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Spotlight on Ethical Fashion Careers

Spotlight on Ethical Fashion Careers

Working in the ethical fashion industry allows you to be creative and make an impact at the same time. It’s a growing industry that many young professionals are trying to break into.

When I worked in Guatemala, I met two women who ran companies focused on combining traditional Mayan textiles with a more contemporary look. If you’ve never been to Guatemala, the indigenous cultures there continue to be known for the beautiful hand-woven textiles that are crafted and worn in the country. When you walk around the streets you’ll see the beauty of their unique, centuries old artisanry.

To give you an insider’s view of the ethical fashion industry that’s thriving in Guatemala, I’m sharing my interviews Alyssa McGarry of HipTipico and Erin Kokdil of Maya Traditions.

Alyssa McGarry of HipTipico

What brought you to Guatemala and what inspired you to start Hiptipico?

In 2010, I earned my Master's Degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and completed field research analyzing sustainable development initiatives in the Amazon Rainforest and Galapagos Islands.

After completing my M.A., I worked for Pencils of Promise in Panajachel, Guatemala and helped to increase educational opportunities for rural communities. Having spent most of my time visiting schools and families in remote villages, I chose to embed these experiences into the soul of creating my company, Hiptipico. 

While I spent nine months in the highlands of Guatemala, I became fascinated with the love and craftsmanship each local artisan poured into their wares, especially bags and apparel. As I came to further appreciate the quality and uniqueness of each handcrafted item, the dual issues of how to share these items with the world and how to economically support this beautiful community joined as one and gave rise to the birth of Hiptipico.

Today, I am thrilled to share these handmade crafts, each one completely unique, with grateful consumers while simultaneously developing a tight-knit network of Mayan artists and local street vendors who are enthusiastic to be a part of Hiptipico.

Alyssa, How would you describe your company's work to someone who's unfamiliar with what you do?

Hiptipico is an ethical fashion brand that works directly with Mayan artisans in Guatemala. Our mission is to support artisan-level products and make them available to the average consumer.

What do you love about being an ethical fashion entrepreneur?  

I love being able to interact with genuinely creative people on a daily basis. Living in Guatemala allows me to be inspired by not only the makers, but also just the Mayan population in general. Their zest for color and intricacy in their embroideries are astonishing.

What do you look for when you're hiring for HipTipico?

I always tell people who apply that 99.9% of what I am looking for is passion. I am willing to train and mentor someone who is dedicated to Hiptipico, its mission and excited to work hard.

What's the best piece of advice you could give to a young person looking for a career in the ethical fashion industry?

It is a tough industry because the true ethical fashion brands are more interested in investing back into the community before hiring outsiders. So, the best way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer and show dedication. Find a brand that really speaks to you and be ready to commit long-term.

How can people follow and support HipTipico's work?

My personal Instagram (@hiptipico) showcases my and Hiptipico's journey. The feed displays my lifestyle in Panajachel, Guatemala, the artisan stories, and cultural significance behind our brand.

Also @hiptipicomarket on Instagram is a marketplace for our products and a great place for shoppers and boutiques to get a feel for our curated collection.

Erin Kokdil of Maya Traditions

What does Maya Traditions do and what is your role there?

Maya Traditions is a non-profit social enterprise that works to empower and improve the lives of indigenous Maya women in Guatemala. To do so, we partner with female artisans--the majority backstrap weavers--and facilitate access to international markets where they are ensured a fair price for their work. To further our impact, we reinvest profits from sales into local social initiatives that support the artisan, her family, and her community.

I am the current Director of Maya Traditions. As we're a small organization, I am in charge of everything from development and fundraising, to administration, volunteer coordination, and human resources.

What do you love about your job?

I love that I constantly get to interact with our artisan partners and their families. Whether it's traveling to their communities or working with them in our office, being here in Guatemala allows me to see the direct impact of our work. I also love our small, tight-knit team at Maya Traditions. We're truly a family and support each other in ways that promote personal and professional growth and development.

What brought you to Guatemala?

I'm originally from the Washington, DC area (Bethesda, Maryland to be exact). During my junior year of college, I was looking for an opportunity to volunteer abroad and improve my Spanish. I connected with an organization in Guatemala working towards education and community development. I decided to intern with them for three months, working mostly in the capacity of communications. During those three short months, I fell in love with Guatemala--the people, the culture, and especially Lake Atitlan where I was living. After returning to the US and graduating from college in 2012, I was offered a full-time position with the organization and decided to take it. Four years later, I'm confident that returning and building a community here was one of the best decisions of my life.

What experiences did you have before that helped you prepare to work in ethical fashion?   

Previously, I worked in positions of administration with non-profit organizations. Once I began working with Maya Traditions, I learned much more about ethical fashion and backstrap weaving. Here in Guatemala, our artisan partners spend hours, days, even weeks preparing thread, placing it meticulously on the warp board, and then setting up the backstrap loom. Once the loom is ready, they sit back, creating just the right amount of tension to begin to create an intricate, handcrafted textile that takes months to complete. I remember the first time I saw this process—but isn’t there a way to make the textiles faster? Fast. That was what I was accustomed to growing up in the United States. But during the last four years, I have learned that the process is far more important than the speed.

Working in Fair Trade, I have learned a great deal about valuing this process – being conscious of how goods are made, under what conditions, the ethicality of their production. In our increasingly globalized world, the consumer and producer have grown further apart as the demand for fast fashion and inexpensive products continues to expand.

I have seen first hand the impact trade has on individuals—both positive and negative. It can provide the opportunity for a just life with a respectful income, or be a means of exploitation that promotes the loss of culture and tradition. I have also seen the growing consciousness arising in communities throughout the world—demanding more transparent and ethical trading practices. I have seen the influence that businesses and social enterprises can have on the most marginalized populations and I want to ensure that this impact is beneficial.

What do you look for when you're hiring for Mayan Traditions?

I look for individuals that are passionate to learn more and grow, as well as contribute their knowledge and perspective to the organization. It's important that the individual can work in a team setting as well as independently, and has a positive attitude. Ultimately, employees who succeed at Maya Traditions are those who can work well in a multi-cultural environment and are creative in problem-solving.

What's the best piece of advice you could give to a younger you?

Trust yourself and trust the process. I never would have imagined myself directing an organization at twenty-five years old. I still have feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, but constantly remind myself how far I have come and how far I have grown.

How did you come to lead the organization at that age?

I transitioned into this position in 2014 at the young age of 23.After ten years of working with Maya Traditions, the previous Executive Director was moving back to Australia. Instead of hiring a new ED, the organization decided to break up the tasks among current staff and hire a Development Director. I accepted this position in 2013. Shortly after, the Board and I realized the need for an Executive Director to really lead the organization.

The first year as the Director, I felt very under qualified and often doubted myself as a leader. Little by little, with the support from an incredible team and a newly-formed Board of Directors, I began to feel much more comfortable in the position and confident with my abilities. Over the past three years with Maya Traditions, we have grown from a team of four to a team of nine. We have transitioned the organization to a social enterprise model and are working on growing in this direction. We have made significant strides to sustainability. I am so grateful for assuming the role of ED, for learning and growing, and supporting this incredible organization in reaching its mission.

How can people follow and support Maya Tradition's work?

Check out our work at www.mayatraditions.org, follow us on Facebook and Instagram. We also provide our products in our Etsy shop.


About the Author: Kassy Lee is a career coach who helps insecure, overwhelmed, and scattered 20-somethings find joy and purpose in the workforce. She’s had jobs painting murals with students in Guatemala and writing plays with young learners in China. She’s a published poet who can be found hiking or reading in her free time. Join her on her website, on Facebook or Instagram. 

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