November 22, 2013

ITC's Ethical Fashion Initiative: Not Charity, Just Work

Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Sass & Bide, Stella Jean and Ilaria Venturini Fendi's Carmina Campus share a fashion-forward trend: wearable progress.

All of these innovative fashion powerhouses work with one of the most brilliant initiatives in the world: the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

A branch of the United Nation's International Trade Centre, the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) is a project that in addition to supplying beautifully crafted, top quality items to high-end brands, is changing thousands of lives in Africa and Haiti. EFI utilizes the power of fashion & style as a vehicle out of poverty. 

Created and headed by Simone Cipriani, a passionate Italian fair-trade advocate and leather industry expert, this organization acts as a hub between marginalized communities in Africa and luxury brands around the world.  They allow artisans to produce fashion accessories that meet the standards of any other global fashion supply chain agent. Both the EFI and the more than 7,000 artisans they work with take pride on creating high quality pieces that come with a great story behind them.

The organization's motto: "Not Charity, Just Work" embodies everything that this blog is about. 

How does it work?
EFI creates hubs (located in Kenya, Uganda, Haiti and soon Rwanda) that are entirely self-sustainable incubators. These incubators foster a number of small enterprises and cooperatives made up of micro-producers and artisans. The hub provides ongoing training, technical support, mentorship, logistical support, quality control and of course, the link to their clients: the fashion industry. The enterprises revolve around the importance of quality control and on-time delivery. They work on the standards of high-end fashion , not of charity buys.

In parallel, Mr Cipriani and his team travel the world meeting their contacts within the fashion industry showing them the business model they have built: one where quality will never have to be sacrificed for the sake of having a genuine and meaningful social impact.  He shows the different sustainable and mostly organic or recycled materials they work with (from cart parts to recycled mosquito nets) and the different traditional and non-traditional skills they posses. Overall he presents them with a compelling opportunity to add a story of progress to their products' spec sheet.

Then, fashion brands with a vision and passion for fostering progress take him up to the challenge. Mr Cipriani oversees and adjusts the work at the different hubs and EFI delivers beautiful products that make it to the most coveted runways.

What do they make?
Handbags, tote bags, key chains, metal clasps for handbags, and other fashion accessories. I am sure I may be leaving off some categories.  You should check out their Facebook page; they always have some beautiful examples of their work. 

The Impact and why they're succeeding
EFI has created a real, viable, business model that provides employment, dignity and a reliable income to marginalized people that want to change their lives. Work gives them respect, confidence and helps them provide their families and communities a brighter tomorrow. It empowers women and helps them show their sons and daughters that hard work can pay off and result in happy, fulfilling lives.  They don't discriminate against men, but 90% of their workers are women, promoting gender equality in areas where the concept is almost a fantasy.

As they state on their website: "Everything we do is underwritten by solid economics and a strict code of ethics.While our production is 100% ethical and with a strong focus on environmental protection, this is not a niche "eco-fashion" project, instead a vast initiative reaching out to 7,000 artisans and across the world to fashion partners from Rome to Rio to Tokyo."  My favorite is the "underwritten by solid economics" part. Such an objective focus will allow them to make this a sustainable project.

Currently, they provide work for over 7,000 people. According to the New York Times, "EFI impact assessment shows that one person’s income supports at least 6 to 7 family members, often enabling children to have a first opportunity of education." This will bring the total impact to up to 49,000 people - and counting! 

This is definitely a fresh and, in my opinion, more effective approach than the traditional bureaucratic development practices.  “All these people who work in development – they want to build something and I have seen the waste of money, in Africa, in Asia, everywhere, by international organisations, by bilateral corporations, by charities, by foundations,” Mr Cipriani said in an interview for the Australian Financial Review. I agree. I have seen it in my own country, Bolivia. There are several well-intentioned, yet not economics-driven initiatives that remain good intentions due to a lack of objective market analysis. “The model where you invest only in capacity building is wrong. It’s the market that matters and it’s solely the market. These big structures will never work. The only thing which works is to create capacity to access the market.” He continued,  referring to the importance of not just creating a supply, but making sure that that supply meets the requirements and particularities of the demand. It's this focus what has allowed this initiative to get where they are and what will allow it to continue growing.

What's next?
EFI wants to reach 20,000 people in the next five years. Additionally, Mr Cipriani has a dream "that Hermès will one day use the hub’s 100 per cent natural leather tanned by tree bark". I think it would be an excellent idea for a limited-edition line. In the meantime, I would LOVE to see one of these hubs in South America. Specifically in the Andes. I may be biased; coming from La Paz, the highest capital in the world, I grew up surrounded by these beautiful mountains. However, bias aside, the Andes have hard-working artisans AND also super luxurious natural fibers like alpaca and vicuña. I can only imagine what the EFI could do in countries like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. 

Photo credits: International Trade Centre's  Ethical Fashion Initiative Website and Facebook Page.

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