Why Is the United Nations Working in Fashion?

Article excerpt

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. …