Páramo | How An Ethical Outdoor Clothing Brand Is Changing Women’s Lives In The Andes
Improving the world one jacket at a time…
Words by Rebecca Marriage
You might have heard of the small, outdoor brand Páramo, the best kept secret of mountain professionals. It’s possible you know about their greener than green eco-credentials. But, it’s almost certain you won’t have heard how their manufacturing process has been helping to save the lives of thousands of women and children in war-torn Colombia.
Páramo’s USP is that their jackets keep you warm and dry in the cold and wet without damaging the environment. The brand is a long-term favourite of mountain rescue teams, the British Antarctic Survey and Greenpeace campaigners, who wore Páramo during their data collection for the seminal Footprints in the Snow report on the use of toxic PFCs in outdoor clothing.
"Páramo were the first outdoors company to sign up to the Greenpeace Detox agreement."
In fact, they have been leading the march on environmental issues for almost 25 years. Being reassuringly PFC-free, they were the first outdoors company to sign up to the Greenpeace Detox agreement and are committed to increasing the longevity of their garments through recycling and repair. All of which has delivered them a loyal, almost cult following in the outdoors market.
Only just coming to light though is the company’s seriously worthy contribution to pulling thousands of Colombian women out of a life of prostitution and drug abuse.
Back in 1992, Nick Brown, owner of Páramo and inventor of Nikwax (the waterproofing agent which keeps Páramo jackets dry without using polluting chemicals) stumbled upon a group of nuns on a Colombian hillside with two sewing machines and a big idea.
As it happened, Nick was looking for a small scale manufacturing plant outside of the UK to kick-start production of a range of outdoor clothing using his newly invented fabric, Nikwax Analogy. Based on mammal skin, the fabric is designed to keep you dry both on the inside and the outside.
"Nick Brown, the owner of Páramo, stumbled upon a group of nuns on a Colombian hillside with two sewing machines and a big idea."
High up in the Colombian Andes the conditions proved a perfect spot for road-testing the new material. The ‘Páramo’, after which the company is named, is a 3,500-metre high ecosystem above the tree line with almost continuous rainfall. “It’s a really good spot to go and get wet," says Nick.
Meanwhile, the formidable and charismatic Sister Esther Castaño Mejia had equally ambitious plans to turn around the tragic stories of the women of the Colombian capital, Bogotá. While the extended ceasefire and ongoing peace negotiations between the government and rebel factions might offer hope and optimism to the people of Colombia, the preceding fifty years of civil war and conflict has resulted in huge numbers of displaced people and created a particularly desperate situation for Colombian women. Biting poverty, often following exposure to brutal rape and murder, has meant that a life of prostitution and drug abuse is the norm for many.
Sister Esther Castaño established ‘Creaciones Miquelina’ back in 1977. Bravely hitting the streets and the red light districts, she offered a safe haven and professional training for the women of Bogotá. But ultimately, with just twenty women working on a couple of sewing machines, she was in need of a serious partner willing to nurture and help the charity grow. Enter Páramo.
"Biting poverty, often following exposure to brutal rape and murder, has meant that a life of prostitution and drug abuse is the norm for many."
“We were looking for somewhere to manufacture in a very small way outside of the UK," says Nick Brown. “Someone suggested to us that that we go and see Miquelina. We realised straight away that [her business] was something that we’d like to support."
After the shockwaves that rippled through the garment industry following the catastrophic 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, killing over a thousand exploited garment workers – mostly women – the world is slowly waking up to the critical importance of ethical manufacturing. And while Páramo now holds accolades from the Ethical Consumer and the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards for its industry leading work, back in the 90s, ethics were not so much on the agenda.
“Ethical garment manufacturing was not top of my mind at the time," confesses Nick, “but as soon as we got involved with Miquelina, we started to see what they were doing. And more importantly, we began to understand the significance of what we were doing for them."
The turning point in the relationship came in the form of a $150,000 loan/donation from Páramo, which enabled Sister Esther Castaño to buy more equipment, hold enough stock and ultimately to set up a proper charitable foundation.
"Miquelina [now] manufactures 80 per cent of the Páramo range…thousands of women have have found work through the Foundation and some have even gone on to higher education"
Fast forward to 2016 and the partnership boasts some pretty impressive statistics. Miquelina manufactures 80 per cent of the Páramo range (almost 50,000 garments in 2015) on cutting edge computer aided machinery, guaranteeing a constant stream work for the women of Bogotá. Thousands of women have trained and have found work through the Foundation and some have even gone on to higher education. 120 quality hillside homes have been built for the women and their families and over 300 children from the local community eat in the Miquelina canteen everyday. For some it’s their only hot meal of the week.
So why are we only just hearing about this?
“I was always afraid people’s assumption would be that, if this was some sort of charity, the quality would not be high enough," explains Nick. “But, as time has gone on, it’s become a really important part of what we do and it’s fair to them to include them in the story. Apart from anything it locks us in even more tightly than we were before."
Although Páramo has never hidden the relationship, the company has always been sharply focused on the high functioning technical performance of its products. In fact, Nick asserts, it’s the exacting technical production required in the Páramo manufacturing process that really defines the Miquelina set-up and allows them to take on other contracts and grow the business. In 2002 the Foundation was awarded the ISO 9001 quality standard.
“They have just taken on a contract from a highly sophisticated company that makes bullet-proof vests," Nick explains with pride, “it’s nothing to do with the military, it’s all about protection – but they are highly complex and technical garments sold to world leaders; protection that you can’t see. That’s perfect for Miquelina. Like Páramo gear, it has to be something complex and high quality with a good return. They are not in the business of producing millions of garments at cheap prices."
And it is the sense of pride that comes with making such high quality products, says Nick that is so vitally important for the women’s self image. “So much of the recovery in that situation is about self image," he says.
He is often in awe of the women’s resilience and determination to change their lives. “There is one particular woman who is quite extraordinary. She basically watched her brothers and sisters being raped. She was raped. And then her mother was killed in front of her. She stayed with Miquelina until she retired. In that time she went through high school graduation and went to university – she is truly amazing."
"The sense of pride that comes with making such high quality products… is so vitally important for the women’s self image."
One of the women, who does not wish to be named, explains her horrifying story after escaping terrible psychological and physical abuse. “When I was seventeen I worked as prostitute. It meant I wasn’t hungry and I could give money to my mum," she says. “But, I got more and more involved in that world until a woman took me into slavery along with my baby girl."
For this woman, and many others, one of the biggest attractions to Miquelina was the access to education that, through her involvement with training and employment at the Foundation, she would be able to provide for her daughter. “I knew my girl would not live a life like mine," she says. “Miquelina and Páramo gave me the opportunity of being a leader," she says, smiling, “I do not just sit in front of a sewing machine, I am a technician."
But she doesn’t want to stop there. Like many of the women employed by the Foundation, they become ambassadors for Miquelina and visit women in similar situations to their own. “Today, I go to the same places as I worked as a prostitute," she explains, “I want to do the same thing the sisters did for me. Change lives."
Nick Brown speaks passionately about his beloved Colombia and, visiting around twice a year, he is a regular at the busy factory. “Whenever I go I take away a large amount of energy from them," he says. “It’s not as if I go over to Colombia to get re-energised," he laughs, “but I have been so many times re-energised by the sheer determination of these women to make things right. To do everything they can for their children. It’s been an incredible privilege for me to have fallen into what might be the best thing I’ve done."
And what of sister Sister Esther Castaño? Now well into her eighties, she has taken a backseat from the factory but refuses to slow down, instead she has returned to her roots and is back on the streets, recruiting and counselling the troubled women of Bogotá.
Along with his small but passionate team in East Sussex, Nick Brown set out, almost 25 years ago, with the aim of producing high quality, high performance outdoor clothing. Clothing that would have the least impact on the environment and that might actually make a difference to people’s lives.
“He told me every time he sees a Páramo badge, he thinks, they must be a nice person. They must be someone who cares."
But he’s not daft enough to believe that this is the primary reason people will seek out what is essentially a pricey but eco-ethical-alternative to Gore-Tex. “In the first instance people have got to stay warm and dry and comfortable. So we’ve got to do that really well, which I think we do," says Nick modestly. “And because of that, we can do the other thing."
Although it does matter to a growing number of people, which is heartening to the folk at Páramo, who have spent much of their working lives dedicated to improving the world one jacket at a time. “I was speaking to a leading outdoor photographer a while ago," confides Nick, “and he told me that every time he sees a Páramo badge, he thinks, they must be a nice person. They must be someone who cares."