Ethics in Fashion

We often hear the terms “ethical” and “sustainable” when buying anything from a bar of chocolate, or a cup of coffee to a pair of shoes or even a shirt. But I wonder how many of us really know what these terms really mean or what good it does when buying ethically or sustainably? So, I thought I would tell you a bit about what it means from my small corner of the world. I can’t vouch for other producers or manufacturers but I can illustrate how Irvine Shirts does its bit.

When setting up Irvine Shirts I had a clear goal and that was to produce shirts in an ethical factory and if possible in Africa. Having travelled and worked in Africa extensively over the years I know first-hand what a difference employment makes to individuals as well as whole communities.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to a fantastic ethical organisation through a friend. This organization has created a small network of exceptional factories that deliver quality products, while empowering employees across the African continent, as well as one in India. I was invited to Benin in west Africa to visit one of the factories, meet the owner and employees, an offer I couldn’t refuse.

During my visit, I was determined to understand what working in an ethical factory really meant to the workers and how it affected their lives.

Whilst touring the factory I stopped to chat to a machinist who was expertly stitching a collar onto a shirt (certainly one of the trickiest parts of shirt making). I commended her on her dexterity and confessed I was sure I couldn’t cope with such a complex task. I inquired if working in an ethical factory had made any difference to her. She looked at me and explained how “I now receive an extra days pay every week because I have glasses. I can work until 5.30 or later if overtime is offered”. She went on to tell me how the “factory runs on generator power as the local supply is unreliable and likely to go off for hours on end”. It would seem generator power is OK but in the afternoon the light gets dim and it had been difficult for her to see and she couldn’t work beyond 3pm, because her eyesight was too poor. She went on to explain that when the factory introduced and implemented ethical working practices, they paid for her to have her eyes tested and subsequently bought her a pair of glasses, which cost $5. This has made the world of difference and now allows her to work beyond 3pm, when the light levels aren’t as good, thus making a huge difference to her income.

It seems such a simple solution, but was one that had been beyond her grasp. With several children to feed and clothe the extra money makes an enormous difference to her family.

This chimes with a friend of mine, Elizabeth, who owns a fabulous company called Artisanne, which produces beautiful hand woven baskets in Senegal. Elizabeth goes straight to the weavers so they are able to cut out the middle men, meaning that no one takes a cut and Elizabeth can have open negotiations with the weavers.

In just over 2 years Elizabeth has gone from using 6 weavers to 70 weavers in 3 remote villages in Senegal. The weavers, who are all women, having had the skills passed down through generations say “The additional income earned from weaving for Artisanne allows us to support our extended family members, especially the elderly relatives who are entirely dependent on us. It also enables us to buy much needed medicines for our children.”

The baskets are all made from local sustainable grasses called Ndiorokh and are weaved together with long plastic strips. The baskets take longer to weave than traditional baskets therefore, the weavers are paid more per basket.

The factory in Benin purchased mosquito nets for all workers and paid for the HR manager to go on a malaria prevention course at the Ministry of Health. The idea is to equip her with a solid knowledge on malaria prevention which she can then pass onto the work force. According to the World Health Organization malaria is among the top 3 diseases in Sub –Saharan Africa, so reducing the incidence of malaria contributes to better health and productivity. It seems such a simple solution; cheap mosquito nets backed up with education.

Workers are also trained in Health and Safety, receiving tuition in first aid and how to treat an injury. Simple life skills which are transferable as workers are able to apply their skills to help treat their dependents, especially their children.

The workers all have formal contracts, giving them secured employment which is unheard of in garment factories in Benin. The highly trained workforce are motivated and benefit from continuous on the job training from European technical experts.

As I write, Mr Kouton the delightful and enlightened owner of the factory in Benin is looking at introducing solar photovoltaic cells to generate electricity. It might seem obvious to us, solar cells in a country where the average temperature is 26oC, but I have never seen 1 solar panel in the time I have spent there.

I would love to go on and tell how the workers benefit from having a defined paid lunch hour from 1pm. How they have designated male and female clean flushing loos. Or how they all have their own work aprons with their names and company logos embossed on the front. I haven’t even got to employee benefits and education programs; all the things we take for granted but until recently were alien to these workers….

If you are interested and would like to know more about the factory please contact me and I would be delighted to fill in the gaps.

To find out more about Elizabeth & Artisanne visit

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