GCFA, Italia 2020: How North Star Award Winners The UN Are Driving Sustainability in the Fashion Industry

Image: UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion chairman Simone Cipriani speaks at the UN Environment Assembly’s (UNEA)’s Sustainable Innovation Expo in 2019, Credit: ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Each year at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, the North Star award is given to an individual or organisation leading the industry towards a more sustainable future. On behalf of this year’s winner, the United Nations, Chairman of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion Simone Cipriani tells us why the textile value chain is a human rights issue, and how it can instead be engineered in favour of people and planet.

When it comes to driving impactful change, there is one universally recognised framework for how, and where, we need to do this. And as a decade unfurls ahead of us in which to meet the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, who more fitting to receive the North Star award at this year’s edition of the Green Carpet Fashion Awards than the United Nations themselves?

“The Sustainable Development Goals, which have been called one of the most impactful initiatives of our times, should not only be a vision for every business,” expressed actress and human rights activist Nomzamo Mbatha on presenting the award, “but we believe that they can’t be achieved without meaningful partnerships with the global business community… for which fashion plays a pivotal role.”

While the fashion supply chain has been found to breach even the most basic human rights on multiple occasions, it could instead provide a powerful opportunity for sustainable development if it were just engineered to empower and innovate, rather than exploit. Based on this principal, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion unites ten UN agencies working across different areas of the industry in order to share information and drive positive change.

Its Chairman, Simone Cipriani, is the founder of the International Trade Centre Ethical Fashion Initiative; a programme that builds bridges between artisans and designers in order to create opportunities for employment and ethical manufacturing. We spoke to Cipriani about the work the UN is doing across the board to get the industry back on track, and why projects such as the Ethical Fashion Initiative play such a fundamental role in transforming fashion into a force for good in the world.

Image: Facilitated by the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, the production of the Peace Scarf creates employment for artisans in Afghanistan, Credit: Farzana Wahidy

What does the UN winning at this year’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards mean to you

The North Star Award is a recognition of the UN’s role in defining and spearheading the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda and in protecting, respecting and advancing human rights for all.

As an officer for the UN, your work bridges fashion with global policy. How do these two worlds relate to one another?

Fashion is a global supply chain that impacts both people and the environment. This means that if mismanaged it negatively impacts human rights – one of the central mandates of the UN – at a global scale. We define human rights as an international consensus on the minimum conditions necessary for a life of dignity. Whenever human rights are violated, this life of dignity is endangered or made impossible. This is how a global supply chain like fashion relates to our mandate.

Image: The UNEP Sustainable Fashion Event at UNEA4, Nairobi, 2019, Credit: Ethical Fashion Initiative

Why do you believe that reforming the fashion industry plays such a pivotal role in helping us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

Globally, fashion employs approximately 60 million people, including enormous numbers of low-income workers in developing countries. The sector thus has a direct result on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in many of countries around the world. If reforming means that the fashion industry everywhere adopts living wage standards and respects labour standards, while also engages in fundamentally reducing and managing its environmental impact, then yes. What is no longer acceptable is PR without impact. Actors in the fashion value chain should measure their impact and communicate it properly. The citizens of the world have the right to be properly informed about it.

How did the idea for the Ethical Fashion Initiative come about? What were the main issues that you wanted to address here?

The Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) is a programme of the UN, housed within an agency called the International Trade Centre (ITC). EFI came about while working in slum of Kenya 15 years ago. I was working with informal artisans there and I realised how decent work could have immensely positive effects in terms of social change, and the regeneration of social and environmental capital.

Through this programme, we demonstrate that decent work and living wage conditions in fashion supply chains are possible (we manage a large supply chain, applying fair labour standards). We also demonstrate that measuring your impact is possible. We invite other actors from the industry to join us in implementing a global ethical supply chain, and we have tools to share specifically for that. We also manage an Accelerator for new design talents from Africa, addressing the gap – in our opinion – of diversity in this industry.

Image: The Ethical Fashion Initiative has created a cooperative which links up several cotton weaving ateliers in Burkina Faso, Credit: Anne Mimault

What lead you to believe that fashion production could become a tool for social empowerment, and how does the Ethical Fashion Initiative manifest this belief?

As mentioned earlier, we have seen the incredible positive change that a fairly managed supply chain can produce, even in the most marginalised communities. We demonstrate our beliefs in a practical way: we manage a fair and decent supply chain, we provide industry stakeholders with tools for sustainability, we challenge the industry publicly, and we engage for more diversity in the industry.  

Ethical Fashion Initiative is the co-secretariat of the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. What are the main areas in which the Alliance works, and what does it set out to achieve?

The Alliance is a working group of now ten agencies from the UN family working in fashion. We came to realise that many UN organisations were involved in fashion: UN Environment working on biodiversity and environmental resources, UNECE managing an important project on new sustainable materials, ILO – who is the reference point on labour-related issues, the World Bank Group spearheading a great initiative on climate change, to name a few. As an Alliance we work on coordination, information-sharing, and collaboration. In 2020-2021, we would like to take our activities further by generating new initiatives that can draw from the expertise of each of us to generate more impact.

Image: Cotton woven by the artisans in Burkina Faso has even been used by Italian designer Stella Jean, Credit: ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

How are the Ethical Fashion Initiative and the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion engaging with global businesses, and encouraging them to re-think their supply chains? Can you share a positive example of where this has happened?

The Ethical Fashion Initiative manages a supply chain that supplies global businesses, providing them with tools and systems to be more sustainable. The Initiative also runs an Accelerator for new design businesses. The Initiative has also grown to become an investment opportunity, and we are now working to develop a retail space for the social enterprises and artisan groups who work with us.

The Alliance members have their own mandates and operations, and coordinate a large number of fantastic initiatives that involve stakeholders from the private sector. As an Alliance and working group, one noteworthy event during which we were able to dialogue with important players from the industry, and also from the public sector, was our launch event at the United Nations Environmental Assembly 4, in Nairobi last year (2019).

How can we continue to harness the power of the business sector, such as the fashion industry, to create a force for good in the world?

By holding the industry accountable. As consumers, as activists, as citizens.  

What is in the pipeline for both the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, and the Ethical Fashion Initiative?

For the EFI we are now incubating three businesses that have emerged from the Hackathon we had organised in May, which address some of the most important issues of fashion using technology, innovation and business. We are looking forward to sharing more on this soon. We are also expecting to involve more artisans in our supply chain, and we are launching a new platform to manage sustainability in global supply chains. We also have exciting upcoming projects involving cinema and theatre, in partnership with artists and other creatives from our network

The Alliance is also planning on organising a Hackathon to brainstorm and develop new ideas on how to operate and create the most impact. We are also planning a large event on circularity, which will include performances, art and culture, at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, next spring.