The State of Sustainable Fashion in Puerto Rico

Featured image: Courtesy of Hola Aida. Model + designer: Arianed Rivera.

In Puerto Rico, abuelitas commonly refer to second-hand clothing as “dirty” or “smelly” and do not see it as a viable option to dress. Recently, many young adults on the island are trying to push for sustainability consciousness, even with the challenging generational differences. 

Millennials and Gen Z’ers are driven by the need to help the environment in order to survive, while also getting some extra money. There has been a rise of second-hand stores and ethical designers, especially on Instagram where people are starting thrift stores or doing closet sales for their friends to swap clothes with them. 

This approach to fashion can be very broad. It includes ethical brands that prioritize fair wages in their workspace; eco-friendly businesses that use natural dyes and recycle fabrics; or simply secondhand stores. 

“Stopping consumption is incongruent with the concept of fashion,” says Mailye Matos, Fashion Theory and Styling professor at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón. Matos gives importance to educating her students about understanding the cost and value of what they’re buying. Creating awareness of the possible solutions to the problem becomes crucial. 

“Being 100% sustainable is not really possible. Here [in Puerto Rico] it is also difficult to make sustainable clothing because we’re on an island, there is going to be a carbon footprint whether it is from the plane or the boat bringing the materials. But, we need to talk about this problem we keep avoiding,” she explains, adding: “We shouldn’t be dying over clothes.” 

Sustain Your Style reports that the fashion industry is the world’s second largest polluter, which is why many creatives and designers are turning to sustainability.

“With simply consuming less, you’re already being conscious,” Matos says. “It’s about correcting learned practices.” 

In Puerto Rico, where the Christmas season is the longest in the world, these practices often involve a new, trendy outfit for each family, office, or random party on the agenda. The average income in the island is less than $25,000 a year, making cheap, fast fashion the norm. Puerto Rico also holds the largest mall in the Caribbean, which is filled with fast fashion stores, such as Zara and Forever 21. “The instant gratification of this fast consumption is all about the experience. But thrift stores also give you an experience– one of a treasure hunt,” Matos says. 

On the island, the most known thrift stores are concentrated in San Juan, the capital, specifically in Santurce— an immigrant-heavy neighborhood that’s suffered from gentrification in the past decade. While the emergence of thrift stores can be considered progressive, the reality is one of inaccessible and pricey shops aimed at a selective [read: wealthy] audience. 

Still, others remain accessible. Vintage Rack Thrift Shop, founded in 2014 by Jade Tavárez, is a thrift and vintage clothing store with lower prices. Tavárez follows sustainable standards, too, repairing articles of clothing, if necessary; washing them by hand with biodegradable products; and paying fair wages.  

“The industry has space to lower some of their prices and accommodate itself to the realities of the economy to be more accessible,” Tavárez says. “I mean, I would love to wear pants that were organic cotton but the truth is I cannot afford to pay over $100 for pants.” 

The privilege within vintage fashion and ethical brands is not unheard of. Many of them value more the aesthetic of their clothes and consumer rather than the environmental purpose it serves. On the island, very few people are aware of the importance of ethical consumption due to the exclusivity of the industry.

“A lot of my customers are white and have a steady income. It makes me question ‘what can I do to help my communities?’” Tavárez explains. Out of this desire to help impoverished people on the island and educate them on sustainable fashion, she wants to hold workshops to teach people how to mend their clothes rather than getting rid of them so quickly. 

“People like me have the means to educate others, which is why I want to make a space in my store for moms from my kids’ public school to come and learn how to patch up holes or sew buttons. Little practices like that matter,” Tavárez says. “We can’t keep getting rid of the pieces every time there is a small fixable problem like we usually do.” 

Genzier – a word play on “Gen Z”, is another women-led space that is purposefully creating consciousness and alternatives for sustainable fashion. The platform was born out of the desire to satisfy multiple needs while shopping second-hand. 

“We want to be accessible and inclusive, reaching to all communities on the island and the rest of the world,” says Vanely Martinez, the founder of Genzier. They have a wide range of prices, from $10 to over $500, and include international vintage stores. 

“There is a lot of education that is still missing in some communities,” Martinez says. Because of this, she has chosen to post information and data on the brand’s Instagram about the harm fashion does to the environment, making sustainability their biggest priority. 

Currently, the only collective that focuses on practicing fair fashion is Modo Consciente. With a roster of 10 brands, they promote ethically-made goods and highlight the slow fashion attempts on the island. 

“All of us are joining forces so the project is not alienated,” says Karla Lopez from Isleña, a  footwear brand established and manufactured ethically in Puerto Rico. The transparency of the collective, with brands such as Aida, Yayi, Esther, and Isleña, helps fight greenwashing, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as providing misleading information about a brand’s true commitment to the environment, and reach more customers of different styles. 

“For some reason sustainability is easy to understand in terms of food but not as much in terms of clothes,” says Diana Lugo from Esther, a childrenswear brand. Their purpose is for the customer to shop with intent. “I want my clients to really cherish what they buy,” says Maru Aldea from Aida, a vintage clothing store. For them, the lifecycle of the piece and the aesthetics of it are equally important and can exist side by side.

Designer Sally Torres Vega is based in Cidra, about 55 minutes south of San Juan, and she is also a part of Modo Consciente. Torres Vega was not aware of the sustainability terms when she began her fashion design practice. “I didn’t start knowing I wanted to align myself with these [sustainable] practices, but in a way I already did it,” she says. Her brand, which goes by her full name, prioritizes creating ethical garments that can be used for multiple occasions. Torres Vega is one of the few high fashion designers around the island that are transparent about their process, materials, sourcing, and fair wages to the team, including seamstresses.  

“Seeing what surrounded my practice and my interest towards ethical approaches grew, I adopted a firm stance that ‘Okay, if this does not work ethically, I don’t want to do it.’ There is a hyperconcience in me now,” she says. 

“I don’t expect people to have a complete ‘Sally Torres Vega’ closet,” she says, chuckling. For her, what matters is to buy key pieces of clothing that can be styled in different ways, depending on the customer’s personal preferences. “I know my clothes can be pricey for many communities. I encourage people to take the first step of choosing wisely within their budgets, whether that is designer or second-hand clothes,” she says. “It still makes an impact.”

Nicole Collazo Santana

Nicole Collazo Santana was born and raised in Caguas, Puerto Rico. She is studying Journalism + Design at The New School in New York City. Previously, she has been published in ViceVersa Magazine, PopSugar and The New School Free Press. Her interests mostly include arts and culture. Currently, she is a member of the collective Archivos del Caribe. In her free time, she enjoys drinking lots of coffee and going to museums.

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