‘E’ Fashion

28 May 2008

For some years I have been waging some sort of war against misused money in the development world in the hide, skins and leather trade. From reactions received it is clear that our trade acknowledges my Limeblasting as right but when you look at what is being done about it, the results are very disappointing.

The fact that new projects are being proposed which are old projects in disguise proves how powerful the existing structure is. Many projects remain a vehicle to create and maintain useless structures and unnecessary jobs. Just to underline the size of the problem, which is very far beyond me of course, in his general audience in St Peter's Square at the end of January, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the scandal of help organisations who raise money to maintain their own structures rather than help the poor. In Lords of Poverty, the author mentioned a couple of US NGOs by name that collect money to help the poor but do not use one single dollar for that goal, needing everything they collect for wages and infrastructure on US soil. So let me embark on a more constructive path this month, which will hopefully be the trend for the whole year, and talk to you about a new dimension in the fashion world which also has positive aspects in the leather trade. Each culture and tradition has its own unique expressions in the art and fashion of daily life. The International Trade Centre in Geneva has developed a philosophy that capitalises on the diversity of the art, culture and traditions in Africa, but also on a new segment of the market: ethical fashion. The latter is based on a recent shift of focus in consumerism: ethical or (socially) responsible shopping.  This new pattern of consumption is characterised by the fact that a particular ethical issue motivates the consumer's choice - be it human rights, social justice, the environment and the like. Therefore, a part of the world of fashion is developing similar sensibilities to provide for this particular demand from the consumers. Consumers are the driving force behind the growth of this segment and now there are companies that are keen to directly address the issue, launching new lines of products (green or red lines in the jargon of the sector), where considerations about environment (green) and social responsibility (red) prevail over pure elements of fashion and price. All this is reflected in increased spending on ethical clothing and accessories as witnessed in several research works (some of them carried out by the same ITC). One of the objectives of the ITC is to create trade in the developing world, so why not through the international fashion industry by using local art, culture and traditions in combination with the new sensibility on the part of the consumers? Capitalise on what's already available both in terms of design and products, and use the development stories and social issues behind these products to make it attractive to consumers all over the world! The first approach to create trade with products that are an expression of local culture was launched through a joint Unido/ Italian Cooperation project and  aimed at targeting the market segment of high-end fashion with leather products and other accessories made in Ethiopia. The project was designed in order to bring locally available skills and locally available materials together with the objective to elaborate them according to the international seasonal fashion trends. Italian fashion designers created the first collection of items under a newly created Ethiopian brandname ‘Taytu'. ITC's role was to market the creations of the project and the first collection was showcased at the prime accessories trade shows in Paris and sold well right from the beginning. This was thanks also to its goods being given good visibility in, for instance, the bookshop of the new museum of African Art in Paris, but also in a number of important department stores in Japan and luxury shops in Italy, Holland and the UK. USAID has taken over that role now. However, Taytu as it is now, cannot be considered ‘ethical fashion' as it is now defined, having taken another direction. At the recent All African Leather fair they held a fashion show on which the April Limeblast will elaborate. The desire of consumers to ‘vote' through shopping has become clear and this warranted the kick-off at the beginning of 2007 of the first realistic production of goods that are an expression of local culture, under the umbrella of ITC, who pursue the road of ethical fashion. Kenya and Uganda are the two African countries that were selected. In Kenya, some community groups started producing goods for this new segment in the consumer market. Not only leather but a variety of materials are being used. This positive development has allowed for the delivery of technical assistance (even directly from buyers) that is enabling these groups to work better also in their domestic market, which are at present dominated by cheap Asian imports. This new approach to develop indigenous art and culture with the purpose of creating trade with the international market appears to be attractive to customers worldwide. Buyers feel they are constructively involved in providing directly sustainable aid to poor people in developing countries without neglecting the attractiveness and quality of the purchased object. In this way development aid becomes a serious investment of the end buyers knowing with certainty that by buying a fashionable indigenous product they help to create jobs and, hence, well-being. This is not the dollar that buys a bottle of water, bought in the western world and handed out to poor refugees on a dusty road, but hundreds of dollars, serious money, that buy a superb locally crafted product. Give people a fish and they can eat today. Give them a fishing rod and people eat for a lifetime. No handouts, but a serious and healthy business understanding that promotes production and trade relationships to reduce poverty. With the blossoming success of Kenya at hand, ITC have contacted several fashion designers and fashion houses, haute couture, who have manifested a keen interest for these new lines of products, created, produced and sourced in Africa. If the numbers turn out well, then this concept will create an important source of income for many African nations. Not only that, it will give a totally new dimension to development aid. ITC is building on this first experience and is developing integrated projects in several other developing countries, aimed at supporting and facilitating sustainable chain models for fashion within the high value, designer and luxury goods sector. The possibilities are huge. Bringing on-board highly reputed top fashion houses and big-name designers, some of whom have already reacted positively to ITC's proposals, opens the way to normal trade patterns to countries which until now have always been the stepchild of the world trade. Imagine these fashion houses with their immense capabilities to develop fashion concepts and market these through their powerful worldwide sales outlets! It's the answer to a prayer. E-fashion has two aspects. Ethnic and ethical. Ethnic because the product is based on local culture and art, ethical because the developed world owes a lot to the developing world and by buying products the developed world also clears a little bit of its historical conscience. This is really hot stuff, not just a tourist thing. Enjoy and buy! Buy and enjoy!    Sam Setter [email protected]

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