Could this be the most ethical hat in the world?

| 6th August 2009
The most ethical hat in the world?

Fair Trade: a Panama from Pachacuti

All hail the rise of the Fair Trade Panama hat. Laura Sevier meets ethical fashion pioneer Carry Somers of Pachacuti
It seems like all the world want Panama hats at the moment

They're everywhere - at festivals, on the beach, in the city. One of my (girl) friends recently wore one to a wedding.

They travel well because they can be rolled up and packed in a bag. Day or night, dressed up or dressed down, this lightweight, woven straw hat has become a modern, unisex fashion classic.

Kate Moss, Keira Knightly, Johnny Depp have all been spotted wearing them.

Yes, we're talking Panamas hats.

I always used to associate Panamas with men of a certain age dressed in blazers or linen suits at the cricket or a bowling green. Yes, the hats were elegant in an old fashioned kind of way and a sign that the British summer was in full swing. But I never actually considered wearing one.... Until this summer.

Last month I became the proud owner of a Panama myself. It's not that I'm a slave to a ‘must-have.' I just got tired of borrowing other people's and feeling hat envy whenever the sun came out.

The best thing about my particular Panama is that it's Fair Trade. It's from Pachacuti ‘the UK's only Fair Trade Panama hat specialists.'

‘It seems like all the world want Panama hats at the moment, which is fantastic news for us' says Carry Somers, Pachacuti's founder. ‘Our sales are up by 100 per cent on this time last year.'

Weaving power

Somers set up her Derbyshire-based fair trade clothing company in 1992 after a research trip to Ecuador where she was shocked by the inequitable trading patterns. It was a system where 'the intermediaries made all the profits.'

Pachacuti, which means 'world upside-down' in the Quechua language of the Andean region, works with two co-operatives in the southern highlands of Ecuador near the city of Cuenca. ‘All genuine Panama hats come from Ecuador so we only work there,' she says. Overall the co-operatives support over 800 women weavers.

Instead of passing through a chain of intermediaries the Panamas are woven and finished by members of the co-operative so more of the value of the hats is retained within the community. Profits are used for pensions, medical expenses (like eye tests and glasses for weavers) and community development projects ranging from building a new grocery store, getting chickens for various communities to financing the work of Alcoholics Anonymous - alcoholism is a huge problem with indigenous people in the Andes.

Instead of working in a factory, the weavers work at home. It's a secondary form of income (agriculture always takes precedence) and women can weave at the same time as other work. ‘They can weave all the time - when they're looking after the children, when walking to the fields to go and pick blackberries or to milk their cows, or on the way to market,' she says. ‘Family life can go on as normal.'

The women are paid by how much they produce but also by quality. The hats are graded according to the fineness of the weave. Some Panamas can take up to a month to weave. Pachacuti prices range from £106 for an extra fine grade 12 (the top grade) hat that takes at least two weeks to weave, to £29 for a basic twisted weave.

It seems like all the world want Panama hats at the moment

Panama hat stack

A fine weave hat should last for years. Other people get through a hat a year. It depends on how often you roll it and how you treat it. Because it's made of natural fibres a bit of humidity is apparently a good thing.

So how is a panama actually made?

The hats are woven from ‘Paja Toquilla' straw, from the leaves of the Carludovica Palmata plant indigenous to several elevated areas in the Ecuadorian regions of Guayas and Manabi.

The palms are cut by hand and transported out of the area by donkey. They're then soaked in water and the palm is stripped down so that they're soft and supple enough to weave.

There is a bleaching process towards the end. But even this is low impact says Somers. ‘They've got water recycling so they can filter off the bleach and keep reusing the water so it's very environmentally. There's certainly no harmful chemicals used.'

When she met the weavers back in the 90's they were making the classic 'fedora' style of hat (pictured). She's since encouraged them to incorporate different weaves and colours into that style as well as other styles of hat too.

'The weavers  love it. For them it's much more exciting doing an orange or lilac hat - it keeps them stimulated too.'

The process is very labour intensive with every hat woven, trimmed, beaten and blocked by hand. Historically the straw harvesters and weavers were the lowest links in the Panama hat supply chain and receive a very low price for their skills - yet some hats can be sold for £600 or more in excusive shops ...

‘We really needed a label...'

Somers' idea of Fair Trade is turning something which isn't of much value (such as straw) to something which is high value. So going for Fairtrade certification (which certifies the raw material) would in this instance be ‘slightly pointless' because it is the production process - the weavers who add the value to the palm fibre. ‘We want a label which recognises certifies the whole supply chain.'

Which is why she decided to go for a label that does just that. Pachacuti is the first 100% Fair Trade company to complete the Pilot for the new World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) certification process: the Sustainable Fair Trade Management System (SFTMS).

Labels can mean make or break. A big retail company apparently told her to 'come back when you've got a label on your products.'

Even without a label Pachacuti's sales are impressive. In seventeen years Somers estimates they've sold over 100,000 Panamas, rising steadily year on year.

Would she be able to cope with a huge surge in orders? ‘Yes. Whenever we ask the women what we can do for them they say "more work". At the moment they're working to full capacity so they're happy. But more orders means we can train more young people to take pride in that skill.'

As a Fair Trade pioneer, Somers has been recognised for her efforts. She was a finalist for the Women in Ethical Business Awards and the Observer Ethical Awards in June and last year won five awards. But for her the best thing about running Pachacuti is ‘going out there and really seeing what a difference it makes to the women and their families.'

Available direct from or call 01335 300003 for stockists

For more information on Pachacuti's Fair Trade policy click here

See also:
The A to Z of Eco Fashion


For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Clothing goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here







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