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Fashion industry termed a way for developing countries to shift up economic ladder, protect biodiversity

20 January 2010

2nd day of "Best Use of Nature" conference also reviews methods for tracing, certifying environmentally responsible products

EcoChicGeneva, 21 January 2010 - The rapidly expanding global fashion industry -- coupled with the Internet, which allows ideas, designs, and products to be displayed rapidly around the world -- is providing an opportunity for developing nations to use their creative talents and cultural heritages to create jobs and sell environmentally responsible products, a series of experts told UNCTAD´s "Best Use of Nature" conference this morning.

The closing day of the two-day conference, held to mark the 2010 United Nations International Year of Biodiversity and highlighting UNCTAD´s BioTrade and Creative Economies and Industries programmes, also featured a discussion of how environmentally responsible products can be certified and traced so that consumers can be sure of what they are buying. The conference is to culminate in the evening with an "EcoChic" show of environmentally produced fashions coordinated by the non-governmental organization Green2greener.

Edna dos Santos, Chief of UNCTAD´s Creative Economies and Industries Programme, told the morning meeting that creative work, such as that involved in fashion, is both artistic and profitable, promotes cultural diversity, and contributes significantly to economic development. Marketing fashion products, including not only clothes but cosmetics and perfumes, can lead to significant employment gains in developing countries, and frequently involves small businesses, which form an important component of economic progress and often are in short supply in developing nations.

Alongkorn Ponlaboot, Deputy Minister of Commerce of Thailand, said pressure to develop economically in developing countries often has led to industrial mass production that exploits natural resources and leads to environmental damage and social difficulties. Thailand now is striving to conceive development plans from a long-term view, aiming at environmental sustainability and rising living standards. Creative industries such as fashion and media are an important part of this approach, the Deputy Minister said. More effective intellectual property regimes and protections are necessary for such progress, he said. Thailand´s diverse and rich cultural heritage holds great potential for the creation and marketing of creative products. Thai silk, for example, is renowned for its quality and beauty, and woven silk products can provide an expanding economic base for rural residents in the north of the country, especially if based on local artistic designs.

Alphadi, a fashion designer from Niger and President of the annual International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA), told the conference that "Africa is not just fighting and disease - Africa is art and design." The festival was started to highlight and expand the African fashion industry, to encourage cultural and economic development, and to do so while respecting the environment, he said. With e-commerce and the Internet, information on African designs and products can easily be presented to potential customers in Europe and North America, and the quality of these designs and fashions can more easily compete on global markets. African fashion already is increasingly popular and is creating thousands of jobs, Alphadi said, and such creative work also creates a positive view of the continent that has nothing to do with wars or with government upheaval but instead is based on beauty and inspired by the African environment and biodiversity. With extensive support from developed countries, Alphadi said, he has established a fashion school in Niger that is helping more than 150 nascent African designers to nurture their talents.

Anggy Haif, a Cameroonian fashion designer who works with natural fibres and stresses ethnic and ethical fashion, said he has focused on environmentally responsible fashions for 10 years. Although progress has been made on the continent, Africa still lacks the infrastructure and industry needed for widespread production of natural-fibre clothes, although there is a market for such goods. What African designers need now is the capacity on the continent to mass produce fashions, and to diffuse naturally based products, so that consumers on the continent can afford and obtain them. Many potential jobs also depend on creating this capacity, he said. Young designers receive financial support in countries elsewhere, but financial aid for getting started in the business is seldom available in Africa, he added. He is now based on Paris, but would like to return to Africa.

And Paolo Naldini, Chief Executive Officer of Fondazzione Citadellarte, of Turin, Italy, an economist whose foundation focuses on links between art and society, said it is vital for arts and culture to be involved in social and economic development. They contribute "value sets" that influence economic development; and markets adhere to such values even as they pursue profits. Fashion shows how rapidly such values change, Mr. Naldini said; now that concern over the environment is mounting, and words such as "green" and "sustainable" and "responsible" are heard widely, environmentally responsible fashions have the opportunity to shift from being niche products to being much more widely used. Environmentally responsible fashions can become cultural ambassadors that change global value sets and lead to other economic changes that also foster greater respect for the environment, he said.

A late-morning panel discussion then focused on "Global supply chains: environmental traceability, accountability, and certification."

The moderator, Sean Ansett, Managing Partner of At Stake Advisors, a firm that develops corporate social responsibility strategies, said certification, transparency, and labeling are major issues in the global shift towards environmentally responsible products. In the near future, he said, customers will want to be able to trace their purchases "from farm to fork and from mine to mobile phone." Current technology is showing that such traceability is now possible, if difficult, he said.

Michel Mane, President of Mane USA, a perfume manufacturer, said the perfume "cottage industry" of 100 years ago has transformed itself into an international supply and manufacturing process worth billions of dollars annually - yet still depends on nature, and increasingly on natural products from the developing world. Biodiversity is a source of creativity and new products for the perfume industry; it is vital for supply chains to be transparent so that natural ingredients are responsibly harvested - so that the supply of valuable plants isn´t exhausted, for example. The company is now establishing techniques for the growth of perfume ingredients in developing countries that use both cutting-edge, environmentally benign agricultural practices and provide local employment, he said. By starting there, the firm is able to ensure the ecological viability of its ingredients.

Tim Wilson, Founder of Historic Futures, a firm specializing in supply chain traceability, told the meeting that the company provides "tool sets" to allow corporations to improve the transparency of their supply chains. Doing so generates brand trust and loyalty, especially as customers increasingly demand that products be environmentally responsible. Clients include Wal-Mart. Often supply chains are not transparent, Mr. Wilson said, "and that makes us wonder what is really going on." A number of clothing firms now investigate and enforce the environmental reliability of their supply chains and use that as part of their advertising. For that to work, Mr. Wilson said, firms must be able to certify that their claims are reliable.

Julie Tyrell, Secretary-General of NaTrue, the International and Organic Cosmetics Organization, said the organization sets criteria for high-quality cosmetics that respect nature, and reflects the concern of some firms for certifiable standards that indicate the sustainable use of natural ingredients. Definitions of "natural" and "organic" still have not been set by the European Union, but are under development, she said, and currently there is a "plethora" of other definitions and standards that vary around the world and from country to country. The NaTrue label is now attached to products meeting standards for organic production that have been established by an independent scientific committee, she said. There are different levels of certification, based on the percentage of organic ingredients that can be guaranteed.

And Giulia Di Tommaso, Director of External Affairs for Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey of the Unilever Corporation -- which manufactures cosmetics and soaps, among other products -- said more than 40% of the company´s turnover is now in developing countries. The firm is one of the world´s largest buyers of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, and is correspondingly concerned about the sustainability and transparency of its supply chains, she said. Recently, Unilever has noticed greatly increased consumer interest in the environmental standards of its products, and the firm is focusing increasingly on environmental concerns, such as sustainable use of water, sustainable use of soils, and respect for biodiversity, including the flora and fauna of rainforests, she said. It has cooperated extensively with environmental partners, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

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