On the 10th anniversary of the EFI, Simone Cipriani discusses his mission to make fashion truly sustainable

For the past ten years, the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a programme of the International Trade Centre, has been dedicated to building sustainable fashion practices in developing nations as a means of reducing poverty and empowering women. The EFI’s affable Italian founder Simone Cipriani, who has long been focused on uplifting producers around the globe, spearheads its ambitious and laudable goals. Nataal finds him in Kenya, and in fine spirits, having just been part of launching the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which brings together several agencies to better coordinate their efforts toward changing the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion.

That might all sound rather lofty and theoretical but since day one, the EFI’s approach has always started on the ground with the artisans whose hand craftsmanship holds the power to create unique luxury. “Artisans are what gives something the human touch, and that touch has value. It is their work that enables consumers to see where a product is made, and by whom,” Cipriani tells me. It’s a grey day in London but I can see still enjoy a view of some luscious green trees waving in the breeze behind Cipriani through our Google chat window. “These individuals often live and work in informal circumstances but they have incredible skills - silk screening, sewing, dying, weaving,” he continues. “We give them access to finance and mentoring and offer them the possibility to set up their own co-ops, which then allows for product development and the formation of an ethical supply chain.”

Cipriani speaks from experience having grown up in Tuscany and studied in Florence, where he was surrounded by what he calls “a world of artisans” creating high end accessories for brands such as Ferragamo and Gucci. This is an era he laments as now passed as artisans “have become workers on production lines”. He went to work for various footwear and leather companies before taking his skills to Ethiopia where he led a UN training programme for the local leather industry, as well as consulting on projects in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, China, Tunisia and Bangladesh.

The EFI’s first venture took shape in Nairobi in 2009. “I’d been visiting Korogocho slum since 2002 and was in touch with a missionary who wanted to help artisans create their own jobs so we formed a small social enterprise and received an order from Max & Co for 300,000 tote bags. That production hub became an independent company in 2015 and currently supplies both domestic and international markets. This proves that you can meet the needs of fashion and still achieve fair wages and decent working conditions.”

“We want to focus on a generation of designers who can produce everything inside the continent”

Since these beginnings, the EFI has expanded to Burkina Faso, where it has worked with weavers to develop faso dan fani textiles, and to Mali, where it’s helped achieve more environmentally friendly, colour-fast methods for dying bogolan cloth and assisted Touareg jewellery makers. It is also active in Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire and moved beyond Africa to Haiti, Nepal, Cambodia and Afghanistan. And through this capacity building, the EFI has connected co-ops to a multitude of premium brands including Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Edun, Brother Vellies, Karen Walker, Camper and Mimco.

In the decade that the EFI has been in operation, the African fashion landscape has itself blossomed with the market now worth $31billion, $6billion of which coming from the luxury sector. Cipriani’s organisation has worked with many emerging designers to both promote their talents at industry events such as Pitti Uomo and AltaRoma, and broadly share the message that luxury can and does belong on the continent. Orange Culture, MaxHosa Africa, Studio One Eighty Nine and Duaba Serwa are just some of those names to have benefitted from partnerships with the EFI and who share an understanding of the importance of elevating ethically made objects that tell their own authentic stories.

“Couture has always found a big market in Africa. Valentino used to say Nigeria was one of his best places for sales, so there is that culture both for customers and producers,” Cipriani says. “Now African fashion has a distinct identity and you can talk about designers who are having an impact both here and internationally. But most designers on the continent still face infrastructural problems – of sourcing materials, customs, shipping, banking and all of that.”

Capriani makes it clear that solutions to these major challenges must come from African institutions, governments and corporations who are committed to their own country’s future. However, EFI is doing its part by teaming up with Roberta Annan’s African Fashion Fund to launch the €100 million Impact Fund For Africa. Announced late last year, they’re currently building a framework of investments and experts to be able to support a number of African creatives with the resources they require to compete globally. “What we want to focus on is a generation of designers who can produce everything inside the continent. The Impact Fund for Africa will act like an accelerator to allow them to grow. This is what the sector needs. African consumers are interested in African brands so it’s important to develop social capital, too.”

Among the speakers at this week’s Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in Cape Town - the first time the event has touched down on African soil - Cipriani’s voice will no doubt be among those urging for a fundamental shift in the global business of fashion. Not only is the industry one of the most polluting and wasteful on the planet, the fact that profit margins are prioritised over the labour force means that it is the makers who often come last. So with fashion currently looking to Africa as the so-called last frontier, it’s imperative to stop this rot before it proliferates yet further.

“The current business model has to change by putting value where goods are created and generated rather than were they are sold and marketed – the stuff instead of the fluff,” he asserts. “Let’s look at Africa, which has a median age of 18, how are we going to mobilise these people and offer them decent employment? We have a long way to go and we are only at the very beginning.”

As with most things, responsibilities start with the individual so Cipriani’s advice to consumers is to make your own decisions consciously. “Before you purchase from a brand, ask them where it was made, and how it was made, what the story of the product is. Don’t be satisfied by easy answers and be active on social media, which is a powerful channel through which to push the industry to be more open and transparent. It is that direct dialogue with the consumer, and with the youngest generations, that will result in real change.”

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Published on 08/04/2019