What Can Fashion Designer Angel Chang Teach Us About Ethical Tourism?

If you know me you know I am the last person who should be talking about fashion. I only own 4 shirts and it’s only partly because we live in a micro-studio. My style is Goodwill-chic meets Am-I-Going-Hiking-Or-To-Work, so I am in no position to speak on fashion in any way. But when I came across this video on the web it really caught my eye and I found myself super inspired that other industries think about things like we do here at Travel Life Adventures. Give it a watch before we continue.



Pretty cool stuff right? The designer, Angel Chang, is seeking to work directly with local producers of fabrics and textiles to not only bring the beautiful designs to the world, but to also empower the local people to share their story and to benefit economically from their work. From listening to her speak you can hear her desire to help preserve these traditional fabrics and to give credit to the people who work so hard to produce them. She is trying to influence the fashion industry to move from an exploiter and polluter to a responsible and ecologically healthy industry. So why are we talking about fashion on a travel blog?

I see so much of what we do in this story and find it truly inspiring to see Ms. Chang’s care and dedication to doing what is right and ethical in her industry. In the video she says, “But in this case since I knew exactly which village they came from I thought it would be easier just to fly down there.” This is exactly how we operate, how we hope to change the tourism industry. She took the time to cultivate those relationships, build trust, and ensure that what the community wants and what is best for them is at the forefront of her relationship with them.

Our model is to connect local communities, who want to participate in tourism, directly with the tourism industry through travelers. Far too often tourism ends up producing degradation, both socially and culturally as well as ecologically, instead of being something that can create positive change in the world. We travel the world and build relationships with people. We help lay the groundwork for healthy tourism practices in communities and empower people to tell their stories. We then bring you, the traveler, into our work and into the lives of the people and places we have come to love. That direct, person to person model is what we believe in. It takes time, isn’t always lucrative right away, and sometimes doesn’t end up working out at all. But for us the long term outcomes of preserving ways of life and improving health in communities is worth it.

We see crossover in how the loss of tradition and economic stability affect communities in this story as well. Ms. Chang talks about how when young people can’t make money or provide for their families they end up leaving home at 16 or 17 and become migrant workers. This fractures communities and creates gaps in population that can encompass entire generations. The loss of identity, knowledge, and connection to place and family ends up degrading the social fabric of many of these places. We have seen this same concept play out in communities all over the world, especially in nomadic and different indigenous communities. When factors out of people’s hands such as climate, policy or modernization become too much to overcome, people migrate away from their lands into cities.

In Mongolia this is especially true. In the far West we spent time with a Kazakh family who live in the mountains where they raise sheep and goats and hunt for foxes and small game with Golden Eagles. This way of life is tough, but has been going on for many generations. Over and over we heard the story of how lack of economic diversity and opportunity forces people to abandon their way of life. If a family experiences a harsh winter and their livestock die, they are left with no choice but to leave their way of life and seek something new in the city. There they are faced with poverty, crippling pollution, and the slim prospects of creating a healthy life for their families.

This is where we believe that providing an opportunity for people like the Kazakh to participate directly in the tourism industry by sharing their story and way of life can give them something to fall back on if they lose their animals. By ensuring that the tourism is both economically beneficial and respects the people’s way of life and the land we can help empower people to continue living where and how they choose.

One of the issues that Ms. Chang brings up near the end of the video is the long term viability of the model by which she is working. She talks about how it is very hard to scale that mode of production in the communities to a level that can make it work in a larger context and over a long period of time. Tourism faces similar challenges, but has a leg up in some ways too. To be responsible stewards of land and culture we must respect the capacity of a place and people to be able to handle an influx of tourism. I could point to hundreds of examples the world over where sudden and large-scale tourism spikes has decimated communities. The scalability of tourism in any given setting must be our guide for limits and caps on what the community can handle. This often requires us to make choices that reduce profits or bypass opportunity to make revenue, but will be what is best for local people in the long run. This is absolutely paramount if tourism is ever going to be a positive partner in the world.

Where tourism I think has an advantage in this way is that though scalability on a local level is hard, that replication of this model in every community who desires it can make widespread change. Being able to point to thousands of places where slow, responsible, and direct tourism practices are successful both for companies and communities gives credibility to the things I am saying. This is absolutely possible if we shift the paradigm in which we operate as travelers and as tourism professionals. The seeking of limitless, exponential growth and profit production has to stop. We must seek balance. The perfect point on which to balance business with stewardship, profits with ethics, and experiences with stories.

At Travel Life Adventures this is what we are seeking to do. To connect you directly with people and places in a deep, meaningful, and radically positive way while also empowering people to carry on  their traditions and tell their stories to the world. Hopefully we can be more like Ms. Chang in her practices, if not in her sense of style. I don’t think my wardrobe is going to change much, but I could start by getting a shirt with buttons… but nah.

-Tanner Colton

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