Many surveys have found that consumers in the United States and Western Europe are willing pay a premium for clothing produced in an ethical manner. Keren Pybus and her partner Paloma Pineda are out to render those surveys obsolete. They do not believe that competitive clothing prices and well-paid garment workers need be mutually exclusive. Keren describes the process by which their organization, Ethical Apparel Africa, is setting about to dispel that notion as one of “progression”. They recognize that facilitating the necessary progress requires commitment, patience, and non-complacent determination.
Established in 2015 as a social enterprise, Ethical Apparel Africa (EAA) uses its position as a sourcing agent for clothing brands in the United States and United Kingdom to bring business to factories it works with in Africa. Transactions are not the only aim of the organization however. Creating a positive social impact in the areas it works in is the ultimate goal. Indeed the operating model is based on a theory of change developed by the two partners. It describes a virtuous cycle created through heavy focus on factory efficiency and proactive management tactics to drive sustainable profits that are reinvested back into empowering labor and increasing overall worker standards.
This turns out to be a very involved process. Much of the day-to-day work of the organization consists of equipping the partner factories in West Africa with the skills and abilities necessary to operate up to fashion industry standards. Production must be streamlined, workers must be trained and consistent processes implemented. Keren admits that aligning objectives among all parties involves a lot of cultural understanding and patience. It is also a strong motivator. On top of her Christian faith, she professes that her tremendous team generates her sense of fulfillment and enthusiasm for doing her work.
Enthusiasm is necessary for this undertaking. Setting up an international sourcing network is no walk in the park. Difficulties are compounded by the fact that they are starting from scratch in regions without reputations. They face institutional difficulties and infrastructural deficiencies. They must convince the brands that work with them to trust their business to suppliers with little repute and unproven production capabilities. The long-term nature of the fashion supply chain only exasperates matters. Helping factories into a cash-flow positive operation can be difficult when payment for the final product is not due until many months after a project has begun.
Still, talking about the problems and weaknesses makes for much less exciting discourse with Keren than discussing the strengths and advantages. She and her team knew the difficulties would be great going in and are not too caught up by them. Finding the opportunities with their African partners is the real focus. She talks about the favorable terms of trade that Africa has with initiatives like the AGOA agreement and the AFTi, as well as Free-Trade zones for duty-free import for manufacturing exports. The continent is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. There is an abundance of surplus labor, often endowed with competencies like sewing. Living costs are low which contributes to a cost-competitive comparative advantage in the region. EAA operates along the western coastline and has discovered that the area has tremendous potential for quick access to U.S. markets just across the Atlantic.
Such strengths must be fully capitalized upon if the organization is to meet the lofty goals it has set for itself. Within the decade it hopes to be working with 15 fully-operational factories and creating employment for 5000 people to fill them. Every factory they work with has an action plan to meet western product and compliance standards and work towards paying all workers a living wage. They have a long way to go. They know that ultimately the factories they work with cannot grow, much less provide high wages, unless they are providing them with regular, sustainable business.
Keren describes it best. “We’re on a journey.” Part of her task is persuading clothing companies to go on that journey as well. This is not to say she expects those companies to be willing to sacrifice anything to do business with EAA. A social mission may be their motivator but making a profit is their method. They aspire to compete on cost, quality and reputation. It is hard to argue against those motives. As an organization that proverbially both teaches a man to fish and provides him with necessary bait and a fishing pole, Ethical Apparel Africa seems positioned to make a real and positive impact.