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Published: Friday August 22, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday August 24, 2014 MYT 10:29:53 AM

Stitch by stitch, Ethical Fashion Africa helps Vivienne Westwood address Kenya's poor

Next time you buy a Vivienne Westwood or Stella McCartney, check the label. You could be helping the Ethical Fashion Initiative and some of Kenya's poorest communities. 

The muddy streets of Kenya’s crowded Korogocho slums are a far cry from the fashion boutiques of Paris, Milan, New York or London. But beneath a tin roof, workers from some of the country’s poorest communities sew buttons and stitch cloth for top international designers, part of a not-for-profit ethical fashion project.

“Before Ethical Fashion, I couldn’t educate my children,” says Lucy, sitting in a circle of women, needles in hand as they deftly sew white seed beads to the surface of smooth, chocolate-coloured leather. “But now I can educate them, and provide for them anything they need,” says the mother of four who is in her late 30s.

From Korogocho, accessories like the cuffs the women sew are sold in high-end international boutiques, stamped with the labels of international fashion houses like Vivienne Westwood, Fendi and Stella McCartney. It is part of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a project built on a model of “mutual benefit” that aims to support poor communities by linking them up with fashion houses and distributors.

Workers on the scheme – a member of the Fair Labour Association – would take months to earn enough to buy some of these luxury goods, which sell for hundreds of dollars on the high street. But conditions are very far from the sweatshops that muddy some fashion brands, with the UN-backed scheme providing decent working conditions, training and – perhaps the clearest sign of its success – people queuing up to join looking for work.

Organisers say some 90% of workers in Kenya have improved their homes, and almost 85% now provide better food for their families.

(Above) Arancha Gonzlez, Executive Director for the International Trade Centre, visits Nairobi's Hub workshop, the heart of Ethical Fashion Africa, a not-for-profit group. Ethical Fashion Africa is part of Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a project built on a model of "mutual benefit" that aims to support poor communities by linking them up with fashion houses and distributors. (Below) A Kenyan woman working on a Vivienne Westwood bag in Nairobi's Hub workshop. – AFP/ITC ETHICAL FASHION INITIATIVE/TAHIR KARMALI

A joint effort by the United Nations and World Trade Organisation, the initiative has expanded from Kenya to Burkina Faso, Ghana and Haiti, with plans for future expansion on the continent and in Asia. Of the more than 5,000 people involved in the initiative in Kenya, 90% are women. For Arancha Gonzalez, chief of the International Trade Centre that runs the project, it offers a sustainable way to improve lives.

“Trade, economic activities, markets can also be married with human development, with women’s economic development, with poverty reduction,” says Gonzalez. The project’s slogan is “not charity, just work”.

“We call it ethical because we give a decent job, with decent working conditions, to very destitute people,” Gonzalez adds. “First and foremost it gives women dignity.” Gonzalez says that for the designers working with the EFI, economics and ethics need not be mutually exclusive. “It’s about making money,” says Gonzalez. “But you can also make profits in a socially sustainable way.”

Beyond Vivienne Westwood, brands producing work through the initiative include Karen Walker, Sass & Bide, Stella Jean, United Arrows and other major international houses. Hubs in Nairobi, Accra and Port-au-Prince receive commissions from the designers, provide training and organise the production of bags, jewellery and fabrics by locals.

“We talk about responsible fashion as if it were a segment of fashion but it is not, it’s fashion,” says Simone Cipriani, the project’s technical advisor. – AFP

Tags / Keywords: Fashion, Woman, Poverty, World, Kenya

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