Simone Cipriani of the UN on Conscious Fashion

The UN’s Simone Cipriani advocates for sustainable production that gives workers a fair deal

Simone Cipriani of the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. Picture / Louis Nderi.

As head of the United Nations’ International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, Simone Cipriani is a passionate advocate and a key voice in the ethical fashion movement. With Cipriani spearheading the organisation’s work, the EFI works to connect marginalised artisans in poorer communities primarily in Africa and Haiti with fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and Karen Walker to create hubs of production using fair trade labour and ethical fashion practices.

“I am passionate about fashion and about being responsible,” Cipriani says. “I believe fashion’s future is to be more responsible or it will disappear.”

As part of the EFI you’ve partnered with big names. Why have you chosen to work with these particular designers?

Because they had a strong orientation towards being responsible. They also accepted the EFI’s system of work, based on paying people a fair living wage and designing collections adapted to artisanal production. I believe fashion is synonymous with uniqueness and therefore artisanal work — and these brands share this same belief.

How are the products they create received in Western society?

Our products are received very well because they are beautiful fashion products and more and more consumers want to know the real stories behind the items they buy. Each product carries and conveys a beautiful story of engagement. Products are better received when the stories are properly explained and this is an important point because not every brand that works with us tells the stories in a proper way. Many brands just simply sell the products. They are beautiful — but if the story is properly told, the impact of these products is understood and they are even better received.

What is the EFI hoping to achieve by teaming these well-known designers with small artisan groups in Africa and Haiti?

The Ethical Fashion Initiative aims to achieve what fashion has always done: working with small artisans to produce the most beautiful and unique products in the world. We produce luxury which is sustainable and responsible. Luxury stood for those values in the past. Then we discovered mass-production, marketing and so on and we lost sight of the real nature of fashion. We want to go back to fashion as it was: unique, gorgeous, beautiful and, most of all, responsible because it is made by people for people.

A worker in Kenya crafting a bag as part of Karen Walker’s collaboration with the EFI. Pictures / ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative.

You work mainly with small groups of artisans to create handcrafted pieces. What impact does the Initiative have on these communities?

Change. This is the impact the Ethical Fashion Initiative has: complete change in the life of people and in the life of their communities. The majority of people we work with are women and we see women change their position in society and therefore change society. We have seen women who didn’t own property who now own property, who are respected in their communities, who are emancipated and who are leaders in their communities. We see the change. We also measure this change through an impact assessment tool the Ethical Fashion Initiative has developed. This enables us to see the metrics of change in matters such as healthcare, improvement of housing and sanitation, access to education, ability to save.

With events like Rana Plaza and growing awareness around ethical production, why do you think people are not trying harder to produce ethically, or buy ethically made goods and to consume with more care?

It is called greed. Exploitation comes from greed. Greed is one of the big problems of humankind since the beginning. Greed is part of human nature. Thankfully, there is not only greed; there is also generosity, the capacity to give to others and the capacity to care about others. So there are people who say “I want more”, but there are also people who say “I care more”.

Are Western societies doing enough to change the situation of garment factory workers? 

Western society is not doing enough to change the situation. Higher standards should be expected from companies that one way or another (even indirectly) favour forms of labour exploitation. What could be done more is to make more information available for consumers and to empower advocacy groups in countries where exploitation takes place as well as unions and associations of workers. People need to fight for workers’ rights.

Maybe the Western world should start considering relationships, their economic relationship, their aid relationships with countries where production takes place based on the attitude of these countries towards advocacy groups, associations, trade unions. The countries where these kinds of associations are not favoured or face many obstacles should not be granted preferential trade partnerships or become recipients of huge funds of aid — this simply reinforces exploitation mechanisms.

Why do you think it is so difficult to increase workers’ wages and improve conditions?

Greed. Because we have created a business model which is based on extremely cheap prices and on the possibility to change garments and accessories continuously. We must go back to items that last a lifetime. Sustainability is about something that lasts. That is the only way to change the situation: to change the paradigm of consumption from something disposable to something durable.

Goods used to be purchased and valued for years, handed down to others. Do you see consumers reverting back to these habits?

Our throwaway culture is a very tough habit and mentality to change. But it is the only way to go. If this doesn’t happen, responsible fashion is not feasible.

What are you working on currently?

A shoewear collection for an international brand. We are also developing chrome-free leather and working with new kinds of natural dyes for the fabric we produce in Mali. We are also at work on an ambitious accessory project that will significantly expand the network of micro-producers involved outside Africa.

I imagine it is a hard job to constantly fight for workers’ rights. Do you ever want to give up? Or do you always feel it is worthwhile?

It is worthwhile. Fighting for justice is always worthwhile. Justice is the best part of human nature.

What are four things a consumer can do to shop and dress more ethically?

1. Ask about the story behind the products you buy. Initially, retailers won’t be able to tell you but if you keep on asking, sooner or later they will start coming up with an answer.

2. Try to buy items that last. Check the quality and materials.

3. When a product breaks, go back and ask why.

4. Join advocacy groups, support them in their work to better human rights and working conditions. Ethical fashion is not a bubble separated from the rest of society and the economy. Ethical fashion is part of the whole of society and the economy. If working relationships and economic relationships are unfair in general, fashion is also unfair. This is why you must support advocacy groups.

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