products are knitted by hand.

Student Camila Labra had the idea to make colourful women’s boots from plastic bags and Betzabé Ortiz came up with the notion of creating earrings and necklaces from plastic bottles. Another group makes vests and belts from the tape of old cassettes.

Giovana Altamirano makes purses, belts and other accessories from strips of x-ray film, and Pamela Jerez creates jewellery from bottle corks.

The fashion-environmental link has its novelty factor, but that doesn’t eliminate tensions and contradictions, which came to the fore in interviewing the designers. Is making and selling new products more or less polluting than leaving the materials in the garbage? How much waste are they actually reusing?

Some designers say there is little impact a single designer can make on the environment. But alliances with larger companies could turn that around.

“The 3,000 handbags I sold in London one Christmas season do not make a substantial difference for the environment. We did prevent several square metres of PVC from going to the garbage and we generated local jobs. Now we are looking to partner with a company and trying to make a small difference with mass-distributed products,” said Modulab’s Ferrer.

They are working with waste from companies so that it returns through the company doors, for example, in the form of corporate gifts.

The original focus of Remade, created by the government of the northern Italian region of Lombardia, was to stimulate companies to make new products from waste, in order to comply with Europe’s strict recycling laws. The project has been replicated in Portugal, Argentina and Chile.

Both Ferrer and Heiremans, of Remade, complained about Chile’s weak recycling policies.

For Argentine designer Laura Novik, analyst of fashion trends and founder and director of Raíz Diseño, sustainability is not only synonymous with reuse and recycling.

“It is also sustainable for emerging communities to work on your product, and for your product to allow artisanal traditions to survive in the contemporary world. All of that is sustainability: cultural, social and environmental,” said Novik, who has lived in Chile for six years.

Standouts in that context are designers Martín Churba and Alejandro Sarmiento (Argentina), Ronaldo Fraga (Brazil), Ana Livni and Fernando Escuder (Uruguay), and Juana Díaz (Chile), as well as independent shops that distribute “conscious design” and “slow fashion”.

In 2008, Raíz Diseño organised an international eco-design fair in Santiago, which it repeated this year on Oct. 17-18, under the theme “Simple Life”.

This year, Novik brought together designers who use natural fibres and who create jobs for craftspersons and indigenous peoples, such as Chileans Andrea Onetto, María Paz Valdivieso and María Inés Solimano, because the United Nations declared 2009 International Year of Natural Fibres.

There is also controversy with regard to supporting traditions. For example, some “purist” designers defend faithful conservation of indigenous practices, even when they are not considered sustainable. And trade with communities that provide labour is another issue of constant debate.

“If sustainability is a door so narrow that only a chosen few can enter, then we will never change anything,” said Novik. “Design is a powerful tool that can transform consciousness.”

“The idea is to open many doors from different points: from those who work with natural fibres to those who work with recycling. But also from those who decide to drink Coca Cola while they also recycle,” she said.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service (IPS) and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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