María Almazán

This description of María Almazán's work was prepared when María Almazán was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 .

Introduction

María is transforming the apparel industry in Europe by creating an open and scalable strategy implemented across the whole value chain that promotes a sustainable and affordable textile production and consumption.
María works closely with the key stakeholders in the European textile industry and is building a global network of manufacturers, brands and consumers, engaging them to adopt new production and consumption processes, drastically improving workers’ conditions and reducing environmental damage.

The New Idea

María is building an ecosystem in the textile industry that guarantees sustainable, respectful and affordable production and consumption. She has created a network of sustainable textile production facilities with social and environmental viability, and connects them with large brands to fulfill their demand and with consumers who seek more socially and environmentally friendly products.
In this context, María has created an initial network of 5 sustainable textile factories in Spain that are a) socially responsible prioritizing dignified labor, fair pay, workers’ rights, safe working conditions, and environmentally friendly production processes and materials; b) capable of satisfying the requirements of even the most demanding European brands and their consumers, producing in excess of 3 million garments per year; and c) easily replicable across regions and countries, with a documented and open-source methodology.
María defines sustainability to include issues ranging from environmental footprint, safe working conditions, dignified jobs, and local economic development. All of these issues are addressed in her production facilities; from ecologically sound construction and fibres to workplace design and training initiatives.

At the same time Marías organization, Latitude, works with large firms to change their buying processes while connecting them to an easily accessible network of proven and certified sustainable manufacturers, facilitating access to sustainably produced garments that satisfy the growing demand by the fashion industry.

The research carried out by Latitude shows there is a clear demand for change in small, medium and large apparel companies but these still lack access to a local ecosystem of sustainable producers that can meet the fashion industry’s requirements, and a comprehensive “package” to guide them through this transformation. Through its established methodology and network, Latitude is positioned to help European textile suppliers meet the sustainability requirements increasingly imposed by consumers and provide companies with a powerful alternative to outsourcing production.

Furthermore, Latitude’s strategy is not limited to connecting designers and brands with certified factories. She is also allowing consumers to have a reference point when purchasing clothes and to satisfy their demand to buy sustainable products. For this, she has created and implemented the PROUD label, connected to the network of production facilities and brands whose products satisfy the minimum criteria for sustainability.

Seeing the success of this mechanism, María is creating a free open-source platform to guide thousands of workshops, brands and consumers across the world towards a more sustainable fashion industry

The Problem

The global textile industry production model and “fast fashion” are responsible for acute sustainability issues around the world.

Production processes in developing countries are labour intensive and worker’s rights are often ignored. Workers struggle to survive on extremely low pay, suffering poor working conditions and excessive hours. They are also often exposed to dangerous working practises related to specific production processes such as silicosis from sandblasting jeans to respiratory diseases through the use of dust from cloth pieces and, in the cases of some dyes, exposure to poisonous chemicals. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in 2013, with over 1,100 people killed, signified a key moment for reflection for the garment industry, along with a heightened desire to improve working practises.

Sustainability is also an issue in the environmental arena, in areas such as the intensive cultivation of cotton, or the use of petroleum to produce polyester (the use of polyester has doubled in the last 15 years). Problems with wastewater and energy consumption are also widespread. One of the wake up calls for María towards the need for an urgent change was in one of her trips to Bangladesh, when she saw a river tinted with the colour of the fashion season.

Whereas significant advances have been made in other sectors regarding “dirty” production processes, the fashion industry has only begun to make small inroads with the growth of ecological cotton, the use of fibres from bamboo and hemp that need less pesticides and irrigation, and other innovative fibres made from recycled PET or plant-based polymers. Historically the fashion industry, like many others, has functioned on a competitive basis and few collaborative initiatives have succeeded.

Society is growing more aware of these problems, but consumers do not have enough incentives to take action when the alternative to fast fashion is difficult to identify. Textile companies themselves do not always have the necessary knowledge, access to new materials, or connections to producers to carry out real change. The few production facilities who do meet the standards are not easily accessible or do not meet the production demands for medium or large companies.

Overall, most production facilities are not sustainable (from a social and environmental perspective) but have identified their need to change and have the motivation to do so. Many, however, lack the know-how and capacity to respond to this need.

The Strategy

María’s model works with the three main actors of the value chain to ensure sustainability at each level:

With Manufacturers:

María is creating a network of sustainable production facilities, based on the first 5 facilities that she has already developed.

Latitude’s exemplar facilities address the three major problems in the textile sector: the environment, the labor rights (workers) and the relationship between production and the final customer. These facilities work as a network that enables them to be competitive in the market.
a) Environment: The facilities address environmental issues in textile production, through, among many other factors, the use of organic and recycled raw materials and ensuring energy efficiency. They are reducing emissions across the industry value chain, eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides in producing countries and chemical synthesis.

Overall the aim is to be coherent and empower workers through information and environmentally sustainable processes. For example, she encourages employees to purchase ecological coffee from development cooperation project, helping them understand the value of sustainable approach from a global perspective.
b) Workers:
In the Latitude facilities, workers are provided with decent wages (above average), and safe and healthy working conditions, including bright spaces, good acoustics and sufficient space between workers. The facilities seek to build workers’ skills by teaching them to work across the whole production process of a garment, and informing them on the source of the products.

When the collection is out and on sale, the workers are shown the collection, with their models, pictures, press clippings etc., aiming to empower women, reinforcing the fact that they are the ones who have made it possible. This builds the value of the “invisible” part of the production process and builds high engagement, stronger motivation and greater self-esteem among workers.

Through participatory methods, workers can generate ideas and voice their concerns in a safe environment. Workers’ suggestions are shared with the factory management to prioritize change. This engagement has led to more diversified roles for factory workers. It allows workers to understand and access the management of their own factory, and to get a broader picture and understanding of their role in the larger chain.
c) Cooperation: The collaboration between facilities within the network make it possible to achieve economies of scale, synergies and handle large orders from brands, while maintaining cheaper, sustainable production. The prototype tool-kit and open source methodology developed by Latitude will allow the network to grow to a critical mass.
Based her experience with the first 5 facilities in Spain, María knows that for growth to be rapid and impactful, she cannot rely on an organic growth model and designed a model whereby existing facilities anywhere in the world can learn how to transform to sustainable production. To do this, she was inspired by Ashoka Fellow Darrell Hammond’s (https://kaboom.org) open source online platform.
She created a new, open source website with the necessary information to set up a sustainable model - materials, work spaces, how work should be organized, the work environment, labor rights, training, transport of finished goods, and so on. The goal is to provide a roadmap for any production facility in the world to replicate the model.
Latitude aims to increase the number of facilities in Spain to 20 before overseeing the replication of the model in Italy.
With brands:
María is creating a viable option for brands to embark on a transformation towards greater sustainability including but not limited to the relocation of their production to fair and environmentally sound factories, while reviving a niche but growing textile sector in Europe. Latitude influences brands in terms of processes and not merely one-off projects.

Through a combination of direct consulting and open source models, María helps industry brands transform their production to include sustainably produced textiles. Latitude connects its network of sustainable facilities in Spain with these companies, providing access to local and trustworthy manufacturers and large-scale distributors.

María connects brands and manufactures sourcing them with over 700 sustainable reference materials, including ecological and recycled materials, all from providers offering a high degree of traceability. Recommendations are available for the whole supply chain from cotton production to waste management to use of carbon track to calculate the emissions generated through transportation.

María’s company Latitude has worked with brands across Europe including key industry players like Mango and Zara. She worked directly with Oysho (Inditex´s underwear and swimwear brand) on raw material sourcing. As a result, and through a participatory process with management and workers, Oysho included sustainability as part of its mission, switched to organic cotton for the underwear line and re-localized the whole production process, including logistics, to Europe.
With consumers:
Maria recognizes that significant change in the textile industry can only take place if consumers change their habits and there is a greater demand from consumers to buy sustainably produced apparel. To create more demand and educate consumers on the need to increase sustainably produced clothing, she is building the PROUD label for consumers to identify garments produced under sustainable and clean processes. Any manufacturer or brand certified by Latitude can apply the PROUD tag to give visibility to their social and environmental commitment.
Through a number of high-impact media and public interventions, María is working on offering consumers information on how to recognize products produced locally and sustainably. Her participation in the Salvados program in 2016 was seen by almost 8 million TV viewers in Spain on prime-time TV.
Beyond Latitude, María ensures that ethical fashion is put on the map in her undergraduate teaching at the European Institute of Design.

The Person

María studied fashion and became a buyer for one of the largest department stores in Spain. She was tasked with visiting production centers in Asia and made a point of going behind the scenes in the factories to see exactly how workers were being treated. She was shocked to see the working conditions of the young women and also to see some dangerous working practices both for the environment and the factory workers.
María is a visionary in her sector: she started to talk about sustainability in the retail industry seven years ago, being the first to advocate for a systemic change in Spain and seizing the historical moment of consciousness in the textile sector.
After her experience in Bangladesh, María tried to improve working practices from the inside via various entrepreneurial initiatives but found too many obstacles. This experience has provided her with the necessary knowledge, contacts and respect in the sector, having witnessed all its challenges and complexities.
She left the private sector to work for a foundation called Fabrics for Freedom led by the well-known Spanish fashion designer Sibylla. Her role there was to raise awareness about responsible textile consumption by promoting ecological and natural textile fibers. Although the foundation had a further objective of supporting and encouraging sustainable, textile manufacturing, María found that her efforts were mainly concentrated on raising awareness, with little direct impact.
So in 2013 she founded Latitude to work directly with the industry sector, and simultaneously address the key processes of the textile value chain. She first offered consultancy but realized that no real change could happen unless there was a complete ecosystem that made it possible. Latitude is now considered the go-to center for made-in-Europe sustainable fashion products.