How we dress can express who we are. But all too often, we never really know the whole story behind what we wear. Sure, the designer may be the reason why we buy the shirt, the shoes or the bag. But who dyed the fabric? Who made the fabric? And who stitched it all together?

Guatemala is one country where these questions can be easily answered. It is saturated with entrepreneurs making vibrant fabrics and hand-stitched leather goods. From these artisanal products has come a blossoming of social enterprise.

Image: Kolt

In Antigua, tourists may stumble across Kolt, a small store selling gorgeous leather shoes and accessories designed by local Guatemalan, Stefanie. When Stefanie entered the world of design, she saw how much time and effort went into production for such little return. Stefanie decided to open her own workshop. She taught her two employees everything she knows about shoe and bag production. Now, they take the lead at the workshop and manage the 20 contractors Stefanie employs to produce her goods. With current demand, Stefanie cannot afford any more employees. Still, Kolt chooses to donate 10% of its online sales to an organisation that raises funds for Guatemalans striving to make an impact in their community. To buy a pair of Kolt shoes is a celebration of the craftsmanship of five workers from Pastores, who each manage one piece of the shoe production puzzle.

When I consider the primary motives behind fast fashion brands (which, to put it bluntly, is mainly to maximise profit), it seems obvious to support social enterprises like Kolt. Another type of social enterprise has sprung up in the villages scattered along the shores of Lake Atitlán; women-led weaving collectives.

In San Juan La Laguna, I discovered Tinte Maya, where the collective uses natural plant dyes to colour the thread. Some dye bases include avocado tree bark (for green), coconut shell (for brown) and marigold (for yellow). The women explained that the use of natural dyes promotes ecological sustainability; the used plant material is recycled into organic fertiliser. In turn, this helps reduce water pollution (the run-off from chemical fertiliser is a major issue for Lake Atitlán). The collectives also give economic independence to their members. At Tinte Maya, 90% of the sale price of each product goes to the woman who wove it. In a culture where the men usually control the family finances, this is a rare opportunity to gain gender equality and spending authority.

I love the idea of supporting these local collectives. Of course, it’s easy to do so in Guatemala. There are so many locally made products that it is far harder to find factory-produced clothing. Back home, we have fast fashion, and yes, while there are seemingly conscious clothing companies beckoning from every shop window, one forgets to look for the whole story behind the label. After all, how we dress can express who we are. But these social enterprises in Guatemala have taught me that while we may think about how to wear fashion, it’s just as important to think about how to consume fashion.

Image: Kolt

About Anna Watson
Anna Watson is a venture coach, strategist and expert storyteller. She gets excited about purpose-driven business and companies that live their values. She has just finished a four month travel stint across New Zealand, Indonesia and Guatemala. Previously, Anna’s colourful career adventure has included corporate law and a season as a hiking guide. Most recently, Anna has been involved in New Zealand’s social enterprise scene as a programme manager, facilitator and venture coach. Anna enjoys helping people and enterprises to find their feet in the messy but rewarding business of solving social problems.

Interested in connecting with Anna or reading more of her material? Visit her website