The whole area of ethical fashion is still relatively new for me: I find it refreshing and exciting and I can honestly say that I’ve met some of the most committed and diligent people that I’ve encountered in my professional life. There are so many people coming at the issues from a range of perspectives and I often feel I want to work with all of them and there’s not enough time!
Like many others I’ve been buying and wearing clothes without thinking enough about the implications and impact of my purchasing habits. Even though I grew up as part of a post-war generation that knew very well how to ‘make-do and mend’, I’ve been disconnected from the processes involved in the making of garments, and from the labour that produces the raw materials.
Having made up my mind to explore the possibility of becoming an Ambassador for Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), I was delighted when the Germany-based NGO offered me the opportunity to travel to Livingstone in Zambia for their annual stakeholders’ meeting. And as if this wasn’t exciting enough, the trip was to include flying up to Lusaka to see where the cotton was grown, harvested and taken through the gin mills.
The conference was very informative, especially with regard to learning about the barriers and challenges faced by cotton farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve been to dozens of conferences but this one was different because both farmers and ginners were key participants alongside policy-makers, academics and funders. Covering subjects such as how to maximise partnerships; marketing the product internationally; the relationship between farmers and cotton companies; and perceptions of CMiA among actual and potential customers. This was certainly a big agenda. The specific context of working in economically underdeveloped countries that have yet to build the infrastructure needed to support participation in global markets gives a sense of the scale of the challenge.
Leaving aside the wonder of a cruise along the Zambezi, the sight of the Victoria Falls and a thrilling walking safari in the bush with elephants and rhinos (!), the highlights of the trip for me came when we visited villages and schools and had the opportunity to talk with farmers in the field and the communities that depend on them. And of course, I’d never been inside a ginnery before and had no idea what to expect, so that was most illuminating too. I was also fascinated by what the designer Craig Native had to tell me about the fashion industry across Africa, and his position in it.
We can talk all we like about fair trade and environmental impacts, animal welfare and the need to conserve water, and so on, but it’s when you actually see how all of this plays out for those who live it and who can show you how precious water is and explain how an extra dry season with low cotton yields may mean a family living on just one meal a day – it stops being something abstract and intangible and becomes about the lives of real people.
I’m grateful to CMiA for giving me the chance to experience this first hand and to EFF for letting me have the space to share a few thoughts. As you might think, I’m still processing much of what I learned and considering how this new-found knowledge will enable me to make better buying choices and to work on these issues more effectively in Parliament.
Photo courtesy of Robert Taylor.