Exploring the Sustainable Fashion Frontier: Ethical Apparel Africa
Ethical Apparel Africa (EAA) is a social enterprise that’s taking the best of lean manufacturing principles and efficiencies and applying them not just to cut costs but to creating sustainability and ethical employment.
Their “Frontier Factory” process moves garment manufacturers through a four-stage improvement plan that starts with a baseline assessment and the formation of new standard operating procedures to achieve export standard qualities.
Technical experts work in factories on a daily basis and ensure that every Frontier Factory plan responds to factory size, product type, worker capabilities, and more, relying on input from workers themselves, as well as middle and senior management.
Co-founders Keren Long and Paloma Pineda have more.
What are some lessons that the apparel industry could learn from Ethical Apparel Africa?
The apparel industry is driven by the end customer and, generally, the customer’s priorities are product and price. Therefore, if we are going to make the industry fair and ethical down the supply chain, suppliers still need to be able to compete on product and price or only luxury brands which can afford the premium will be able to claim to “ethical.”
We believe that by working on the ground, in the factories, you can build capacity to improve efficiency and quality and enable them to compete internationally while simultaneously empowering workers.
Brands also need to be part of the solution. We focus on encouraging brands to adopt buying practices that engender sustainability by providing open costing, transparent critical paths and lead times, and working with them on product engineering and raw material sourcing to be cost competitive, rather than cutting wages.
That approach ensures quality and protects apparel workers.
Right. Through our open costing format we can show the brands the true cost in relation to a wage position of making a garment. This is a new level of transparency for many brands. We are able to do this through developing very trusting, deep relationships with factory owners where they view us as partners on a journey rather than merely as a sourcing agent. As a result they welcome us to go deep into their cost position to really understand their business.
Recently when we were costing with Jeanswest, an Australian brand with more than 200 stores, this meant that in order to meet the price targets we focused on raw material and construction alternatives rather than top line FOB negotiation. This protected the wages and overhead costs in the factories and raised the brand’s awareness of how costs break down as well.
How do you engage international brands? And what is the top selling point for them?
Brands are always looking for ways to save money, but increasingly they are looking to do that whilst investing in CSR activities and in “doing the right thing.” EAA offers them a trusted route to exploring a new continent while accomplishing both.
Our mission to offer price competitiveness alongside ethical practices resonates with brands. And it’s backed by our highly experienced senior leadership team. In our first six months, we have won production orders for Jeanswest, Brooklyn Industries (U.S. brand with 15 stores), and two U.K. startup brands for which we are making the entire range: Tales of Thread and Irvine Shirts.
We are also sampling for an American uniform company and a large American retailer with whom we have signed an non-disclosure agreement.
What are the benefits of pioneering this model in Ghana, where the apparel industry is growing but not as established as, say, locations like Bangladesh?
We chose to pioneer the EAA model in a frontier market because it provides an opportunity to build systems right from the start. We are working with a new generation of factory owners who want to focus on balancing worker empowerment with profitable business—to a greater degree than other traditional manufacturing locations.
We believe strongly that West Africa has great potential in apparel due to its favorable location, history of design richness, and people. Yet to date, the sector has yet to take off in the region, with only a few factories exporting. We want to be a catalyst to develop the industry in West Africa, encouraging brands to take notice of the attractiveness of the region and be able to set standards from the beginning. We are also in the process of launching an office in Ethiopia, where apparel is taking off rapidly with the investment of Asian companies in particular. In Ethiopia, our focus is on empowering local factory owners who take a people-first approach, in contrast to foreign actors who don’t always prioritize the development of local communities.
Another general benefit to working in Africa as a frontier market is obviously the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)—our factories can save up to 32 percent in duty compared to Asian suppliers importing into the U.S.