I recently came across the Ethical Fashion Forum and I went along to their event on 18/8/9. This event was promoted as focusing on sourcing from Africa.

As the discussion got under way I could not believe some of what I was hearing, “these people need educating” was one of the statements made by a couple of speakers there was too much of “them and us” too. We in the audience could be forgiven for thinking that we were listening to a report from a 19th century Royal Geographical Society journal. It all sounded like “poor Africans we need to do them a favour” type of situation. The facilitator on the other hand was fantastic, he drew attention to issues of respect and the fact that the West can learn from Africa.

As I listened I felt myself increasingly getting angry and when given the opportunity to speak I let my feelings known. In my view the speakers had failed to draw attention to the ingenuity of Africans, especially the sort of women that I work with, who turn rubbish and utterly useless things into fashionable items. What about the men in Kenya who make sandals from old car tyres?

The fashion accessories at Ethnic Supplies are the African women’s designs and have been very well received by women here in the West. I was upset too that some of what was being said was reinforcing the negative views about Africa.

Fashion provides an opportunity to lift many African people out of poverty as VALUE can easily be added at source unlike some of the agricultural products such as coffee but I felt that this had not been highlighted either. It was interesting to note that a buyer from a large retail outlet felt that unlike their Asian counterparts Africans have not bombarded her with emails regarding their fashion accessories.

The challenge with this is threefold, someone in the audience felt that the people she works with in Tanzania earn a better income selling locally than they would if they had to sell to a UK retailer along with the hoops one has to jump through!

The other is African artisans tend to work in much better conditions and get higher wages than their Asian counter parts this coupled with expensive import/export duties and freight costs.

The last reason is the buyers have a perceived idea that the supply end in Africa is unreliable and are almost always unwilling to explore the fact that this could be wrong or that it can changed.

Don’t get me wrong, they are challenges working in Africa and sometimes the quality leaves a lot to be desired. The way forward is to alongside the artisans, in a collaborative manner and where necessary adapt their designs to suit the Western market. After all it would be insane bringing in products for which there is no market because of poor design and or quality.

As an afterthought it would have been good to include a discussion about the materials used as well as the production process to demonstrate the GREEN and sustainable element of African fashion.

In Madagascar for instance, wild (raw) silk is collected from the forests and woven into beautiful fabrics. These fabrics are for instance used in the making of this bag which starts life as a plain basket made from palm leaves. Palm leaves have no use unless value has been added to them.

Raw Silk basket

Raw Silk basket

Wild silk shawl

Wild silk shawl

In Rwanda sisal, a cactus like plant is used in the making of these beautiful baskets, the same material is used in the making of these silver sterling earrings. The bark cloth from Uganda is very environmentally friendly as its extraction does not involve the cutting down of a tree; simply the bark is removed, and is allowed to grow back.

Rwanda peace basket

Rwanda peace basket

rwanda earing

Rwanda Sterling Silver earings

In my mind’s eye African fashion offers a real opportunity for lifting many out of poverty, is mostly kind to the environment because of the African ingenuity of turning rubbish into fashion, as well as the use of naturally occurring raw materials and offers a real chance to REBRAND the continent.

I would love to hear from anyone who has a view about the issues raised here.

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The economic, social and political rights are being discussed all over the media today

In the article for instance Helen Loveless argues that women are the key to recovery from the economic down turn

http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/money/article-1160219/Women-possess-potential-create-extra-150-000-new-companies-year-hold-key-recovery.html

As a woman entrepreuner, I agree with some of the issues raised in the article such as the fear of getting into date as well as lasck of confidence. I do wonder hwoever if these issues are unique to women and would be interested in views on this from both men and women.

The best news I have read today is in the Independent on Sunday

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/news/cheap-cheerful-and-ethical-primark-says-it-can-be-done-1639764.html

You will recall that I wrote about Primark and their unethical practices

https://ethnicsupplies.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/%E2%80%9Cethical%E2%80%9D-primark-sources-clothing-from-sweat-shops/

I am very encouraged that they have taken steps to right a bad situation. The issue about cheap fashion is that women in the developing world are not paid a fair wage for their efforts. As this is International Women’s day, why not take a stand against un ethical fashion/clothes.  You may argue that you can’t afford to financially, and I would suggest that the way around this is to buy a few decent, ethical pieces as there are likely to last and will always look good. We are all struggling financially and this is definitely not the time to  buy cheaply, as this may mean replacing your wardrobe every 6 weeks!!

Whilst the BBC Political Show spoke to 3 women and Harriet Herman on the rights and wrongs of equal pay amongst other things