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    Why is the United Nations Working in Fashion?


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2006 

    © Pulse Investments Limited

    The glossy world of fashion is far removed from blue helmets, food aid or peace treaties - but it is also part of the United Nations' work to ensure the world's people have better, safer lives.


    Three of the four stories about trade development in this magazine relate to fashion. One relates to food aid. All show that small firms in developing countries can grow their business through exports. They also show the UN working in the world's poorest communities to create sustainable jobs and incomes.

    The four trade development stories - set in Côte d'Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Mozambique - are in countries that have suffered from civil conflict. Three of the four are least developed countries and the other recently suffered from a major tsunami. To move from humanitarian assistance to development, one thing the United Nations does is to invest in economic development by helping such countries build the skills to export. And hence the jump… from blue helmets, to food aid to fashion.

    Food aid is an international market. Whether the cause is natural disasters or complex emergencies, there is tremendous scope to buy more products from companies in the region where disasters occur. Firms in such regions need to understand the requirements and opportunities in the aid procurement market. Donors, aid agencies and the UN need to change their buying practices so that they contribute to creating jobs and building economies by buying more relief items locally.

    Fashion offers the same type of market-driven, sustainable development opportunities. The opportunities are linked to a broader trend: organic food, fair trade labels and corporate social responsibility initiatives have been around for some time. Consumers compromise on price, and sometimes style, for products that are environmentally friendly, come from companies that treat their workers fairly, or both.

    The global Red campaign, in which big-name companies donate profits to fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa, and the spread of fair-trade labels are examples of this shift in mindset among some consumers. The 2005 Ethical Consumerism Report of a UK bank, the Cooperative Bank, gives a picture of the trend in numbers: ethical consumption in the UK has grown for six straight years, increasing 15% in total value, to £25.8 billion in 2004.

    Fashion's new social conscience

    In fashion, the trend is similar. The difference is a market of educated, affluent and style-conscious buyers who are looking for products that reflect a social conscience but do not compromise on quality. The presence of ethical fashion stands at the recent London and Paris Fashion Weeks is a sign of this new trend. In the same Ethical Consumerism Report, ethical fashion is reported as a category for the first time, valued at £680 million in 2005. A subcategory, ethical clothing, includes sales of organic cotton, labels that commit to minimum labour standards and clothing from recycled materials. Sales jumped from £25 million in 2002 to £43 million in 2004. The report also documents the economic loss from clothing and footwear boycotts due to "sweatshop labour" and "animal welfare" concerns among British consumers. One of the stories in this section, about the launch of an Ethiopian luxury goods brand, responds directly to this market. "We are witnessing the emergence of a new trend, where what really matters is a product's capacity to convey a message about the personality of the consumer," says Simone Cipriani of ITC, who helped Ethiopian companies set up the brand. He adds: "Fashion gurus call these consumers 'new authentics'. They are affluent people at the top of the fashion world who gravitate towards products they believe reflect their personal styles and convictions."

    Chic wooden bracelets from Mozambique, made with sustainably-managed wood from endangered forests by poor local communities, respond to the same trend. Project organizers made the strategic marketing decision to compete in challenging Paris fashion trade fairs.

    A jewellery project in Sri Lanka, while not targeting high-end consumers, reflects a more sophisticated approach to design, as well as an ethnic "world fashion" feel.

    These niche markets can be an opportunity for developing countries that are not set up to compete with high-volume, low-cost manufacturing.

    Fashion markets, which value originality and exclusivity, allow countries to build on and pull together what makes them unique. The Ethiopian project combines centuries-old skills in weaving, beading and embroidery. The products, including handbags, shoes and scarves, also mix different materials, such as high-grade cotton, beads and leather. The Mozambican and Sri Lankan jewellery display a local design identity that is fine-tuned to international markets.

    "ITC actively promotes these types of projects," notes Patricia Francis, ITC's Executive Director. "We are convinced that exports of finished goods rather than raw materials can help make a dent in poverty. Integrating national culture and traditions in design can be a strength. Developing country firms that understand the power of national branding can use it to their advantage to break the cycle of poverty."

    Design trends, market leads

    But making the leap to break into and keep supplying such sophisticated markets is not always easy. What is it that businesses in such communities need most? "A thorough knowledge of design trends and up-to-date market information are important skills for businesses who want to supply these markets," notes Iris Hauswirth, ITC's Senior Market Development Officer for artisanal products and creative industries. The Sri Lankan jewellery, Mozambican bracelets and Ethiopian handbags reflect in-depth knowledge about buyers, trade fairs and design trends. "Such skills are often provided through development agencies when conducting projects. Once the project is over, however, access to the information often is too," Ms Hauswirth continues. "Bringing in intermediaries with the right attributes is the first step. This has to be combined with training if pilot projects are to have lasting impact." Quality, reliability and ability to respond to design trends in fashion markets are skills that take time and training, and need to be reflected in careful project design. "Creating recognition for a fashion brand used to take 5-10 years to establish," notes Mr Cipriani, who started his career selling shoes in Japan. "Now the challenge is to establish brands in a 3-5 year frame." This business challenge comes along with the development challenges of setting up viable business sectors in some of the world's poorest communities.

    We hope these thoughts go some way to answer a British journalist who asked us why the UN is working in fashion, and offer new perspectives to our readers who face many of the same challenges.

    Fashion's growing diversity International fashion is finding space for designs from developing countries that reflect their unique ethos. Our cover photo shows a collection from Caribbean Fashion Week 2005. "The design is a synthesis of traditional African and contemporary Caribbean culture," says Jamaica-based Sandra Thompson, designer of the collection.

    It's proved a popular concept. Ms Thompson has found export markets in the region (Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Martinique) as well as further afield. In October, she promoted her label in New York at an event for international designers. Next year, she will show at the prestigious New York Fashion Week.

    Sandra Thompson, who is of Jamaican ancestry, grew up in the United Kingdom, where ethical products have a high profile. She returned to Jamaica nine years ago, and set up her fashion business five years ago, using local workers. While it hasn't been a deliberate employment policy, she has found value in working with people from disadvantaged communities. "That's where the skill is," she explains. "Out of certain levels of poverty, you can have high-quality work and a high creative element due to their drive to succeed." She adds, "I make sure employees have proper working conditions, including light, airy rooms and sufficient breaks."

    Her sales reflect a trend repeated in the stories on the following pages. "Women today want clothing they can touch base with in terms of tradition, but reflect who they are now," she says. In the picture, the model wears modern stretch denim printed with an Adinkra symbol from Ghana, signifying the omnipotence of God.

    The beauty and confidence of this Caribbean model, grounded in tradition and looking to a modern future, reflect the aspirations and potential of many small, creative businesses around the world.

    Trade Forum's Prema de Sousa interviewed Sandra Thompson.For more information,e-mailladykamit@yahoo.com 

    Natalie Domeisen is the Editor ofTrade Forum. 

    Prema de Sousa contributed to this article.