‘Ethical fashion’ concept employed to empower Africa’s female artisans

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Fashion can help empower women in Africa and lift them out of poverty, the chief technical adviser of the International Trade Center, which promotes “ethical fashion,” said Saturday.

“Fashion can be responsible. . . .We work with people to transform local resources to beautiful fashion products,” Simone Cipriani said at Pacifico Yokohama, at a side event to the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. “It also has to be business, which allows people to be paid in a good way and receive dignity.”

Workers in developing countries are often exploited as cheap labor and forced to toil in unsafe and unclean conditions.

To improve working conditions, moves such as the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative need to become far more widespread, Cipriani said.

The ITC, an arm of the World Trade Organization that offers technical trade assistance, started the initiative in 2007 to create fashion-related jobs for female artisans in Africa and Haiti by collaborating with such big-name designers as Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Chan Luu.

Some 7,000 jobs have already been generated through the program and 90 percent of the recipients said their living conditions have improved, according to an ITC survey.

Los Angeles-based Chan creates beaded bracelets with artisans in Haiti and Kenya. She emphasized that it’s the actual work, not the charity, that has the ability to empower women.

“Together we can create business,” said Chan. “I could offer training and infrastructure. And artisans can offer me their art and skills. . . . Charity (alone) is not sustainable.”

Such movements have also begun to influence Japan’s fashion industry, especially since the nuclear catastrophe. Experts said the public subsequently became more engaged over how products are made and who produces them.

“The disaster made consumers realize that it’s important to share values with the people involved,” said Izumi Miyachi, lifestyle editor at the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Tokyo-based luxury fashion retailer United Arrows became the first domestic fashion company to join the ITC-led initiative.

Canvas tote bags, handmade by female artisans in Kenya, hit United Arrows outlets in late April. The retailer is also taking part in the Tohoku Cotton Project, which aims to revive tsunami-stricken rice fields damaged by seawater.

“Japanese have become more willing to contribute to the common good,” said Hirofumi Kurino, senior adviser for creative direction at United Arrows. “We would like to enrich people’s livelihoods though our work.”