Dignity isn’t a word often used in the fashion industry, not because it doesn’t exist but simply because it’s not really a priority, especially when it comes to the unseen world of production. However, we are becoming more and more interested in where things are made, how they’re made, and if they’re hurting anyone or anything in the process.
This word, dignity, is at the core of Mr Simone Cipriani’s work and has been since the beginning. As the Head and Founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative at the International Trade Centre, and Officer of the UN, Mr Cipriani came to Polimoda to speak to students and faculty about the importance of artisans, fair labour and social capital. Here’s a roundup of what Simone said during this inspiring guest lecture.
In the context of insecurity, inequality, and climate change, “the world in which we live is unsustainable” in many ways. And the strongest power of unsustainability is capitalism, the social system that fashion belongs to. In the course of recent history, Simone explained, the fashion industry saw that instead of one person making a product from beginning to end, it would be cheaper to subdivide the making process between many different people, thereby increasing profitability and margins. This is when everything went wrong.
Artisans! These are people whose skills are learned and valuable, and enable them to make something from beginning to end, and are the core of the business model of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. “We empower artisans to work with huge fashion brands.”
This is because artisans are the building block of social capital. It’s their capacity to work together, to enable society to function effectively that makes their value reach far beyond the immediate ROI their work produces. Therefore this business model is set up to both increase the quality of life of entire communities in developing countries AND simultaneously create profit for companies.
Collaborating with the likes of Karen Walker, Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney, The Ethical Fashion Initiative works with artisans who make textiles, bags, shoes, hats and garments, structured around a central hub in different regions, so that a whole network of makers are involved. Mr Cipriani then works to build company cultures around conscious capitalism, which “… embeds in its business model social issues […] and profit is the happy outcome of doing good business.” This means that having a separate department dedicated to social responsibility, CSR, is never going to work. Rather, the whole company has to engage in sustainability. Simply, companies must
create a conscious culture of engagement [where] social issues are really part of the business.
This comes down to creating fair labour conditions, ensuring truly productive work, and therefore being able to provide a living wage. This in turn creates stakeholder value as the stakeholders are us, the consumers, who are paying more and more attention to these issues.
But this isn’t all. It’s not just about giving people jobs and then assuming everything’s fine; there must be follow up. An impact assessment must take place in order to measure the change that’s happening – or not. If there’s a new factory employing 1000 people, for example, though these peoples’ lives show little change before and after this employment, perhaps something isn’t adding up. The impact assessment must therefore include sustainability, responsibility, traceability, and the greater community impact that includes schooling, sanitation, and health care. And again, this employment must be based on a living wage, “the wage that allows people to live in a dignified way.” Artisans are part of deep tradition, can do something that most people cannot, and therefore must be paid well.
But how can we know this is all happening? Despite the consensus in fashion that traceability is practically impossible when subcontracting and suppliers are often not even know by companies themselves, Mr Cipriani assured us that “traceability is simple!” And frankly, if anyone knows, he does. With tools like Sourcemap, a New York based supply chain mapping software system set up, coincidentally, by a very intelligent Tuscan, “consumers will be able to go online and track every process of the production.”
So everyone, we have no excuse.