Made in Africa, or how a factory was launched with an ethical story from day one
“My desire to be part of the fashion apparel comes from this idea that human beings truly express themselves through fashion. Put five people in the same uniform, each one of them is going to express it differently”. To the Liberian founder of the first African apparel factory to earn Fair Trade status, fashion is the “coolest industry”, the only one being both art and utility.
Fashion is a great opportunity to be a driving force for good …
… but unbridled capitalism seems to have drawn it away from its principles. “We ended up externalizing a lot of things, disconnecting stakeholders”, importing primary materials from the developing world and then selling back manufactured products. “By sending second-hand goods to those countries, we forbid them to industrialize and develop on their own, maintaining them in a position of consumers”. According to Chid Liberty, for 30 years we’ve built an industry plainly exploiting people in several countries of the world to have cheaper and cheaper goods at the global scale, cutting fashion from it’s essential promise.
Starting from scratch to build resilience
“Uniform”, as it happens, is the name Chid Liberty gave to his second factory. After the Ebola outbreak happened in West Africa, he decided to start from scratch and build a more resilient society. All it took was purchasing sewing machines, hiring local women as tailors to make T-shirts he sold in the United States. For every UNIFORM item purchased over there, the company would donate a school uniform to a child who couldn’t afford it. As Chid Liberty likes to state, relying on research from the MIT : if you give a child a uniform, attendance goes up by 62%, test scores go up by a quarter standard deviation and teen pregnancy is drastically reduced.
Determined not to let Liberia become another center for the manufacturing of generic apparel…
…the social entrepreneur has launched this factory to create African-rooted products and brands under the rubric Made In Africa, the first African apparel factory to earn Fair Trade status. Meaning the workers receive above the average local wage — $ 100 monthly rather than the 80 $ civil servants earn, along with health care and protection. He has now acquired eight other apparel factories and brought them up to global environmental and labor standards, with financing rates for each tied to its investment in worker ownership and development. With Made in Africa, a team of exemplary factories, social entrepreneurs and brands is growing in 7 countries (Liberia, Ghana, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda), quickly spreading to the whole continent. It is a shining demonstration that governments, brands, manufacturers and infrastructures must collaborate to do a much better job in creating the ethical garment industry that we dream of.
Reconnecting supply and demand
“We will live in a freer and more open society the day the connection between the fashion workers and the buyers of the clothes will be made”, and most likely thanks to new technologies. People are acquiring step by step the ability to check how their clothes were made and push brands to make amends. Re-connect. That is what Standford graduated Chid Liberty did when he decided to return to a country he had only known as a toddler. Before UNIFORM, he got a global manufacturing firm off the ground in Monrovia, Liberty & Justice, in a country rich in natural resources but still fragile following a bloody 14-year civil war that ended 2003. Inspired by his dad — who was ambassador for Liberia in Germany, Burkinabé leader Thomas Sankara and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, he was driven by the idea to make a positive contribution to Liberia economically.
“We are betting too much on the consumers now”.
“When someone buys clothes, one buys the total package : how it looks, how it feels, how much it costs, whose brand’s name is on it.” According to Chid Liberty, the ethical market has been miscalculating for 20 years by assuming consumers would think “what is the most ethical thing I could buy ?” and only innovate in marketing. By reversing the pyramid and employing women mostly at the base, Chid Liberty’s idea is not to create another alternative business model but to change the very way the apparel industry works. Ethical does not mean expensive if we rely on forces outside the consumer demand and make it more ethical on every part of the supply chain : business, creative merchandising, administration, production etc.
This, is true innovation.
Along with the idea that it is always the moment to take action because the one constant in this industry is change! “In fashion there are copy-cats : you do streetwear, everybody will do streetwear.” Social entrepreneurs like Chid Liberty need to be ahead of that change, the first people out and the ones that everybody is catching up to.