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The official magazine of United Nations

international civil servants in Geneva

Ikat weaving in EFI partner Artisan Cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. © Magic Studios
#NotCharityJustWork – Connecting marginalized artisan communities to global lifestyle brands
5 Jul 2020

For the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), lifestyle choices impact livelihoods. In ten years, ten countries and three continents, EFI has proven that producing and exporting superb quality products is eminently compatible with a fair wage, decent working conditions, job creation and resilient communities.

Through its network of social enterprises and production hubs, EFI enables talented artists, designers, artisans and micro-producers in emerging economies to connect with discerning international brands in fashion, interiors, fine foods, culture and the arts. Mindful consumers, savvy impact investors and pro-poor champions find value in a virtuous circle that creates not just premium products, but also stable, dignified work for women and men.

A flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, EFI has inherited a strong belief in the power of commerce, industry and trade, combined with the conviction that sustainable and equitable development can be achieved across the globe by supporting, enabling and facilitating. Development is not ‘done to’ people; given the right tools, people lift themselves out of poverty through their work.

A ground-breaking experience in Kenya in 2009 led to a model that has since been replicated across the globe. For over a decade, EFI has been a bridge, connecting marginalized artisan communities in challenging and remote locations with global lifestyle brands.

Each country, however fragile, has a history, a distinctive culture, traditions, know-how, collective memory. These are intangibles of inestimable value that EFI helps convert into dignified jobs for women and men in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Iran, Mali, Tajikistan, Uganda and Uzbekistan.

EFI Tailoring Partners in Kabul, Afghanistan. © Farzana Wahidy

Going for goals

EFI is committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and contributes directly to four key goals: poverty reduction, gender equality, responsible production and consumption, and dignified work and economic growth. In the field, this means that each social enterprise working with us commits to changing how it interacts with people and the environment: respect for the women and men that make up its supply chain, fair wages, decent working conditions and training opportunities, resource efficiency and minimized environmental impacts.

With committed entrepreneurs, EFI can plot a course towards full compliance with international standards, and design the training, mentoring and technical assistance interventions needed to meet them. A strict compliance mechanism and frequent audits ensure the business and its people remain on course, and reassure global brand partners that, in sourcing from these enterprises, they can be sure of top-quality, ethical products with a minimal ecological footprint.

EFI offers brands a proven entry point into some of the world’s best ethical and sustainable supply chains. Its model centres on helping social enterprises adhere to ethical business practices and build meaningful win-win relationships with skilled artisans, micro-producers and farmers, and creating links to international markets to satisfy evolving consumer demand.

News travels fast in a connected world. Businesses that exploit people and the environment in pursuit of profit are losing customers. Consumers know they can do good or harm just by buying something, and increasingly they choose brands that make them feel good, as well as looking good.

Voices and vision

EFI is uniquely qualified to steer the conversation on the future of fashion, as co-secretariat of the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. Set up in 2018, the Alliance aims to transform fashion from a source of social, economic and environmental concern into a driver pushing forward implementation of the SDGs.

The Ethical Fashion Initiative most recently hosted a Hackathon, a digital forum bringing together major actors to build a new, more ethical, equitable and sustainable vision for fashion and lifestyle in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Mask production in Burkina Faso. © Oceane Joncoux
Mask production in Burkina Faso. © Oceane Joncoux

Covid-19, lockdowns and grounded flights are causing massive disruptions for EFI social enterprises. Like peers in Europe and the US, some have diverted production lines to make personal protective equipment to help the national effort. In Burkina Faso, a major cotton producing country, 22 workshops and 130 tailors in the EFI’s network are producing face masks for the emergency services and vulnerable communities. In Afghanistan, a country better known for its silk, social enterprise partners have also stepped up to the mark with cotton mask and surgical gown production.

Afghanistan, Burkina Faso and other EFI project countries, share common traits, the most striking of which is the resilience of their peoples. They strive to overcome similar challenges, too: conflict, political instability, insecurity, climate change, environmental degradation and a stubborn lack of economic opportunities, leading to displacement and migration. The European Union is a key financial partner here, helping EFI to generate jobs and opportunities for returnees and the displaced and offer would-be migrants with viable alternatives to irregular migration.

Joy and colour

It’s a challenging time the world over, but EFI’s work is also full of joy and colour.

From the vibrant colours of hand-woven faso danfani in Burkina Faso, to the delicate hues of natural-dyed raw silk in Afghanistan. From the exuberant rainbows of Maasai beading in Kenya, to the striking midnight blue baule in Bomizambo, Côte d’Ivoire. From the purple crocuses and their precious cache of ‘red gold’, saffron, to the dusty brown earth that nurtures them in Herat, Afghanistan. From a dazzling panoply of ikat dyed fabrics in Uzbek villages, to the primal intimacy of a mother’s gift, a suzani of pomegranates on her daughter’s wedding dress, symbols of fertility in much of Central Asia.

EFI and its brand partners bring all these rich colours to wardrobes, drawers and tables throughout the world. Behind each item are the stories of the artisan spinners, weavers, dyers, micro-producers and small farmers who produced them, and of the communities that thrive thanks to their work. Stories of hardship, but also of tenacity, resilience and beauty that bring joy to women and men, who, through the simple act of buying something, make it all happen.

Simone Cipriani
* Simone Cipriani is the Chief Technical Adviser of the International Trade Centre’ Ethical Fashion Initiative and the Chairperson of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.
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