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Women @ Work

05 June 2013

Simone Cipriani’s official title – Chief Technical Adviser: Ethical Fashion Initiative Head, Poor Communities and Trade Programme Sector Competitiveness – stretches across his business card in three dense lines of bureaucratic language that don’t do justice to the intriguing story beneath it. 

Simone works with the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, and, according to an ITC brochure on the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), his team’s work enables communities of artisans and micro-manufacturers — the majority of them women — to work in association with the talents of the fashion world, fostering local creativity, enabling female employment, and promoting gender equality in order to reduce extreme poverty. 

Simone and his small tightly budgeted team spend much of their time in the field in the slums and rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa, connecting “the world’s most marginalised people to the top of fashion’s value chain for mutual benefit.” 

These people are not the chauffeur-driven, ivory-towered diplomats their business card titles might seem to indicate. This team gets ‘down and dirty’, laying the groundwork at the local level while building ties with fashion houses globally to make the ethical fashion vision reality. 

Working in Nairobi, Kenya; Mali; Burkina Faso; Haiti and Brazil, the initiative, Simone explains, “provides a route out of poverty through fair and fulfilling work while facilitating the fashion world’s genuine wish to be ethical and environmentally sound”.

Brands such as Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, and Australia’s own Sass & Bide are convinced by what EFI can do, and there are others on the journey or just beginning creative collaborations that can reach out to thousands of artisans associated with the initiative.

“We get asked how many people we work with, but that’s just a number. Detailed impact assessments and what happens at the local level, are what count,” says Simone, who is wary of the false impression ubiquitous statistics can leave. 

“We carried out this little project providing women in several communities with disposable cameras to take pictures of the most important activities in their daily lives. It turned out that a huge amount of time was spent searching for and gathering fuel, water, food. The Ethical Fashion Initiative changed that outcome. Now, they can pay for fuel and water or food, and the record is of family and work.”

In 2011, a UN impact assessment found that 84% of artisans confirmed their families had a better diet including fresh food; 78% were using skills learned to build up their own businesses and 54% of the women with whom it worked had bank accounts.

The system is based on the joint work of the ITC and of a commercially viable form of social enterprise, Ethical Fashion Africa Ltd. (EFAL).  EFAL is a local enterprise with local management. The ITC is a small international presence there to provide advice, global networks and contacts.

Management is by local people and everyone is paid in the local currency so the whole experience remains relevant to the lives of those living and working in the community.

“It is why,” explains Simone, “we live in the slums, because you have to know the local issues and understand the people and what they need and want. You have to be embedded and connected.”

There are difficulties and dangers in such a course of action. Shadowy activities and “mechanisms” at work in the area suggest a large, very organised criminal economy.

“You understand in the slums there are a lot of activities that are not clear. You see a lot of trade activity and are aware peripherally of things going on but you don’t see where it goes and I have never met it in the first person,” says Simone, going on to explain that EFI work shines a light on people “and that sort of visibility is not interesting anymore for that kind of economy. The people we work with are spread everywhere and when they come to work with us they become formal companies, so they pay VAT and taxes. We take people out of the shadows. Once you do that you are no longer interesting to a criminal element.”

Ethical fashion has been labeled ‘a hazy concept’, and in the hands of the unscrupulous, consumers can find themselves mislead. 

“There are some,” says Simone, “who tell us they’re behaving responsibly, but where are the systems of reporting to support their claims. Clarity and transparency at every level, and along the whole supply chain, is so important in a company’s story. It’s why our systems are open for scrutiny and discussion. If they are found wanting then we are happy to rework them.”

Economically, ethical fashion is a niche market – albeit a growing niche – and it has been labeled ‘difficult to implement in practice’. Whatever your view of the concept, the catchwords surrounding and underpinning the vision – transparency, sustainability, the conservation of human capital and the environment – are deeply important for us all. The recent disaster in Bangladesh, which took the lives of more than 1000 workers, is a case in point.

The issue, says Simone, is that until we stop thinking everything can be extremely cheap and extremely fast disasters such as this one in Bangladesh will happen: “This tragedy comes from greed… It squeezes people and the environment.”

Simone believes for ethical fashion to achieve the widespread adoption it deserves, “it will require a wholesale mindset shift for the fashion industry, which must eliminate waste from a fashion system that remains bloated with excess product and underpays those at the very early stages of production.” 

He also believes there is great power to be harnessed at the consumer level but you must retain the momentum and that means remaining vigilant, relevant and engaging.

“Remember PETA and the fight against fur? People forget, and slowly fur is coming back. Our duty is to keep people informed about the issues and to raise awareness. We are not here to police the world but to provide people with the information from which they can make their own decisions.

“People want to be involved, and if you offer them the possibility they’ll get involved.”

Simone Cipriani was in Australia as the guest of the AFR’s Bespoke: Luxury and Brand conference, speaking about ethical fashion and the UN initiative he heads. He spoke to Ruby exclusively.