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Ethical Fashion Initiative is on a mission to change the world

by | Jan 13, 2020

Long before sustainability became trendy, the Ethical Fashion Initiative waved “goodbye to fast fashion” and introduced “a better way of producing”. Founder and director of EFI, Simone Cipriani, believes that the $2.4 trillion-a-year global industry has the power to change the world.

“It is extremely important to mobilise the power of this industry through its huge supply chain and to make it more equal and reduce poverty,” he says. “It gives work to 60 million people, the majority of whom are in the developing world”.  But he says the industry is slow to realise its power because its business model squeezes suppliers. Its supply chain is organised to reduce the cost of labour as much as possible. This, he says, is where the mistake lies and he has developed a very different mode.

For more than ten years EFI has been linking artisans in Africa with international brands. By producing goods and introducing processes that have sustainability at their core, EFI creates positive social, economic and environmental impact. For each collection, it publishes a full impact assessment. Social workers, embedded in the communities where the initiative operates, monitor the implementation of its code of conduct.  There are comments from artisans like thirty-eight year old Kenyan mother of two, Rose Wanjiro who says, “I worked on the Vivienne Westwood Autumn-Winter 2018 order as a beader. In addition to improving my skills, the order afforded me enough income to meet my family’s nutritional needs. ”

In countries from Burkina Faso to Haiti, Mali to Afghanistan, EFI “acts as a bridge, connecting marginalised artisan communities in challenging and remote locations with global lifestyle brands.” It also offers programmes and mentorships to connect designers and brands to the international marketplace. Both Laduma Ngxokolo and Sindiso Khumalo, who are South African designers, have been mentees.

A few days ago EFI announced the brands for its 2020 Accelerator Programme. Included are Durban-based designers Sipho Mbutho and Ben Nozo of Reign and Cape Town’s Lukhanyo Mdingi, who last year won a Twyg Sustainable Fashion Award. During the year, these brands will become investment-ready through production support, building brand value and acceleration of business process. Reign’s Ben says, “We are absolutely humbled to be selected. We aim to expand on fundamental areas surrounding sustainability throughout the course of the accelerator programme”.

EFI was launched in 2009, as a programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. Jackie May sat down with EFI’s founder Simone in Cape Town to find out more:

How did EFI start?

It started in Korogocho [an informal settlement in Nairobi]. I had worked as the CEO of an Italian leather company which had activities all over Asia. Then in 2002 I consulted for a UN agency to define the position paper on the footwear industry in Kenya. I had accepted this work because I wanted to visit missionary Gino Filippini in Korogocho. Gino’s mission was to create jobs by setting up a co-operative of shoemakers.

[After the end of the UN consultancy job] I accepted a UN position in Ethiopia to manage a large industrial tanning project — a model footwear, leather and bag-making unit and leather garment unit. I managed this huge industrial compound for a couple of years. Every Friday evening I took a flight to Nairobi where I spent the weekend with Gino and learnt how to work in the informal sector and with artisans. This is where I saw the possibility of connecting brands with meaningful production. I took a business plan to the UN and was given money and two years to make a success. I met my colleague, Chloe Mukai, and together we started building this. We didn’t fail. In 2009, we opened the first social enterprise in Kenya.

Are you based in Kenya?

No, our headquarters are in in Geneva but we have offices in Burkina Faso, Mali and in Kenya. We also have an office in Afghanistan where we create a supply chain of fabric. [In Afghanistan, EFI works with the production of saffron and as a by-product of saffron, to make dye for silk.]

You’re currently working with established clients. Does this list continue to grow?

Yes. The problem with new clients, is creating new work patterns. When you start new relationships, it’s erratic. With the old ones, there’s the pattern of regular suppliers. But, with these new ones we have to build the relationship. Initially you have a lot of product development that costs a lot of money. We’ve had to turn some brands and distributors down.

Why?

Some don’t pay well enough. It’s impossible to work with good standards when you pay peanuts. Others have done well to introduce change. Vivienne Westwood reshaped her margins to make it possible to sell our bags at a good price in order to increase quantities while paying us well. Westwood is really serious, an example of what the industry should do.

Fashion talks about the environment, diversity and inclusion. Why isn’t it engaging with poverty, inequality and the living wage as much?

It’s the big elephant in the room. It’s good to talk about the environment because we are facing an environmental catastrophe. But few talk about the people in the supply chains, about poverty and inequality. This inequality, this poverty, this social conflict sometimes becomes violent conflict. It is extremely important to mobilise the power of this industry through its huge supply chain and to make it more equal and reduce poverty. It gives work to 60 million people, the majority of whom are in the developing world. But the industry doesn’t want to realise its power, because of a business model which squeezes suppliers.

In general, the industry of fashion and of luxuries work with 20% to 30% margins. With these kinds of margins, you can invest to change the world but instead fashion companies squeeze the cost of the product. They can’t squeeze the cost of the materials so they squeeze the labour. They have organised the supply chain  to reduce, as much as possible, the cost of labour. This is where the mistake lies. Many companies spend a huge amount on marketing initiatives, which are good for the environment and this and that and they do a lot of philanthropy. But, first they should be engaging in giving work and a decent life to people, then you can engage in giving philanthropy and engage in giving….

What about fast fashion companies?

Fast fashion requires good capacity of management, of logistics… it’s about organisation. If they implement fair labour working conditions and the living wage across their channels, fast fashion can become the vehicle for change before the luxury industry.

There is a sense of urgency and panic…

Fashion’s reputation is at stake, which is good. It’s changing. Look at Zara putting up prices, rearranging logistics and defining trends. Now you have a fast fashion company which is no longer fast, but which has the logistics of fast fashion and some logic of luxury fashion. It has grown from very low prices to having prices which are a bit higher, to better quality and better design. This is the evolution of sustainability and though these giants of fast fashion are still in the business of very low prices and cheap products, this has to change if you want to be sustainable.

How many people have you got working with Ethical Fashion Initiative?

We don’t employ many people directly, our social enterprises employ people. We work to ensure a regular stream of work which is detached from the fashion seasons. In a typical fashion year, you have two peaks and two lows. To stabilise this, we have added new products for the workplace, like interior products and fabrics.  Fashion collections are bi-annual, collections of fabric last for three years.

Any advice for designers?

I think designers should have a wider view to their business, including if they are fashion designers, they should include interiors, include lifestyle. There are opportunities in the hospitality industry in your region. And it is a growing one, it’s a good one and it needs style.

And consumers?

Consumers must focus on durability and on quality. That’s a big shift.

  • This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
  • Images supplied by Ethical Fashion Initiative. Main image by Ann Mimault and below image of the EFI team shot by Chiara Guidi 

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