Not Charity, Just Work


Karen Walker_BTS-83Changing the way that international fashion business works is a tall order, but Simone Cipriani and his Ethical Fashion Initiative are up for the task, writes Leeyong Soo.

“I’m not a fashion person, as you can see,” jokes Simone Cipriani from the stage at the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, gesturing at his linen suit jacket which, while tailored and flattering, would admittedly be unlikely to grace the front pages of any fashion magazine. Cipriani clowns it up a little, getting giggles from an appreciative audience at the March festival’s Business Seminar, and his charm offensive gets results – by the time he’s finished speaking about his work bringing artisans in developing nations and top designers together, captivated ragtrade insiders are nodding appreciatively as they consider the potential for change in their industry.

The founder and head of the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative may play his self-proclaimed fashion naivete for laughs, but in fact, his career path was forged along garment industry tracks from the get-go. Beginning at a company providing various services for Italian shoe and leather brands, the Tuscan native went on to direct PISIE, an organisation offering training and capacity building to leather industry entrepreneurs in the developing world. Following work on projects in India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, Cipriani moved to Ethiopia, where he managed a large intervention by United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) to improve the national leather industry and was involved in the establishment of Taytu, a leather handbag brand regarded by many as Africa's first luxury label.

Stella Jean_1 Credit AltaRoma

From Africa’s slums to international boutiques

It was when he was introduced to artisans living in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, that Cipriani had the idea for the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Top designer labels have always employed highly skilled artisans to create their products – think of the embroiderers at Maison Lesage, which has worked with houses such as Givenchy and Chanel, or the leather workers at Les Ateliers Hermes who only earn the title of “artisan” after a 10-year apprenticeship. Recognising the level of skill in the work he encountered in Africa, Cipriani realised that apart from the long-held tradition of artisans living in close proximity to the design houses for which they worked, there was no reason for luxury labels not to explore manufacturing sources elsewhere, and set about establishing the EFI in 2009. His move was well timed.

“The fashion industry in general is going back to the essence of what fashion used to be: beautiful, artisanal, hand-crafted goods made by specialists,” he says. “And consumers want to know the stories behind products. Products which have a soul, which have been shaped by the hands of an artisan who is preserving a tradition passed on by the previous generation in this line of work. So this is an important aesthetic aspect of ethical fashion that attracts those who come to work with us.”

Another aspect crucial to the initiative’s success is the fashion houses’ willingness to build solid relationships with artisans.

“The current partners are all long-term partners, we are not interested in one-off collections for PR purposes since this will not be a sustainable source of income for the artisans,” says Cipriani. “But of course this has to be tested first: a brand cannot commit to working with us for 10 years until we’ve tried to do business together and see if we are a good match.”

First to test the waters was the Max Mara group’s Max & Co in 2009, followed by Ilaria Venturini Fendi of Carmina Campus the next year and Vivienne Westwood in 2011. The veteran British designer began her partnership with EFI working with artisans in Nairobi to create a range of bags and is now on to her 11th collection with the initiative, which has operations across Africa and Haiti and designer partners including Stella McCartney, Karen Walker, sass & bide and up-and-comer Stella Jean: all repeat collaborators, thanks to the unique skillsets and human touch the artisans provide.

Stella Jean in Haiti 2

An investment in authenticity

“None of the designers working with us want to work in Africa to get a mass produced bag,” says Cipriani. “They come because they know it is home to some of the most talented artisans who can contribute to their designs with a touch of real luxury. Artisans give back to fashion what it has lost – authenticity.”

The artisans are recommended for involvement in the initiative by the UN, which has access to some of the most marginalised areas of the world. Many of them face further marginalisation simply by being female – a concept difficult to fathom for those of us in the developed world. At the VAMFF seminar, Cipriani recounts to an incredulous audience how Maasai girls would leave school once they hit puberty because it was too expensive to buy sanitary products. Instead, they would stay home for the duration of their periods, missing days of schooling which they were then not able to catch up on and eventually dropping out of the education system completely. The EFI’s activities involving Maasai artisan communities have created financial stability to the level that girls can now stay in school, allowing them greater opportunities in education and, subsequently, future careers. Additionally, women have gained greater self-confidence and respect in their families and the community at large because their craftwork – perhaps often viewed as trivial – is now contributing to the financial and social well-being of the community.

 Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.30.52 PM

Women as agents of change

“We work mainly with women because they invest in family and community,” explains Cipriani. “Empowering women unleashes incredible potential.”

This aspect of the EFI’s business model (90% of its participants are female) has strong support from development agencies worldwide, including the OECD, which states that the Millennium Development Goals will not be achieved “unless there is greater equality between women and men and increased empowerment of women and girls”. Various other organisations including microfinance groups and fair trade associations also favour working with women, as they are likely to invest in their children’s health and education, thereby creating positive changes in their families and communities.

The EFI measures such improvements through its impact assessment system, which involves visiting artisans in their own communities rather than limiting inspections to their places of work. Of course, many of the EFI’s artisans work from their homes or villages rather than commuting to a shared venue – in fact, the initiative actively supports work in rural areas in order to prevent migration to city slums. But the team applies the grassroots assessment approach wherever workers happen to be because, says Cipriani, “if the conditions at home are bad, then the factories are obviously not working” – regardless of how things may appear to an auditor on a tour of the work space.

“We are members of the Fair Labor Association, but aside from that we don’t adhere to certification systems per se,” he explains. “A factory or workshop can be up to the standards on the day of an audit, and terrible a week later. Furthermore, we work essentially in the informal sector, which makes it extremely challenging to apply fair labour standards that are relevant in factories.

“The EFI team measures the impact the initiatives are having on people. Levels of disease, sanitation, access to water…” he says, listing some of the indicators the organisation employs to monitor its programs and feed into reports for stakeholders and consumers. “We have an environmental priority too, in that we want to get people out of the slums and into a better relationship with their environment.” 

Listening to your workers is key in laying the foundations for a flourishing business

Cipriani travels frequently to Africa and other EFI artisan communities, systematically visiting the groups of artisans involved, from Port-au-Prince slums to Kibera in Nairobi to Ouaigouia in rural Burkina Faso. During these visits to the organisation’s main “Hubs” – established, sophisticated workshops in each region where the EFI operates as a co-operative with trained supervisors – he gets an overview of operations, but he also spends time directly with staff and artisans in outlying communities and listens to their stories.

“Through these interactions and the impact assessments, very radical changes have emerged,” he says. “In the short term: improved nutrition, the ability to pay for school fees, improvement in dwellings etc. In the long-term: there are some spectacular changes, for example how women have gained self-confidence and more respect from their male counterparts by accessing fair and dignified work. These changes, which are more qualitative, show that through work, people are empowered and this can have very strong, positive social impacts.

“Impact evaluation is the best ally of women entrepreneurs. This is the best tool to ensure orders from fashion partners are having a real positive and measurable impact on those involved in production. Empowered people widen their social networks, develop better business skills and widen their market. Giving work to people sets in motion a beneficial cycle and lets them live a flourishing life.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.32.04 PM

Payment plans and timetabling need a rethink

“Our buyers make a partial payment upfront to enable the micro-artisans to produce, and the remainder is paid upon delivery,” Cipriani explains, adding that although the initiative’s slogan is “not charity, just work”, payment plans have had to be adapted to suit the nature of the program. Our objective has always been to make this program a real business, but we work with some of the most marginalised people in the world and they cannot live on the basis of a ‘60 days upon delivery’ payment: brands working with us understand that advance payment is key to making the system sustainable. 

“All profits generated from this trade are reinvested in the businesses and/or used for capacity building – this is why we say all our Hubs are categorised as social enterprises, where the social value of trade is considered, not only profit.”

As such, the steps involved in a product’s manufacture differ somewhat from conventional practice.

“The designers first go through a process of product development with our PD team (with the headquarters in London and centres in all the regional Hubs),” says Cipriani. “The brand designers develop a collection using locally available skills or materials. Especially early on, EFI is key in providing technical assistance in terms of design possibilities, cost implications, opportunities but also drawbacks: we have a network of very experienced staff and consultants who are experts in their fields and provide their professional expertise for all the brands who collaborate with us.”

This expertise is invaluable for labels accustomed to a fast fashion cycle, Cipriani adds.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 9.31.04 PM

“The brands have to adapt their work practices, for example some things take longer to achieve. The sampling process usually requires some specific materials to be purchased and tested, sometimes training for the artisans and therefore brands have to start this process well in advance. However our production lead-times are the same as in the fashion industry in general.”

Cipriani says in the EFI’s early days, a designer backed away from potential collaboration with artisans in Africa because manufacturing costs were cheaper in China. But he does not believe it is useful to compare Chinese production with manufacture in the communities where EFI is active. “It’s like comparing pricing between Italy and China,” he says. “Mass production in Asia is the wrong benchmark for artisanal work.”

He also says that too often, designers’ own time mis-management is to blame for breakdowns along the supply chain. “Logistics can be a challenge in Africa – the cost of credit is high, so we need to know how to deal with banks, and delivery can be difficult because conflicts and wars make land transport hard. But if designers can plan on time, then the logistics of manufacturing in Africa are fine,” Cipriani says, at the same time conceding that it would currently be difficult for mass-market brands to follow EFI’s lead.

“At the moment, the margins and payment terms offered by mid-range brands are too low for the EFI model, but this is also gradually changing. With the state of this industry now, the luxury segment is the best category to follow this business model.”

With EFI currently employing 1200 people in Kenya alone, Cipriani is confident that there is a bright future for his own initiative and for ethical fashion in general. “The real driver for this type of change is the private sector, which through its economic power has a significant control over manufacturing processes,” he says, adding that power at the grassroots level – the very cornerstone of EFI’s philosophy – shouldn’t be ignored.

“Consumers can have an active role in improving the state of the fashion industry: by buying more consciously, by requesting tangible facts on the stories behind each product… This form of transparency, if demanded by consumers, can be a powerful incentive that can shake the fashion industry to become more fair.”

Interesting links:

Images thanks to Ethical Fashion Initiative and featuring Karen Walker, Vivienne Westwood & Stella Jean