Ethical Apparel Africa: proving that manufacturing can be done ethically AND commercially
The apparel industry is the world’s largest employer of women but has a pervasive reputation for worker mistreatment and exploitation. The global industry is now turning its attention to the African continent, widely considered ‘the next frontier’ of apparel manufacturing due to competitive costs and favourable trade agreements. In West Africa there are many factories that are owned and led by African women, who care deeply about both their employees and their communities. However, these factories have previously struggled to compete on the international market due to the lack of technical know-how and market access. This represents a unique opportunity to do things differently.
Ethical Apparel Africa (EAA) was founded in 2015 to support these African-owned factories: to excel technically, compete internationally and to create sustainable jobs. They had the vision to prove that manufacturing cost competitive, quality clothing and high ethical standards were not mutually exclusive. The company is based in the UK and Ghana, providing brands with end-to-end sourcing and production management support including product development, raw material and trim sourcing, quality control and logistics facilitation.
Consumers are becoming more engaged in the socially responsible production of garments and want to know the origins of the products that they are buying, making traceability and transparency a clear business imperative. Transparency is easy when you have nothing to hide and EAA are a prime example of demonstrating this daily. They work with clients based on detailed open costings and share complete information about their factories and suppliers. If there are any obstacles along the way, EAA are proactive in sharing these to work together to find solutions.
The organisation identifies partner factories with the potential to become efficient manufacturers with a ‘worker-first’ approach. The international EAA on-the-ground team works intensively with them to excel technically, to steadily improve their social and environmental impact and to trade ethically. They then connect the factories to production opportunities with international brands. As productivity improves and the export business grows, EAA requires their partner-factories to invest gains back into worker empowerment. Higher take-home pay, transport benefits, access to healthcare and educational opportunities are just some examples of this initiative. This investment leads to higher productivity and decreased absenteeism, thus completing a cycle of improvement.
EAA currently works with four factories in Ghana and Benin with an ambition to work with 15 by 2027. Their approach is one of ‘beyond compliance’ and continuous improvement. Factories are monitored against EAA’s technical and compliance standards which build on baselines set by international audit companies.
Each section has a corrective action plan (CAP) set against it and the local EAA team works alongside the factories daily, to support and drive innovative ways to achieve operational and technical improvements. For example, worker’s committees are engaged as think-tanks to brainstorm ways of increasing efficiency and reducing waste. EAA also has an NGO that raises money to kick-start pro-active empowerment programmes to be implemented and sustained by the factories.
EAA’s partner factory in Benin has a strong foundation for growth, with the space and machinery to employ 200+ people. The factory management is committed to worker empowerment and paying their employees living wages. However, on its own the factory struggled to extract export orders and employed only 40 workers. With the support from EAA, the factory is now employing 100+ people and has exported orders to the UK and the USA.
Taking a partnership approach with the factories and ensuring sustainability of worker programmes is key. EAA bought a bus to transport workers to and from the factory in Benin and required the factory to cover ongoing costs of running it (fuel, maintenance, etc.). EAA’s on-the-ground team has supported all partner factories to assess energy usage, replace their current lighting with LED, and plan for transition to solar panels to conserve and promote the use of renewable energy. And EAA organised a nurse to educate the workers in Benin about malaria prevention, rather than just distributing mosquito nets.
In the last 12 months, orders to factories have created 180 new jobs across all three factories and the empowerment programmes have affected 300 people so far.
In Ghana, Alfie Designs is an apparel and accessories factory which has been working with EAA for two years. Run by Adjo Dede Asare and her mother Afi Nyarko, Alfie Designs has blossomed over the last 20 years: from a small family business making dresses for family and friends, into one of the foremost garment manufactures in Ghana, employing 110 workers and producing clothing that is full of culture and colour.
The team behind Alfie took a social responsibility initiative to train young men and women at The Alfie Designs Fashion School, where they teach tailoring and seamstress skills, while giving the students the opportunity to earn a decent wage and make something of themselves. In 2016 Alfie won a grant from the United States Agency Development Foundation (USADF), which helped them expand the school acquiring more machines and training more students.
Helen, 25 years old, is a product of the Accra Technical University where she studied a diploma in Fashion and Design. After a stint of teaching, Helen joined Alfie Designs as a machinist and with her passion to learn and develop her skills, she started her journey in the apparel industry. After just six months, Helen was promoted to a supervisor.
When asked what her secret was, she said it was down to “hard work, perseverance, a can-do attitude and self-belief”. She went on to add that “although my new position has sharply enhanced my management and leadership skills, there is more to learn, and I am sure ready for it!” Helen wants to open and run an apparel factory in the future
One of the UK brands that manufacture their product is men’s designer shirt brand, Blake Mill. For ‘dreamers and poets, rebels and gamblers’ the shirts are one of a kind pieces, specialising in innovative print designs.
When asked about their unique prints, owner and co-founder Kenneth Price said, “A lot of our designs have something hidden within them: an anarchist symbol mixed amongst the polka dots or what appears to be an irregular stripe but is in fact the sequenced human genome. All our patterns are created in-house by our design team in the UK.”
It was vitally important for Blake Mill to partner with manufacturers that can not only produce high quality standards at a competitive price, but who can do so while treating their workers ethically. They were first introduced to the team at EAA by a colleague and were instantly impressed by their knowledge about garment production and by their commitment to the treatment of their staff in their partner factories.
“Our partnership with EAA has been highly collaborative and mutually supportive. Their commitment to excellent customer service is remarkable. We meet with the team regularly and have visited the factory in Benin several times. The factory was clean, each seamstress had space to work and both the management and staff worked brilliantly together,” said Kenneth.
EAA’s future ambitions include increasing export orders to the region, creating 5,000 sustainable jobs, setting up a new centre for on-and-off-the-job training and harnessing the West African Cotton growing, to create a vertical supply chain. They work collaboratively with development organisations and other companies to do this, such as USAID, a German development agency GIZ, Partner Africa and the University of Cambridge.