image: Vivienne Westwood

image: Vivienne Westwood

Beneath a tin roof on the muddy streets of Kenya’s crowded Korogocho slums, women from some of the country’s poorest communities sew buttons and stitch textiles that will ultimately bear the names of top international brands. “Before the Ethical Fashion Initiative, I couldn’t educate my children,” said Lucy, sitting in a circle of women, needles in hand, sewing white seed beads to the surface of smooth, chocolate-colored leather. “But now I can educate them, and provide for them anything they need,” said the mother of four, in her late 30s.

From Korogocho, garments and accessories are sold in high-end international boutiques, stamped with the labels of international fashion brands, including Vivienne Westwood, Marni, LVMH-owned EDUN, Stella McCartney, and Brother Vellies. It is all part of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a project built on a model of “mutual benefit” that aims to support poverty-stricken communities by linking them with big-name fashion houses and distributors. 

The individuals involved with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (mostly women) – a member of the Fair Labor Association – would take months to earn enough to buy some of these luxury goods, which sell for between hundreds and thousands of dollars. But the conditions are very far from the Bangladeshi – and even Los Angeles-based – sweatshops that muddy some fashion brands. In fact, with backing from the United Nations, the Ethical Fashion Initiative provides much more optimal working conditions, training and – perhaps the clearest sign of its success – women queueing up for the opportunity to work.

Organizers say some 90 percent of workers in Kenya have improved their homes, and almost 85 percent now provide better food for their families.

A joint effort by the United Nations and World Trade Organization, the initiative has expanded from Kenya to Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Haiti, with plans for future expansion on the continent and in Asia. The long journey these bags, garments and other accessories will make has reshaped the lives of women like Lucy. 

Struggling as a teenager in a tin-shack slum in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, by the age of 16 she had turned to prostitution to survive. With three children of her own, she also cares for her nephew, after her sister died of AIDS. Starting out five years ago as a seamstress, Lucy is now a supervisor. Last year she moved her family out of Korogocho to a nearby suburb, one that boasts a lower crime rate.

Of the more than 5,000 people involved in the initiative in Kenya, over 90 percent are women. For Arancha Gonzalez, chief of the International Trade Centre that runs the project, it offers a sustainable way to improve lives. “Trade, economic activities, markets can also be married with human development, with women’s economic development, with poverty reduction,” Gonzalez said of a visit to the workshops in Nairobi. 

The project’s slogan is “not charity, just work,” because, according to Gonzalez, it provides individuals with “a decent job, with decent working conditions.” First and foremost, though, she says, “It gives [these] women dignity.”

Workers also use environmentally friendly, often recycled materials, and their operations are carbon neutral. Gonzalez says that for the designers working with the EFI, economics and ethics need not be mutually exclusive. “It’s about making money,” said Gonzalez. “But you can also make profits in a socially sustainable way.”

Hubs in Nairobi, Accra and Port-au-Prince receive commissions from the designers, provide training and organize the production of bags, jewelry and fabrics by locals. “We talk about responsible fashion as if it were a segment of fashion but it is not, it’s fashion,” said Simone Cipriani, the project’s technical adviser.

Though fashion may be fickle, quality endures. By linking skills like sewing and beading with top fashion houses, the Ethical Fashion Initiative hopes to create products that are both beautiful and meaningful. “We are not talking about those things that you buy because you have a sense of guilt,” Cipriani said. “We are talking about things that you buy because they are beautiful, really gorgeous. But then they have this incredible, positive story behind them, the story of people who get a decent life out of this work, who get a new life.”