ARE we really what we wear, when what we wear frequently isn’t Filipino?

As part of its month-long celebration of Philippine Tropical Fabrics Month this January, the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI) held a talk titled “Mainstreaming Philippine Textiles,” which gave an overview of the state of Philippine textiles and what we can do to use more of it, thereby boosting local economy.

There are gaps in all areas of production, from producing enough fibers for local needs, to having to import finished fabrics for local production, to using local textile for local products for local use.

Take abaca, also known in international markets as Manila hemp. According to Carissa Cruz-Evangelista, Chair of the Philippine Fashion Coalition, a whopping 97% of our abaca is exported, and the country supplies 87% of the world’s abaca. Its applications include commercial textiles, used for fabric for fashion, and industrial purposes — for example, we export 94% of our pulp, and 5% cordage, and 43% of the abaca exported to the US is used for twine and cordage.

However, she also emphasized that the world’s first-class abaca comes from Ecuador. “Where we are now is that there’s actually not enough abaca to supply the world demand,” she said. “We only utilize 70-80,000 hectares, and it’s not enough.”

Aside from not growing enough abaca for the world’s needs, there is a lack for locally grown fibers for local needs.

There are gaps in production, she said, particularly at the agricultural level, such as not producing enough cotton. “We tend to import yarns, like our cotton has been imported since there’s not enough [grown locally],” she said. “The challenge is to be able to process these indigenous fibers for the Philippines — for Philippine consumption.”

So, the Philippines has to import textiles. “The issue that we have is that we import a big percent of our textile requirement for the garments and footwear industry,” Ms. Cruz-Evangelista pointed out. She referred to a Board of Investments (BoI) report from 2016, which saw $180 million in Philippine textile exports, but $1.2 billion in textile imports.

She points to a decline in cotton planting, garment manufacturing, exportation, and an added wound from the pandemic, a decline in employment in all these fields. “The government and the private sector have created a plan to be able to work with different exporters to be strengthened through trade agreements,” she said though.

On a cultural level, there’s also the prevalence of Western wear. “There’s nothing wrong with Western wear, but what we hope to promote with our coalition is to wear Filipino traditional clothing as a form of cultural soft power,” she said, using Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power as “shaping preference of others through appeal and attraction, not through coercion or payments.”

She cites as an example the Korean hallyu phenomenon, which saw the export of Korean culture — through food, music, and media — resulting in economic gain. “All of these have a direct impact on the economy of (South) Korea,” she said. “The challenge is for us to be able to follow the Korean model, but then improve it as Filipinos.”

She pointed to 2022 television show The Broken Marriage Vow (which is a remake of a popular British TV show, Doctor Foster, which has been adapted by five other countries). The production design of Broken Marriage Vow uses local designers and fabrics extensively. She hopes that local shows could be exported, giving international exposure to the products used in the programs, much like what Korea does in K-drama.

While this seems like a far-off goal, she points out that in the 1950s, under the influence of the Americans, there had been deliberate efforts to grow the local textile industry. In 1959, the country had reached its production requirement for the national level, extending this strength to the end of the 1960s. The decline in production involved the advent of the importation of cheap textiles, as promoted by the government.

“What we hope would happen would that there would be more domestic preference again at this time, and support for both the artisan weavers and also the commercial textile mills.”

Solutions she finds include developing the manufacturing industry, since we export so much of our raw materials. “We had exported a great deal of our pulp, of our abaca. The semi-processing should at least be done here. We should be doing our teabags and doing other products made of abaca.”

She also cited RA 9242 (the Philippine Tropical Fabric Law) which prescribes the use of local fabrics for uniforms of public officials and employees, as helping the cause. “We have to do our part. That would include doing legislation, regulation for sustainability, and also for domestic preference.”

Of course, it’s easy to say “#buylocal” and all the other hashtags promoting the same idea, but the change should also be institutional: she calls for the development of not only natural fibers, which we already export, but the development of chemical fiber, and smart fibers.

“It’s the love of the textile and the love of our culture, but it is also the economic support for all the groups within the (fashion) ecosystem,” she said, counting the farmers who plant the fibers to the retailers who sell the clothes made from those fibers, and everyone else in between. “Even if we are inside now because of the pandemic, we still have a choice to not just purchase, not just advocate: but then, dream, and create a new kind of ecosystem.” — J.L. Garcia