Visible 2014


Ethical Fashion Initiative

Simone Cipriani is the Chief Technical Advisor for the Ethical Fashion Initiative and head of the United Nations’ Poor Communities and Trade Programme that manages it. Here, he talks to Karen Walker about the Ethical Fashion Initiative and its collaboration with Karen Walker Eyewear.

What initially inspired you to found the Ethical Fashion Initiative?I originally come from the leather industry in Italy where I worked in industrial collaborations as well as in setting up service and training centres in developing countries. Doing that, it really struck me how these places were home to some of the most incredible artisans in the world, with skills that could add tremendous value to fashion yet there was a substantial gap when it came to enabling artisans from developing countries to be part of fashion’s international value chain. This is what inspired me to create the initiative: a system that allows the poorest of the poor to be part of the fashion industry in a fair and sustainable way.

How long has the Ethical Fashion Initiative been operating for? The programme started gathering speed in 2009. Vivienne Westwood, Ilaria Venturini Fendi, Stella McCartney, and Marni are among a growing list of designer partnerships around the world from London to Los Angeles, Rome to Rio, Accra and now thanks to you, Auckland.

How does it work? One key area of the Ethical Fashion Initiative’s work enables micro-producers to create value and share it with international brands and distributors. This is achieved through a process of joint product development, in collaboration with global fashion talents, coupled with artisanal manufacturing, which enables those otherwise excluded to produce directly for some of the world’s leading names. This ensures both that designs are specific to the capabilities and craftsmanship of the artisans and that there is a global market for the results. For the first time, micro-producers can operate as part of the international value chain because the goods they make are in demand. The initiative is managed by a team of professionals who share relevant experience in development and knowledge of the global fashion business. We also work to connect designers, mainly from West Africa, into the international fashion chain.

How does the Ethical Fashion Initiative benefit poor communities? To ensure we achieve our goals of empowering people through work, a research team is dedicated to gathering data on the true impact of that work; assessing how a flow of income changes living standards, social problems, gender status, sanitation, environmental problems, the ability to pay for medical expenses and children’s education. Independent inspectors evaluate change as the result of workflow ensuring scientific rigour and objectivity. The data demonstrate impact on the lives of those involved in the Initiative, especially artisan women, in ways which are both encouraging and surprising; from the increase in fresh food for families, to the ability of people previously so marginalised that officially they did not exist, to gain recognition under the law.

In your words, what does ethical fashion mean to you? Giving fair work to people. Work which is dignified and well paid. Work that helps people to achieve a decent life. I see many fashion groups that engage in charitable activities, which is good, but if it is possible, providing long term work is even better. When fashion houses and brands do this it brings dignity to a lot of people, along with systems of production that reduce our impact on the environment. I believe that being ethical means more than doing no harm. It means taking an active role in the reduction of poverty and the creation of sustainable livelihoods. It also means protecting and cleaning up the places where we work. This is why we work directly with those living in slums and barren rural areas, with the aim of empowering them through quality work that minimises the negative impact on their surroundings.

What is the most satisfying aspect of what you do? Seeing women micro-producers from marginalized communities become suppliers to great fashion brands and seeing beautiful products coming out of this collaboration.

What interested you most about working with us? I knew a lot about this very cool designer from New Zealand and I was excited to work with you. I was interested in your work because of all its possible synergies with the skills and capacities we have at hand in Africa. To me, Karen Walker is the perfect match for the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

Why does Karen Walker work particularly well for this project? Because Karen Walker is a positive, feel-good brand which is about innovation and so are we. This idea of shooting the campaign in the way you did, is a great way to celebrate and empower artisans. Plus, the Karen Walker style perfectly meets our skills and capacities.

How will communities benefit from this collaboration? The people working on this project will receive dignified work and a fair remuneration for it, helping them achieve better living standards while accumulating capital to develop their micro businesses. Labour forms the commencement of any development, verified through our impact assessment system which measures how each order positively affects the lives of those who work in this program. Furthermore, this collaboration gives communities the opportunity to perfect their skills, setting them as qualified fashion producers, both artisans and management and enabling them to work better, even on their domestic markets. More kids will go to school because of the wealth generated in different families, setting the stage for a permanent change.

Behind the scenes