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Is sustainable fashion overlooking Balkan?

Marija Handmade studio
courtesy of Marija Handmade

To be honest with you, I almost gave up writing about this topic when the news about the war in Ukraine broke out.

I almost gave up because the news hit me harder than I thought. The fact that I’m typing this while sitting in Berlin, a city where some of my family members ran to as refugees of another war…well, only adds to the overwhelming feeling.

Moreover, I almost gave up writing on the topic because the news of war affected the people whom I talk to regularly about it. People who, after all, inspired and supported my interest in Balkan sustainable fashion. Because they express fear, re-traumatisation, and grief.

Then I realised that these deep emotions tell us something. To me, they talk precisely about the sense of connection and shared, transnational identity, which I usually think about when I speak about Balkan. And that, exactly, is at the core of my interest in the sustainability community, makers, small businesses, creators, and everyone else who pushes the fashion industry in the region to change.

Geography first

Old map showing parts of East and Southeast Europe
Photo by Jakob Braun on Unsplash

A little geographical note first. When the occasion allows, I love asking people to point to me where Balkan is. Because different people will include different modern-day countries and exclude others. For example, I know that me mentioning Ukraine will make some people jump to quickly point out that this country is not in Balkan but East Europe. It’s different for reasons those same people may or may not be able to tell.

On the other side, growing up in Croatia, I remember clearly that they taught us in school how, geographically, Croatia does not belong to Balkan countries. No way, teachers told us; the region stops at river Sava. Croatia is European!

To all of this, I can only smile because the most important thing about Balkan isn’t geography. Frankly, I couldn’t care less which countries you count under this region. Just do not use the expression “Western Balkan” around me, please.

I am more interested here in the cultural and political meaning of Balkan.

Balkan as a liminal area. Not here, not there. Not Western, not Eastern. Not European, not non-European. It’s the in-between space, an overlap of histories, cultures, religions, and politics. Countries that for decades seem to be in some sort of socio-economic movement, transition, and development, though nobody is really sure in which direction. And most significantly, a region that we often fail so clearly to understand and analyse from the inside, from a living experience.

That is why I keep referring to the Balkan perspective. To be transparent, I sometimes add Southeast and East-European when I want to broaden the scope.

In any case, it is about a region that is often overlooked. Global sustainable fashion narrative and community, in my view, are no exception.

Why overlooked?

To start with, the textile industry in the region might be bigger than you think. It certainly seems more significant than I see it credited when discussing sustainable fashion.

I wonder how many sustainability advocates in fashion are familiar with some of the following facts.

The workers in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine make a significant global garment workforce, producing everything from fast fashion to high-end garments. Some of the most known (and most profitable) brands, like Hugo Boss, Versace, and Armani, are manufactured in Serbia and Croatia. The vast majority (90%) of textile factories in Bosnia and Herzegovina produce for Western European brands. And Albania’s footwear and clothing industries have been its main export sector for more than 15 years, and they continue to grow.

At the same time, we rarely mention or include these workers when we discuss garment workers’ rights.

We have every reason to do otherwise.

Almost 80% of Croatian garment workers are earning below the poverty line. Romania is sometimes called “Europe’s cheap sweatshop”, and you can only imagine why. An average wage covers just 21% of the living wage in Bulgaria, leading to extreme poverty. In one Serbian factory, investigators found out that the workers earn approximately 89% of what the company is contractually obliged to pay. Finally, while Albania is usually claimed to be Europe’s most rapidly growing economy, it also has one of the worst labour conditions and the highest poverty rate.

All of this is that’s just focusing on the wages. Abuse, violence, and long working hours are no exception either.

These realities are, in a sustainable fashion narrative, largely overlooked.

(video above: courtesy of Marija Handmade)

Do sustainability advocates see Balkan?

Almost all sources for the above claims lead to one organisation: Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). There are, of course, other researchers and organisations who investigate the Balkan textile industry. That is not to say that they don’t exist or dismiss their work. Still, to my knowledge, CCC is the only internationally recognised and sustainable fashion advocacy-focused organisation that has done research in the region. It is also the only such organisation, supported by the sustainable fashion community, doing this work from the workers’ perspective.

That alone is telling a lot and is only encouraging me to do something about it.

The reasons for this are multiple, and I do not have the space, knowledge or capacity to dive into them. I’ll just point out one particular thing.

The slow fashion movement, especially on social media, is rising. With this, the community is growing, and there’s an increasing number of sustainable influencers and activists who play a significant role in moving larger audiences towards slow fashion consumption. However, the space is saturated by influencers from the US, UK, and other Western countries. There’s a lot of mobilisation, research and attention towards the realities and conditions of the workers in specific parts of the world, mainly South and East Asia. Of course, some of the biggest manufacturing countries are there. But there are also historical and economic connections there, which I cannot get into right now. And some people I speak to would argue that these areas seem far enough from home to allow sustainability advocates to look at them critically. You know, it’s “a far away problem” and might be easier to talk about.

Adding to the narrative and movement

Now, look. I by no means intend to question the realities of the garment workers anywhere. I think that it’s good that many sustainability advocates learn about the workers in Asia and elsewhere. Instead, I want to add and include Balkan workers in the global narrative because they are missing from our conversations.

Together with people and brands from the region, I want to encourage people not to overlook what is happening in Europe. We want the sustainability community to understand that European workers experience and bear the same consequences of the fashion industry as the workers in other countries.

Though the issues are not unique, the contexts are.

Thus, we also want to encourage people to study, understand, and learn about the region and its textile industry from the Balkan perspective.

In other words, we want to join and contribute to the global sustainable fashion narrative and movement in our own way.

As an anthropologist, activist, and someone who works with small businesses, I see many changes happening in the Balkan textile industry. I know that so many makers, designers, fashion students, brands, and activists are proving that the industry can be better. But they face different challenges and different consumers than in the West. That is why their perspective matters.

Courtesy of Lora Gene

Two women bringing the change

I want to end this by thanking two women who inspired me to start exploring the textile industry and sustainability in Balkan. They are strong advocates for a better industry who are changing it every day.

1. Lora Nikolaeva from Lora Gene

Lora is an accomplished entrepreneur and designer originally from Bulgaria but based in London. She has been building a better supply chain for decades, proving the case for sustainability. Her brand, Lora Gene, manufactures in Bulgaria using sustainable and ethically sourced materials. They put people making the clothes, especially the women, at the forefront of their brand.

“When you come from a place of scarcity and rapid political and economic change, you don’t have the time to spend thinking. You act your best to fix the situation and help.” - Lora.

Find Lora Gene on Instagram.

2. Marija Ivanković Jurisić from Marija Handmade

Marija is an activist, entrepreneur and designer who has been challenging textile production in Serbia for over a decade. Through her brand, Marija Handmade, she produces unique textile garments and home décor items using natural materials, like linen, wool, hemp, and cotton. Everything is made by hand by her small team of women who interpret contemporary designs using traditional Serbian methods.

“These threads, they hold everything that the women go through. The women laugh, cry, pray, and tell stories while making the fabrics. That’s why they’re so beautiful.” –Marija.

Find Marija Handmade on Instagram.


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