Ethical Fashion Initiative: Not Charity, Just Work

Earlier this week, our Fashion Editor Sherry Chen talked to Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. EFI links the world’s top fashion talents to marginalised artisans – the majority of them women – in East and West Africa, Haiti and the West Bank. The organisation has been connecting artisans to the global fashion supply chain since 2009. EFI also works with the rising generation of fashion talent from Africa, encouraging the forging of fulfilling creative collaborations with artisans on the continent. Under its slogan, “NOT CHARITY, JUST WORK” the EFI advocates a fairer global fashion industry.

SC: When was EFI founded? What were the motivations of establishing such an organization?

EFI: The Ethical Fashion Initiative was founded in 2009 as a programme of the International Trade Centre (a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization). The first country we worked in was Kenya. The hub we set up there was recently bought by private investors which we were very pleased about.

I was inspired to start the Ethical Fashion Initiative after working in Kenya where I met a lay missionary called Gino Filippini. Gino live in the Korogocho slum of Nairobi and worked with micro-producers, helping them set up cooperatives. His work inspired me as I saw real potential in working with micro-producers, helping them to organise and learn new skills so that they can positively improve their lives through work.

SC: What were the goals of EFI when it was first established? Have they changed over the past few years?

EFI: The goal has always been to create jobs in the value chain of fashion for micro-producers in Africa. These have not changed but they have evolved because we have grown in size and stabilised our work by creating ethical fashion production hubs to manage these jobs. Ultimately we have sought out private investors to invest in these hubs and the people working in them. We have also added new goals such as the mentoring of African creatives by supporting emerging African designers and brands.

SC: What is considered “ethical” by EFI?

EFI: Dignified working conditions with the full application of the Fair Labour agenda and a clear framework to track all processes and all people involved in production processes, so as to have a very transparent supply chain that is fully traceable. This information should be disclosed to consumers and partners so that everyone can verify them. A clear environmental agenda adapted to each supply chain is also necessary. For example, in leather the environmental agenda that we have is to eliminate heavy metals and chrome, for cotton it is eliminating chemical dyes, using organic and/or recycled materials whenever possible. We believe that setting and following standards and being ethical is a form of sustainability. It must be noted that there is not a defined blueprint; there is no such thing as a clear and simple recipe. Being ethical and sustainable means undertaking a journey towards sustainability, which is a matter of trial, error and continuous improvement. Complete sustainability is a final aim, but there are many intermediate stages that can be equally important. The path towards sustainability has to be clearly communicated. It has to be clearly and properly tracked with a work plan and landmarks, so that everyone can mark their progression and no one lags behind.

SC: How do you select your partners?

EFI: Sometimes we are approached by brands and sometimes we approach brands directly. It really works both ways and, of course, we are constantly meeting and being introduced to new brands through our network.

SC: Tell us a bit about your recent event “Generation Africa”

EFI: Generation Africa was a fashion show which we organised at Pitti Uomo in Florence. We selected four African designers to participate and showcase their Autumn-Winter 2016 collections, there were two Nigerian brands, Ikiré Jones and U.Mi-1 and two South African brands, AKJP and Lukhanyo Mdingi x Nicholas Coutts. It was an excellent show. This event was part of our African designer programme whereby we support designers to access fashion platforms to gain access to the fashion market and raise awareness about their brand. For this show we partnered with an Italian association called Lai-momo which runs several welcome centres for asylum-seekers in Italy. With Lai-momo we cast three asylum-seekers as models for the Generation Africa show. This was an opportunity to use fashion to discuss a social issue and of course change perceptions and stereotypes that society often has of migrants and asylum-seekers from Africa. It was a very successful partnership with Lai-momo and we are currently working to expand our work with them to set up a fashion-focused training facility for asylum-seekers.

SC: Finally, could you please comment on the recent trend of eco fashion and ethical fashion? Do you think the industry provides sustainable environment for the development of ethical fashion?

EFI: The ethical fashion movement is about people and labour. Yes, the industry is more conducive to the ethical fashion movement than it was eight years ago; then, it was a matter for innovators and confined to very small spaces, both within the fashion market and in the public eye. Today, ethical fashion is part of the agenda of all the groups that work in this industry; Kering has a Chief Sustainability officer, Marie Claire Daveu, who is very active on this. But all the groups have some resources allocated to sustainability. It is a more conducive environment because consumers have woken up and are more demanding. Social media allows people, even those in marginalised conditions, to be vocal, to have agency and to be heard. People are more mobilised as consumers, and use their buying power. The drive for change does not come from within the industry, as it would remain in the old paradigm if there was no push from the consumers. Sociologists have named “individualisation” as the main trend of our time. There is a big debate in sociology about whether individualisation gives more or less agency to people. It may not allow for big political goals, but it surely gives more agency to people as consumers, because they are more informed and have immediate purchasing power.

We also live in an age of post-materialist issues. This means that consumers are not only looking for a gorgeous product but also to satisfy deep inner motivations. This is evident in the political spectrum of the societies in which we live. People are changing their partisan affiliation model. Once upon a  time, the affiliation model was only on the basis of census; generally the working class leaned to the left and then the middle or higher classes leaned to the centre or the right. Today it is different because there are these post-materialist and aspirational issues, as well as identity politics. It is very likely that an affluent person has a political platform from the left-wing and vice versa. The same is true of consumerism. Consumers are not only concerned about the beauty and price of products, but they are evaluating the non-physical features of the product. Their choices are now linked to sustainability in terms of people and planet. This is the real movement behind the ethical fashion movement and the real reason why the industry is becoming more responsive. If we didn’t see these changes, the industry wouldn’t change at all.